Understanding Verbal Abuse

Wooden Scrabble tiles lay in a pile, with a row of tiles spelling out the word "Support".

“He has never hit me… he’s just not very nice to me.”

Often, I am invited to provide expert testimony in court cases involving domestic violence. The cases frequently have a history of entangled physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse. During cross-examination by the perpetrator’s defense attorney, I am often asked “Do you and your husband argue?” followed by “So, do you consider that abusive?”

At what point does an argument become verbally abusive and the foundation of a violent relationship? Verbal abuse is extremely difficult to define. Of course, all couples disagree. And while all couples argue, there are common patterns of behavior in an abusive relationship which serve to exert power and control over the victim.

In a mutually respectful relationship, there are clear components of an argument: a subject, a start and a finish. “My husband wants a second dog and I don’t. He says that the second dog will keep our first dog company while we are at work, but I argue that a second dog would create twice the mess in the yard.” At the end of the day, they either get a dog or they don’t. There is a subject, there is a start and there is a finish. Healthy arguments are isolated incidents where both partners are invested in resolving the argument.

On the other hand, verbal abuse is a pattern of behavior where one person maintains control over the other. Abusers dismiss the needs and feelings of their partner and use a stream of insults, name-calling and demeaning criticism with a sleight of hand trick that changes the focus of the argument from the subject to the victim herself. There is no particular topic and there is no finish until the abuser decides to finish.

The impact of these verbal attacks causes the victim to gauge the way she responds to her life – not only in that relationship, but also with aspects outside the relationship: how she feels about herself at work, with her extended family, with her friends, as a woman, a mom or as a person.

While verbal abuse doesn’t leave marks that you can see, it can be just as painful as physical violence, if not more so. We also know that recovery can take much longer. One Love, a nonprofit that educates young people about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, describes verbal abuse as “calculating and insidious, causing people on the receiving end to question themselves, wonder if they are overacting or even blame themselves.” Their website lists 11 weapons most commonly used by verbal abusers:

  1. Name-calling.You are so stupid, fat, crazy.”
  2. Condescending. “You need to lighten up. You have no sense of humor. You are just like your mother.”
  3. Manipulating. “If you really loved your children, you would work harder to keep a clean house. I’m the one paying for your cell phone; I have a right to look through your calls and messages.”
  4. Criticizing. “You can’t ever get anything right. You don’t know how to keep a man happy. You are not a Godly wife.”
  5. Demeaning. “You women are all alike – all you do is complain. Good luck finding someone who would want you.”
  6. Threatening. “If you ever do that again, you will be sorry. I am going to show you who is the boss.”
  7. Blaming. “Look what you made me do.”
  8. Accusing. “You can’t go to church without taking the kids; I know you are cheating on me.”
  9. Withholding. “You can forget about me going to your parents’ house for your birthday. Give me your credit cards and I will be in charge of the finances. Don’t bring that subject up ever again.”
  10. Gaslighting. You’re making things up. That’s all in your head. Are you really going to get so upset over something so small?”
  11. Going around and around in circles. “When I got home, you weren’t there and there was no dinner. Don’t you care that I have worked all day and I am hungry? Maybe you are lying about where you were.”

Other examples include countering, diverting, denial, trivializing and raging. Abusers will often use a combination of many of these tactics to accomplish his goals. In general, verbal abuse is communication that hurts, demeans or frightens the victim. Verbal abuse can be blatant or subtle. It attacks the nature and abilities of a person. It is unpredictable, and it gradually diminishes or destroys the self-esteem of the victim.

But most importantly, verbal abuse is never acceptable.

If you have questions about your relationship, please call our Outreach office to speak with one of our counselors. Help and hope is just a phone call away: 214.389.7700.

Written by Jan Langbein, CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support

Leave a Comment