Communication — 25 July 2004
What is verbal abuse and how to deal with it

Most people are aware that name-calling, shaming, berating and discrediting another person, are verbally abusive behaviors. However, less blatant forms of psychological abuse such as controlling, accusing, judging and criticizing, denial of feelings, trivializing, sarcasm, and blaming often elude but do fit this classification. We must be alert to verbal abuse whose damage is profound and devastating. Infrequent unkind words do not necessarily constitute abuse.

Our culture has accepted that physical and sexual abuses are intolerable offenses. We have mechanisms to punish the offenders and prevent future harm they may inflict. Regrettably, the awareness of psychological abuse and its grave harm has not kept pace with the other forms of violation. Verbal and physical abuses are two different forms of the same destructive and unacceptable conduct.

In verbally abusive relationships the abuser may exercise control over the abused every thought, feeling or action. The abuser’s reality is the only one permitted for the victim and no variation is tolerated. With time, the abused person ceases to feel or think independently, due to fear of angering the abuser and his consequent retaliation.

There often are serious repercussions for the abused person’s attempts at minimal autonomy. This person is likely to be berated, scolded, shamed and attacked and his or her value as an individual will be consistently diminished to the point of profound loss of self-esteem.

Interestingly enough many verbally abused mates are not aware of the status they are in. They tend to take the criticism and belittling as honest evaluation of themselves and attempt to correct their ways in order to gain the approval of the partner. The latter is an unachievable goal. They often say: “I guess I just don’t think before I act because I make him so mad.” Most abused people are kind and assume that the criticism is a constructive way to help them improve. What they need to realize is that verbal abuse is a form of control and emotional harm exercised by the abuser for power.

Verbal abuse is a form of brainwashing that reduces the victim’s self-esteem, shatters his or her confidence, usually without the victim being aware of its course. I have seen people who came to therapy to deal with feelings of worthlessness without recognition that abuse impacted this painful state.

Abusers may speak of love and be publicly tender toward their partners. Their idea of love is the partner’s total submission to the abuser’s control. Abused mates often buy the words and explain away the impact these statements impart.

Any statement that makes the listener feel badly about himself or herself must be rephrased. The intention of the speaker is irrelevant. “You are just too sensitive”, “grow up”, “You can’t take a joke”, “I’ve had it with your complaining”, “why can’t you ever do it right? “It can’t be that painful, stop being a baby”, “you will do this now”, “You must be crazy to (feel, act, think) like that”, “Just shut up and do as I told you”, are samples of abusive phrases. None of these are acceptable in healthy relationships.

All phrases that start with “you” and are uncomplimentary, as well as those that begin with a verb such as: “Stop”, “Go”, “Do”, “Bring”, “Shut Up”, violate the listener. All statements that describe another person as unworthy in some aspect, deny his or her feelings, minimize their thoughts, feelings or actions are major unacceptable affronts.

The verbally abusive person is often an angry person. He or she uses other people’s behavior or situations to justify the unpredictable and violent expressions of rage. These episodes occur periodically, are manipulative and controlling and create deep fear in the abused.

Interestingly, they rarely if ever occur in front of other people. Controlling abusers are very careful to not have any witnesses. Their bad conduct is reserved for their “inadequate partner”. The abuser never apologizes for any wrongdoing since he or she externalizes the blame. The angry outburst helps the abuser restore his or her own emotional equilibrium by exercising full power over the victim. Unless the abused cowers in fear and apologizes for his or her error, the abuser will continue to rage.

Abusers are weak people who have been shunned, ignored or abused themselves as children. They learned that self-affirmation comes from power over others. Since they didn’t experience love and compassion their capacity for sympathy and caring is blocked.
Typically, abused people were raised by abusers. They are often eager to please, feel pain that is minimized and are accustomed to look for empathy from those who are least able to provide it.

So what is an abused spouse to do?

  •  First determine whether or not you are being abused by checking your reactions. If you often feel hurt and abused, you are.
  • Trust your feelings, even if you are told that they are wrong.
  • If frequent attempts to please your mate are unsuccessful, it is probably not about you.
  • Do not allow any affront to go uncommented upon. Ask: “Could you please say it in another way so that I can understand you better.” If the response is another attack, you are being abused.
  • Set a boundary by stopping the barrage of accusations. Say, “I will not listen to this- it is very unkind talk”. If the situation escalates, stop listening and leave as soon as it is safe to do so.
  • Verbal abuse often worsens with time and may evolve into physical abuse. Once an abusive episode is forgiven, the next one often will be harsher.
  • No human being should be subjected to any psychological or physical abuse.
  • You may need to leave the relationship for your sanity and safety. Do so with a plan and help.
  • Verbal abuse is not a self-remediating condition. Seek help. Programs specializing in domestic violence, (such as Women’s Crisis Support) are available to assist both the abused and the abuser.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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