Verbal Abuse in a Relationship: Know the Signs

The proverb “Home is where the heart is” conjures up warm feelings of good times with family, as our close relationships provide us with the encouragement and comfort needed to live fulfilled, happy lives. Life can be challenging with its financial, emotional and social stresses, and the people who surround and support us at home help us to feel relaxed and comfortable. However, for some, the home is not a sanctuary of love and acceptance; instead, it can be a stressful place where conflict is played out in heated arguments, hurtful words and manipulation. The verbal abuser leaves no physical scars, but his or her behavior can be just as painful and damaging.

Partners in verbally abusive relationships are often codependent, and neither partner may be fully aware of the depth of the verbal abuse. Many times, codependent partners grow up in dysfunctional families and are repeating the behavior patterns that they have learned from inappropriate role models. It’s also a fact that not all verbal abusers are physical abusers, but almost all physical abusers are also verbal abusers. The verbal abuser destroys his or her relationships with the need to control and victimize; and the victim is often not aware that the verbal abuser’s behavior is damaging until emotional wounds run deep. A partner who is verbally abusive does not necessarily act in an inappropriate way in the world and may only be verbally abusive to one individual in the home so it’s important that the abuser recognize the signs of verbal abuse.

Let’s imagine a scenario. Sarah and Tom have been married for 13 years. Sarah cares for three kids under twelve, drives them to and from school and extracurricular activities, helps the kids with homework, cooks three meals a day, manages the finances, keeps the home looking beautiful, and the list goes on and on. Tom returns home from work each evening to barrage Sarah with questions like, “What did you do all day?” “Why are you spending so much money on groceries?” “Why professionally color your hair when you’re only heading off to soccer or ballet practice?” Tom’s angry evening rants are taking a toll on Sarah and she’s feeling pretty low. And, although he doesn’t tell her how stupid she is, Tom certainly implies it. His behavior is not reserved for the weeknights either; he’s now poking fun at her for her “sudden” interest in taking the children to church and before heading out the door to Sunday mass, he hollers to her, “Pray to God that he pays your Nieman Marcus bill this month!”

When Sarah gets upset by Tom’s words and lets him know, he avoids her altogether and leaves the room to zonk out in front of the television. When they first decided to start a family, the couple mutually agreed that Sarah would stay home to care for the children and Tom would take on more responsibility at work. Although they made this decision as a couple, Sarah feels alone, unappreciated and belittled as Tom verbally abuses her daily with his angry comments and sarcasm. Sarah has accepted the state of affairs for so long that she was stunned when her daughter asked her, “Mommy, why do you let Dad talk to you like that?”

Now, although this is an imaginary scenario, households across the county are experiencing this very real relationship, and the verbal abuser, male or female, is dominating the home with his or her unhealthy and hurtful behavior.

The types of personalities at play in the verbally abusive relationship, however, are often the same. The abused often has a dependent type of personality, where he or she is afraid of being alone and feels unable to stand up to the verbal abuser. His or her submissive personality makes it difficult to express disagreement with the verbal abuser for fear of loss of the relationship or disapproval. The verbal abuser is threatened when not in control, a feeling that may stem from feeling unjustly treated in life, and then takes out his or her built-up anger on the submissive partner. The verbal abuser could also have anxiety that causes him or her to be over controlling.

Because partners in a verbally abusive relationship have usually adapted to their situations, it may require the intervention of a professional in order to change the learned behavior. The victim must recognize his or her feelings and become more assertive and independent. The verbal abuser also needs to recognize his or her feelings and find more appropriate ways of dealing with them. If the verbal abuser is not willing to take responsibility for his or her abuse, the cycle of hurt will continue.

If you feel that you may be the victim of verbal abuse, below are some situations that may apply to your relationship.

Blaming and Belittling: The verbal abuser will accuse the partner of inciting trouble. He or she may…

  • Blame you when you get angry, but does not take responsibility for his or her own behavior.
  • Criticize you and call you names.
  • Complain about the way you talk and dress.

Denial: The verbal abuser claims that the reality of the partner is invalid. He or she may…

  • Twist your words and misinterpret what you say.
  • Ignore or invalidate your feelings.
  • Make sarcastic comments and then tell you you’re misunderstanding them.

Discounting: Similar to denial, he or she trivializes your feelings. He or she may…

  • Humiliate you publicly or privately.
  • Make fun of people or things important to you.
  • Tell you what to do instead of asking you what you would like to do.

Blocking and Withholding: The verbal abuser refuses to respond to a communication, thereby blocking resolution of a problem. He or she may…

  • Punish you with silence when you want to talk.
  • Repeatedly bring up past arguments or disagreements, while refusing to have instructive discussion on how to solve the problem at-hand.
  • Distance him or herself and reveal as little as possible to the partner as a way of maintain control and leaving the partner feeling frustrated and lonely.

Countering: The verbal abuser often sees the partner as the enemy and immediately counters anything the partner has to say without thinking it through. He or she may…

  • Create situations where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
  • Seem to enjoy arguing for the sake of arguing.
  • Repeat something you did over and over again to prove a point but not actually solve the problem.

Dominating: Commanding the partner to do something undermines the equality of a relationship and puts the abuser in the dominant position. He or she may…

  • Pick a fight when angry or annoyed at something else.
  • Selectively focus on a few shortcomings without giving credit for the things you do well.
  • Ridicule you, then tell you he or she is joking.
  • Treat you as if you are the child and he or she is the parent.

If you recognize yourself as being abused or being a verbal abuser you probably feel stuck in a vicious cycle. There is a way out. It begins with a heightened self-awareness, a willingness to accept responsibility for behavior choices, and a sincere desire to change. To confront verbal abuse you need to become aware of the conditions that lead to abuse and seek professional help.