When a new client comes through my door and reports feeling worthless, useless, and powerless, I seek understanding. More often than not, these individuals state they suffer from anxiety and depression. Sadly, many have lost meaning to their lives. After finding the root cause, I discover that most have experienced some form of verbal abuse.
Verbal abuse is defined by Wilson (2006) as “any use of words, voice, action, or lack of action meant to control, hurt, or demean another person” (p.11). In these relationships, the abuser repeatedly makes hurtful statements without taking the other person’s feelings into account. Most of these exchanges are frequently subtle and become more intense over time.
What Is Verbal Abuse, and What is Not?
While in healthy relationships, couples disagree with one another, and/or even scream things they later regret; in emotional or verbally abusive relationships, the abuser seeks power and control. In healthy relationships, partners assertively communicate in order to be heard and understood; in unhealthy relationships, the abuser avoids all forms of communication.
It is important to note that no matter how hard the partner tries to please their abuser, it will never be enough because the abuser does not care about the other being understood, they only care if they are respected, praised, and their needs are met.
10 Patterns Indicating Verbal Abuse
According to Engel (2002), the abuser exhibits drastic mood swings, sudden emotional outbursts for no apparent reason, and inconsistent responses (p.34).
The following are ten patterns of behaviors which are common in verbally abusive relationships as defined by Evans (1996). These should help you clarify whether or not you are being verbally abused.
- Abuse happens behind closed doors. Occurrences that upset, confuse, or hurt the partner rarely occur in public. Going public is usually a sign that things are escalating and physical abuse could occur.
- Abuse comes out of nowhere. Verbal abuse may occur repeatedly when the partner feels like everything is fine in the relationship.
- The abuse happens when the partner is visibly happy, is showing enthusiasm, or is gaining success in some area of life.
- The abuse becomes familiar. The abuse is reoccurring in different ways. No matter what the partner does or expresses, the abuser argues against it, as if the partner is the enemy.
- The abuser denies their partner’s interests.
- After the verbal abuse, the abuser does not seek resolution. The abuser does not apologize and often states there’s nothing to talk about when confronted about the incident.
- Between incidents, the relationship functions normally. Partners are able to work and get along without tension or abuse.
- The survivor feels isolated from their family and friends.
- The abuser defines their partner, their relationship, themselves, and their interactions according to his liking. The abuser views situations in a more positive light than they really are and often paints their partner negatively, blames, and confuses them.
- The partner does not verbally abuse their abuser (Evans, 1996, pp. 72-76).
Unsure If You Are Being Verbally Abused?Evans (1996) breaks verbal abuse into fifteen categories: withholding, countering, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as jokes, blocking and diverting, accusing and blaming, judging and criticizing, trivializing, undermining, threatening, name calling, forgetting, ordering, denial, and abusive anger.
This type of abuse is often subtle and increases over time. You will notice that some are more obvious than others:
Withholding information and a failure to share thoughts and feelings is one sign of a verbally abusive relationship. The abuser withholds information and refuses to engage with their partner. Feelings or thoughts are denied. There is a lack of empathy or intimacy in the relationship.
Evans (1996) provides the following as examples:
- “There’s nothing to talk about.”
- “What do you want me to say?”
- “You never let me talk.”
- “You wouldn’t be interested.”
- “Why should I tell you if I like it; you’ll do what you want anyway” (p.87).
Countering is a tendency to be argumentative. The abuser attempts to convince their partner that her feelings and thoughts are wrong. Countering or dismissing the partner’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences blocks communication and intimacy. A partner may feel like they can’t get anything right, is constantly put down.
Abusive statements include:
- “That’s not the way it is.”
- “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
- “You’re twisting my words around” (Evans, 1996, pp.89-91).
In discounting, the partner is denied their right to their thoughts or feelings. It is most damaging, as partners are often denied their perceptions of the abuse. It may come out as criticism. The abuser may tell the victim on a regular basis that he or she is too sensitive, too childish, has no sense of humor, or tends to make a big deal out of nothing. The abuser thereby denies the victim’s inner reality, indirectly telling a partner that how and what they experience is wrong.
Here are some examples Evans (1996) includes in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship:
- “You don’t have a sense of humor.”
- “You blow everything out of proportion.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
- “You think you know it all.”
- “You always have something to complain about.”
- “You twist everything around.”
- “You don’t know what you’re talking about” (p. 92).
4. Verbal Abuse Disguised As Jokes
The abuser may say something upsetting. When they see their partner’s reaction, they react in anger. This causes the partner to question themselves intellectually and competently. Evans’ (1996) examples include:
- “You couldn’t find your head if it wasn’t attached.”
- “You can’t take a joke.”
- “You’re trying to start an argument” (p. 94)
5. Blocking and Diverting
This is a form of withholding in which the abuser refuses to communicate and dictates what can and cannot be discussed. For example:
- “You heard me. I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.”
- “Will you get off my back?”
- “Did anybody ask you?”
- “Who asked for your opinion?”
- “I’ve explained it all to you before, and I’m not going to go through it again!”
- “How about you accounting for every penny you spend?” (Evans, 1996, p.94)
6. Accusing and Blaming
The abuser accuses their partner of wrongdoing. They blame their partner for their anger and insecurity. Intimacy is withheld. Evans’ examples include:
- “You’re just trying to pick a fight.”
- “You always have to have the last word.”
- “I’ve had it with your attacks/complaining” (Evans, 1996, p. 96).
7. Judging and Criticizing
Judging and criticizing carry a negative evaluation of the partner. They also condescend and express a lack of approval. Examples from Evans (1996) include:
- “You are never satisfied.”
- “You always find something to be upset about.”
- “No one likes you because you are so negative.”
- Begin with “The trouble with you is …”
- “You’re crazy.”
- “How stupid” or “How dumb (you are).”
- “She can’t keep anything straight.”
- “She never sticks to anything.”
- “Wouldn’t it have been easier to …” (p.97).
Trivializing makes what the partner does or wants to do seem insignificant. It can be subtle. The abuser often sounds sincere. This often leaves the partner feeling depressed or frustrated when they are unable to explain their needs to their abuser.
Undermining consists of discounting and sabotaging everything the partner says or suggests. Because the abuser undermines the partner, their self-esteem, confidence, determination, enthusiasm, and sense of well-being is negatively affected. As a result, the partner often questions themselves. For example:
- “You wouldn’t understand.”
- “You’ll never make it.”
- “What makes you think you’re so smart?”
- “Who are you trying to impress?” (Evans, 1996, p. 101)
According to Evans (1996), verbal threats cause great fear as they involve pain or loss. They consist of:
- “Do what I want or I’ll leave you.”
- “Do what I want or I’ll get really angry.”
- “If you don’t do . . . I’ll . . . ” (p. 102).
All name-calling is abuse. Wilson (2006) provides the following examples:
- Calling partner fat or ugly.
- Calling partner vulgar names such as slut, whore, etc.
- Telling partner “No one else would have you” (pp. 11-12).
Consistently forgetting is detrimental to the partner’s psyche. It involves denial and concealed manipulation. Examples by Evans (1996) include:
- Abuser denies the partner of an event: “that never happened.”
- Forgetting promises which are important to the partner: “I never promised you that” (p. 102).
Ordering is injurious to the partner as it denies them of autonomy and equality. The following are examples:
- “Get in here and clean it up.”
- “You’re not wearing that.”
- “We’re doing this (or not) now” (Evans, 1996, p. 103).
Denial rejects the partner’s reality. Oftentimes, abusers deny that they have done anything wrong. Evans (1996) suggests the following examples:
- “I never said that.”
- “You’re making that all up.”
- “You’re getting upset about nothing.”
- “You’ve got to be crazy” (p. 103).
15. Abusive Anger
According to Evans (1996), these angry outbursts are a form of manipulation directed at the partner by the abuser. It includes blaming, accusing, shouting, yelling, and/or snapping at the partner; leaving the partner feeling confused, spiritless, and throws her off balance.
- Lack of warmth
- Irritable outbursts
- Temper tantrums
- Clenched teeth and raised fist by the abuser (pp. 85-104).
Effects of Verbal Abuse
I pray with all my heart you have never and will never experience a verbally abusive relationship. Moore (2017) states, “It will leave you feeling cornered, humiliated, afraid, in terror, or used” (p.139). It will also leave you feeling insecure, hopeless, worthless, unlovable, incompetent, lost, lonely, anxious, depressed, on edge, and isolated.
Engel (2002) adds that verbal abuse also causes a partner to experience a lack of motivation, confusion, or difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Your self-esteem will suffer, as “it targets the emotional and psychological well-being of the partner and is often a precursor to physical abuse” (Karakurt & Silver (2013), p. 1). Moore (2017) encourages partners to reach out to trusted relatives, trusted friends, a therapist, and a lawyer (p. 141).
The Importance of Seeking Professional Help:
If you have identified with anything in this article, please reach out for help. Verbal abuse is exceptionally damaging. Please understand that none of this is your fault, you are not alone, and that you will heal from this. I am sure you are scared to reach out to a stranger.But look at you, you are researching the subject. This is empowerment at its best. Together, we can get to the root issue by discussing your feelings of abandonment, neglect, rejection, anger, confusion, fear, guilt, regret, hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, loss, grief, shame, and uselessness (Engel, 2002, location 1330).
I leave you in prayer:
Heavenly Father, I ask that You heal _(insert your name here)_. They have been victims of verbal abuse and feel broken inside. Please provide them with light where there is darkness. I ask that this person is gifted with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness.
Basham, M. (2016). Info [Online image]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/tSfuLGojT60
Engel, B. (2002). The Emotionally Abusive Relationship. Hoken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Evans, P. (1996). The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media.
Karakurt, G., & Silver, K. E. (2013). Emotional abuse in intimate relationships: The role of gender and age. Violence and Victims, 28(5), 804–821.
Matula, G. (2017). Info [online image]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/VnGac-kUflg
Naletu (2017). Info [Online image]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/XwrPo8MWUGQ
Moore, M. (2017). Why Do You Do This?: How To Recognize And Respond To Emotional Blackmail, Verbal Abuse, And Codependent Relationship Patterns [Kindle 7th Generation]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Sotomayor, X. (2017). Info [Online image]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/E_TDi3sCuEo/info
Wilson, K.J. (2006). When Violence begins at Home (2nd Edition). Alameda, CA: Hunter House Inc. Publishers.
“Alone,” courtesy of Xavier Sotomayor, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fragile,” courtesy of Morgan Basham, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hold the Light,” courtesy of Naletu, unsplash.com, CC0 License