Maybe he’s terse or snappish when you mention an upcoming visit to see your parents. Maybe he makes cutting remarks about your lack of financial knowledge when you raise the issue of the family budget. Maybe he drops a dig about your weight every night before dinner, or your lack of style when you accompany him to a business function.
You make excuses for the remarks – he’s tired, he’s stressed, and after all, he’s right – you could do with losing a few pounds or picking your timing better for serious discussions.
So which is it – verbal abuse or a grumpy, stressed, or insensitive partner? Where is the fine line between a thoughtless response and verbal abuse?
You might ask yourself these questions:
- How often does my partner cut me down with his words?
- How often do I feel intimidated, shamed, or insulted after a conversation?
- Am I afraid to raise certain issues, for fear of the tongue lashing that may follow?
- Does he purposely embarrass me with his words in front of the children, family members, neighbors or others? Call me names, humiliating me, then telling me I’m overly sensitive?
- Do I feel diminished every time we try to have a discussion?
What is Verbal Abuse?
Verbal abuse may occur via the words themselves, the tone in which their spoken, and certainly the frequency of incidents is a factor – as is context.
Verbal abuse in a specific type of emotional abuse that can occur in relationships of all sorts. While we may have some protections for certain types of language in our employment environments, there are no such protections when it comes to derisive and destructive words aimed our way from a parent, a sibling, an adult child, much less a spouse or partner.
What are the signs of verbal abuse? How is it different from emotional abuse?
Here is a legal definition of verbal abuse:
“… the use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to... the harm caused is often difficult to measure. The most commonly understood form is name-calling. Verbal abuse may consist of shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, or derogatory language, among other forms of communication… Verbal abuse may lead to stress, depression, physical ailments, and other damage.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
Are You Making Excuses for Him or Her?
Name-calling? Shouting? Using language we wouldn’t if we weren’t upset?
Sure, we all have fights occasionally, raise our voices, say things we regret, and generally, we apologize. But verbal abuse can be insidious, a pattern of behavior with the following characteristics:
- You feel your self-esteem eroding away
- You’re being manipulated to feel inferior (so who else would want you?)
- You’re more dependent than ever on the verbal abuser
- Threats, intimidation, making you feel stupid, and name-calling leave you depressed, struggling to stand up for yourself, and making excuses for the abuser’s behavior.
The verbal abuser frequently makes his victim feel responsible for his bad behavior and hurtful, demeaning words. After all, if you knew as much about finance as he did, you wouldn’t question his figures on the family budget, right? If you didn’t eat so much or you exercised more, you’d lose weight and he wouldn’t have cause to call you fat – isn’t that so?
If you didn’t embarrass him with your actions, your appearance, or your words, he would have no reason to put you down in front of friends or family – or behind closed doors – isn’t that true?
What is the Difference Between Verbal Abuse and Emotional Abuse?
Much has been written on the dynamics in abusive relationships, but the terminology can be confusing. The key difference between verbal abuse and emotional abuse is the use of language.
Verbal abuse involves words – shouting, threatening, intimidating, undermining, humiliating – through use of language and tone.
Verbal abuse is a form of emotional or psychological abuse, as it causes damage that may manifest itself through depression, anxiety, fear and specific behaviors that avoid confrontation.
Emotional abuse, sometimes also known as psychological abuse or mental abuse, generally addresses situations of an imbalance of power. One person subjects another to behaviors that are intimidating, humiliating, or traumatizing. Bullying, for example, is considered emotionally abusive.
Verbal Abuse in Marriage and Divorce
While not all verbal abusers realize how hurtful their words can be, those who have lived with verbal abuse understand their sting and long-term damage to self-esteem. If you believe your partner does not realize how deeply his words cut, do consider communicating that he’s hurting you.
Living with verbal abuse can be disorienting and deceiving. When it’s yelling, profanity, and name-calling (which others may hear), you may be able to confirm that the interaction is completely out of line. In fact, friends and family members may point it out to you. However, if this same pattern of adult interaction is what your children consider “usual” between adults, you’re part of an emotional and behavioral model that is far from desirable.
When you’re on the receiving end of less obvious verbal abuse - marital mind games that involve twisting words and their meanings - you may begin to wonder if you’re imagining what’s going on. Others may not be present to understand the nuances of intimidation or shaming that are part of the abuser’s pattern. This is an especially lonely and isolated place to find yourself – not only dependent on the abuser emotionally, but questioning your understanding of what is being said.
Expert recommendations for dealing with verbal abuse include:
- Seeking help (expert counseling)
- Understanding that you are not to blame
- Surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family.
For some couples, divorce may bring out even more verbal abuse than during the marriage. Divorce is difficult enough to get through – seek help if you possibly can. If you are on the receiving end of verbal abuse from an ex-spouse, again – seek expert counsel, surround yourself with supportive individuals (the abuser may be less likely to misbehave in front of others), and to the extent possible, do not let him push your buttons!