We all know what sticks and stones can do, but the second part of that saying isn’t exactly true. Words do hurt. Some survivors have told us, in fact, words can hurt just as much or more than physical abuse. A survey on DomesticShelters.org showed 62 percent of survivors said verbal abuse felt more damaging than physical violence. Unlike a bruise or broken bone that eventually heals, degrading comments can reverberate inside a person’s conscience for a lifetime.
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Beyond words as weapons, abusers will also use words to control. By threatening a survivor with harm if she or he leaves to demanding to know where a survivor is at all times, words can almost be just as powerful as a locked cage.
We asked survivors on our DomesticShelters.org Victims and Survivors Community Facebook Page for some examples of things abusers have said to them.
Early Red Flag Words
The earlier you can spot abusive behavior in a partner, the better chance you have at safely getting out of that relationship. Make sure to always trust your gut when you hear phrases like this:
“Where were you today?”
“I tried calling ... why didn’t you answer?” [This is after 15 missed calls in a few hours.]
“Why did you make me do that?”
“You don’t love me as much as I love you.”
“No one will ever understand you like I do.”
“If you loved me, you’d do this.”
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“All women before me were cold and not as invested [in the relationship] as he was. I think it was a challenge to see how much commitment he could 'secure.' Early on he complained about me holding back, not depending on him enough, not being as open and vulnerable.”
Want even more insight into an abusive partner? Read (and then watch), “Netflix’s You is a Roadmap to Dating Violence.”
Words to Degrade
Verbal abuse can lower a partner’s self-esteem—something an abuser is counting on. Because when a survivor’s self-esteem plummets, that survivor may depend on an abuser to define their self-worth–“What can I do to prove I’m not as bad as they say?”—resulting in a maddening, approval-seeking cycle that can keep a survivor trapped indefinitely.
“You’re crazy a bad mom.”
“No wonder you're losing all your friends.”
“You’re no fun.”
“You’re a piece of trash.”
Words to Shame
We’ve all said something we regret at one point or another, but the trademark of verbal and emotional abuse is a pattern. Abusers don’t just lose their temper once, they systematically shame and insult their partner over and over again, usually without regret and always without reason.
One survivor, Brianne, who told DomesticShelters.org her story last October, says her abusive partner repeatedly told her she never did anything right, “so it was best if I didn't do anything to help. But then he would turn around and berate me for being lazy and not helping. The house was never clean enough, even though one could practically eat off the floor.”
If a partner’s words make you feel shame, lower your self-worth or make you question what it is you did wrong on a near-constant basis, you could be dealing with an abusive partner. Here are some more examples from survivors:
“You're always creating drama/making a big deal out of nothing/starting a fight/trying to get the last word in.”
“If you leave me, no one else will want you.”
“You’re not smart/successful/strong enough to survive without me.”
“You need to go on a diet.”
“Why don’t you look as hot as you did when we first met?”
“Don’t gain too much weight when you get pregnant.”
“You’re such a slut/you dress like a whore.”
“This is why no one likes you.”
Words to Control
Lisa Aronson Fontes writes in “Resisting Control When It’s Disguised as Love,” that “Occasional acts of kindness are a grooming strategy to retain control and make a partner stay in the relationship. An abuser may intersperse loving acts with angry outbursts, sexual coercion and manipulation, producing a kind of emotional whiplash in his partner.”
Control is not always outright, aka, “Don’t wear that. Don’t go there. Don’t speak to him.” Sometimes, as Fontes says, it’s disguised as concern. The indicator that it’s control? If you feel anxiety or fear about making a choice because you’re afraid your partner is going to get mad at you, you may be under their control. Here are some more examples of controlling words:
“You can go but I don’t want you to go.”
“You don't need to work right now; the kids need you.”
“Couples don’t have secrets—I need to be able to read your texts or emails whenever I want to.”
“You’d be much more pretty if....”
“I bring the money into this house so I decide.”
“I’ll give you money to spend. You don’t need to worry about a bank account.”
“How much did you spend? I need to see all your receipts.”
Words to Deflect Blame
Abusers are notorious for not taking any responsibility for their choices; don’t forget—abuse is a choice. It’s never a survivor’s fault, even though that’s exactly what an abuser may try to make a survivor believe. An abuser may also blame their abusive actions on drugs, alcohol, stress, mental illness or childhood trauma. While these factors can perpetuate abuse, they do not cause abusive behavior. It’s important to remember there are plenty of individuals who have a few drinks and don’t start berating others. There are plenty of cases of individuals who have survived childhood domestic violence and have not gone on to abuse others.
Deflecting blame can sound like:
“Look what you made me do.”
“It’s your fault I drink.”
“I was only trying to help.”
“You always play the victim.”
"I'm only happy when you're happy."
"It was just a fight."
"But did you tell them why I did that? Did you tell them I was a victim of abuse as a child? You're not giving them the whole picture."
"You're making me feel like a monster."
“You’re too sensitive.”
"You're looking for the bad in what I'm saying. Like your mom does."
Abusers are not the only ones who try to blame survivors. Sometimes, those outside the relationship may use victim-blaming as well. For more on why and how that happens, read, “What Victim-Blaming Sounds Like.”
In our recent piece, “Abuse Almost Always Escalates,” we talk about how an abuser rarely stops abusive behavior but rather is more likely to ramp it up as the relationship progresses. Most terrifying is the fact that, left unchecked, abuse can escalate from harmful words to violent physical aggression, even murder. Watch out for phrases that clearly spell out an abuser’s plans for the future.
“Just try to leave me—you’ll regret it.”
“You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
“You think you got it bad, I can show you bad.”
“I'll take everything away from you if you leave me. I'll take the house, the kids, the car, you'll have nothing. You're the crazy one. No one will let you have custody of the kids.”
“You know I can get a gun/I have a gun.”
Some believe you can predict which abusers will kill. Take the danger assessment in this article to find out if the abusive partner you know is on a path to potentially commit homicide.
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