Content Warning: This article talks about sensitive topics and may trigger unwanted thoughts and feelings. Read at your discretion.
When most people hear the word “abuse,” they think of physical violence. However, this is not the only form of abuse that can take place in a relationship between two people—whether they’re parents and children, partners, siblings, coworkers, or friends. Verbal abuse, also known as emotional or psychological abuse, is another common form.
Though the general public may be less aware of verbal abuse than of physical abuse, it’s highly prevalent. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that over 61 million women and 53 million men have experienced “psychological aggression” by an intimate partner in their lifetime—which doesn’t include numbers for verbal abuse in other types of relationships. Below, we’ll explore what verbal abuse is, how to identify it, and how to seek help if you’re in a relationship characterized by this dynamic.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.
Verbal Abuse, Defined
It’s a manipulation tactic intended to affect the emotions, behaviors, and/or decisions of the person on the receiving end in an effort to exert control. Sometimes, this type of abuse is thinly disguised as love or concern. Other times, it’s more overt and instills immediate fear in the person it’s directed at—such as fear of humiliation, failure, physical violence, or abandonment. Note that verbal abuse can be engaged in or received by anyone of any age, gender, sexual orientation, race, or circumstance.
Common Signs Of Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse can sometimes be more difficult to identify than physical abuse. This may be because it’s talked about less or has been normalized in media, or because it doesn’t leave the kind of visible scars that physical abuse can—though it can be extremely harmful nonetheless. It’s also not uncommon for targets of this type of abuse to excuse the behavior away, especially because their abusers may make them feel that they’re being oversensitive and that it’s nothing more than teasing, or that they’re only being tough on them to help them. That’s why learning to recognize this type of harm can be so important, so you can take the steps necessary to get help.
Here are some common signs of verbal abuse that you can look out for if you suspect you may be experiencing verbal abuse. Note that while anyone can lose their temper or say something they didn't mean, it’s when this behavior happens consistently and makes you feel ashamed and fearful again and again that verbal abuse could be taking place.
Being Argumentative About Ordinary Topics
Certain subjects lend themselves to debate, like politics or philosophy. However, verbally abusive people may aggressively counter opinions you have even on ordinary topics, like a movie you watched together. They may try to convince you that your opinions are wrong and often won’t let it go until you’ve given in.
Denying Rather Than Discussing Issues With How They Treat You
In a healthy relationship, intimate or otherwise, each person should generally be able to talk about how they feel and can reasonably expect the other person to listen sincerely and help solve problems. In an abusive relationship, however, the abuser is likely to discount any claims of mistreatment. They might deny that they’ve done anything wrong and instead insist that you’re the one with the problem, or that they only treat you this way because of some fundamental flaw in your personality or character.
Giving Harsh Criticism That Isn't Helpful
A verbally abusive person might make constant critical statements that often come in the form of absolute "you" statements, like, "You never do the dishes right" or "You always eat too much." They’re usually unfair, harsh, and negative judgments that do nothing to help you and do not acknowledge your positive efforts, and they may implicitly or explicitly chalk them up to made-up issues with who you are as a person. They may even overtly try to embarrass you or put you down about real or perceived mistakes or flaws.
Gaslighting is a gradual manipulation tactic that can eventually make its recipient doubt themselves and even their own sanity. It can take the form of the abuser trivializing your concerns with how they’re treating you, saying things like “You’re being too sensitive” or “Can’t you take a joke?” They may also deny doing or saying things that you know actually happened, causing you to constantly second-guess yourself and apologize to them.
Trivializing Your Efforts
Trivializing is when the abuser acts like something you worked hard on or care about isn't a big deal. They might minimize your achievements or say that they could have done a better job. This kind of verbal abuse can go hand-in-hand with criticism. For instance, if you tell them that you successfully ran a mile today, they may ignore your statement and instead comment on your weight, or say they could have run the mile faster. Or, if you talk about a difficult task you finished at work, they may respond by saying that it doesn't sound that difficult or that anyone could do it.
Controlling The Conversation
Verbal abuse is often an expression of control. One way it could manifest is an abuser trying to stop you from talking about certain topics or trying to steer the conversation where they want it to go. They may also cut you off from discussing how you feel about the relationship by telling you that you complain too much or are too sensitive.
Making Themselves The Victim
Abusers often try to find a scapegoat for issues that are their own. If they don't get the job they want, they may find a way to blame it on you. If the two of you are having money problems, they may say it's your fault for the job you selected or the degree you chose. They’re likely to make themselves the victim in other ways too, such as complaining about having to “deal with you” when you’re not behaving the way they want.
Yelling Or Screaming
Verbal abuse can take many different forms, which is part of what can make it difficult to identify. While some verbal abusers dole out their abuse calmly and matter-of-factly, others may do so in the form of screaming and yelling. Both are forms of verbal abuse that can be serious and harmful.
Often, abusers will leverage known fears against their targets, using implied or overt threats to control them. They often make the targeted individual feel that they couldn’t get by without their help, and may then threaten to abandon, fire, or divorce the other person to cause panic and manipulate them into doing what they want.
How Verbal Abuse Can Affect Your Health
Consistent abuse of any kind has the potential to put the target into a near-constant state of fight-or-flight, which involves a cascade of physiological responses designed to enable the body and mind to deal with a threat. When this response is chronically engaged, it can cause an individual to be at greater risk for a number of health problems over time, such as increased blood pressure, heart disease, chronic pain, headaches, sleep issues, and gastrointestinal problems.
A person who experiences verbal abuse is also more likely to face a variety of mental health challenges over time. Verbal abuse can damage self-esteem and dangerously distort thoughts, potentially leading to:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or c-PTSD
Substance misuse or substance use disorder
Self-harm or suicidal thoughts or behaviors
If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline for support and resources at 1-800-931-2237 (M–Th from 9AM–9PM EST and Fri 9AM–5PM EST).
The SAMHSA National Helpline for support with substance misuse is available 24/7 and can be reached by calling (800) 662-4357.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by dialing 988.
The damage inflicted by ongoing verbal abuse can be serious, lasting, and even deadly, and everyone deserves to have safe, healthy relationships. That’s why seeking support if you believe you’re experiencing or have experienced verbal abuse is typically paramount.
Seeking Help If You’re Experiencing Or Have Experienced Abuse
Seeking support if you’re experiencing abuse in any form can be life-saving. You can contact the National Domestic Violence hotline (1-800-799-SAFE (7233)) or get connected with resources through their website or online chat 24/7.
If you’ve experienced abuse in the past and are looking to heal and address the emotional scars you may have from the experience, meeting with a therapist can be a helpful next step. They can help you correct distorted thoughts, rebuild your self-esteem, and address symptoms of any mental health conditions you may be experiencing after the fact.
Meeting with a therapist in person to discuss a history of abuse can feel intimidating to some, which is where online therapy can be useful. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere else you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online therapy can be as effective as in-person sessions in many cases, so you can typically feel confident in choosing whichever format works best for you. If you’re interested in virtual therapy, see below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from clients in similar situations.
"Dr. Walsh has been very supportive in helping me with abuse issues and depression. She has taken lots of time with me, and I appreciate how far I've come with her guidance."
"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things; I have moved away from abusive relationships and gaining the skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all, my company. I like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connect to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her for a year!!!"
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