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What is Verbal Abuse?
A comprehensive guide to understanding how an argument can be healthy, but a pattern of ongoing degradation is not
- Jun 07, 2021
Arguments are normal, even healthy, in a relationship. Unless you’re partnered up with a carbon copy of yourself, there are bound to be times when the other person makes a decision you disagree with, or a decision that inconveniences you, maybe even hurts your feelings. In a safe, healthy relationship, this can be discussed and, even if things get heated, the couple should eventually be able to reach a compromise that makes them both feel safe and respected.
But when one partner is verbally abusive, things can go down a far less healthy path. A verbally abusive individual will regularly leave a partner feeling uneasy, scared, degraded and ashamed, sometimes even when a fight never occurred. This pattern should not be acceptable. Let’s look at it closer.
What Is Verbal Abuse?
Verbal abuse is a pattern of speaking with the intent to demean, humiliate, blame or threaten the victim. Though an abuser may raise their voice in mean and threatening ways, verbal abuse does not always include shouting. It can simply be defined by the manner in which the abuser is speaking—typically a demeaning, demoralizing way.
Verbal and emotional abuse may be used interchangeably to describe what’s happening, and that’s OK. Labeling the abuse is not as important as recognizing that what’s occurring is, in fact, abusive behavior.
Verbal abuse may start subtly. An abuser may seem to “have a temper” but apologizes after losing their cool. Over time, however, the fights may become more explosive. The abuser may begin to fly off the handle at the smallest thing.
Or an abuser’s choice of words may go from what may sound like teasing, initially, into something far more degrading or controlling. Something joking like, “I think that guy at the store was checking you out!” may later turn into, “What are you trying to do? Get everyone’s attention just to make me mad?” Advocates warn verbal abuse will often escalate to include other types of abuse as well, such as physical or sexual abuse.
The Red Flags of Verbal Abuse
Ask yourself these questions to identify verbal abuse:
- Do the fights, threats or insults come out of nowhere? Verbal abuse can occur when everything else is seemingly fine in the relationship.
- Are verbal outbursts or insults beginning to happen in public and not just behind closed doors? This may be a sign of escalation.
- Is your partner tearing you down when you’re visibly happy?
- Are the insults starting to feel familiar?
- Is your partner putting down your interests?
- Does your partner avoid talking about his or her harmful actions after the fact?
- Between incidents, does everything feel like it goes back to normal?
- Do you feel isolated from friends and family?
- Is your partner defining things differently from how you see them? As in, you remember your partner exploding in anger while they describe you as the one who intentionally started the fight (this is called gaslighting).
- Is your partner using verbally abusive language toward you, aka, “You’re so stupid,” “You’d better do what I said,” or “Talk back and you’ll be sorry you did”?
Different Types of Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse can take different forms, according to Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship. It can look like:
- Hostile withholding. Abusers may refuse to acknowledge a survivor’s existence for hours, days, sometimes longer, which can lead to a survivor feeling isolated and desperate for the abuser’s approval and acknowledgement.
- Countering. When the abuser tries to convince the survivor their feelings about anything and everything are wrong, no matter how insignificant.
- Discounting. Telling a survivor that their emotions are wrong, denying them the right to simply feel what they feel (e.g., “You always make too big a deal out of these things.”).
- Jokes. An abuser will try to use the “It was just a joke!” to discount their insults.
- Blocking. The abuser will prevent the survivor from talking at all, cutting the survivor off or accusing them of talking out of turn.
- Blame. The abuser will blame the survivor as a degradation or humiliation tactic, such as telling the survivor they’re not able to make friends because they’re a bad person or bad things happen to them because that’s what they deserve.
- Judging and Criticizing. Similar to blame, the abuser will judge the survivor unfairly for just about everything, using definitive “you” statements like, “You know you’re never going to be successful.”
- Trivializing. An abuser will minimize a survivor’s accomplishments—“It wasn’t that good of a dinner.”
- Undermining. An abuser will make sure to question a survivor at every turn—“Are you sure you’re right? I doubt you are.”
- Threats. An abuser will use threats to control or trap a survivor out of fear. “If you even think about leaving, you’re going to regret it.”
- Name-Calling. This can be blatant, such as calling a survivor a b*tch or a sl*t, or more subtle, like, “You’re so dumb when it comes to money.”
- Forgetting. Another way to remind a survivor that the abuser does not value him or her, either by intentionally or unintentionally forgetting things the survivor said or commitments the abuser needed to uphold.
- Ordering. This may also fall under the umbrella of coercive control where an abuser orders around their partner in a demeaning way.
- Denial. An abuser will seldom if ever claim ownership of any of their abusive choices, denying they are at fault.
- Abusive Anger. Yelling, plain and simple. No one deserves to be yelled at.
Verbal Abuse Often Includes Gaslighting
Gaslighting will leave a survivor doubting everything they know, which is exactly what abusers count on. Abusers will use phrases like, “That didn’t happen,” or “You’re blowing this out of proportion” which results in the survivor questioning their memories and, ultimately, blaming themselves. This is a convenient way for abusers to avoid taking responsibility.
Janie McMahan, licensed marriage and family therapist, told DomesticShelters.org that gaslighting can lead to survivors thinking they’re a little bit “off” emotionally and mentally. They begin thinking they can’t trust their instincts. Their self-esteem can plummet. They feel less than the other person—less intelligent, less capable. McMahan says it can lead to the survivor not having a sense of self, believing they no longer have an identity or a voice. “It keeps them in these relationships,” McMahan says.
How to Respond to Verbal Abuse
No one deserves to be demeaned, yelled at, insulted or controlled by a partner. First and foremost, it may be beneficial to reach out to a trained domestic violence advocate who can help you sort through what’s happening and determine if things are at risk of elevating to a more dangerous level. You can find an advocate with a nonprofit near you through our Find Help page.
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Secondly, if you’re ready to end the relationship, make sure to have a safety plan in place. Our DIY Safety Planning Worksheet can help you prepare for the unknowns of leaving an abuser.
In the meantime, when you are feeling verbally attacked or belittled, you can also take these steps:
- Try not to fire back a hostile response. Don’t retaliate or insult them back.
- Identify how the comment makes you feel, so that you can express your emotions.
- Tell your partner exactly how they made you feel and that you didn’t like it.
- Accept an apology, but don’t brush it off with a comment like “that’s OK,” which implies they have permission to do it again.
In a healthy relationship, partners make sure not to hurt each other’s feelings intentionally. Read about what a non-abusive argument sounds like in, “It’s Okay to Argue.”
On the flip side, see what common phrases abusers use in “20 Things Abusers Say.”
We've prepared a toolkit “What Is Verbal Abuse?” to help you understand even more what emotional abuse is so you can better assess your relationship and understand your situation.
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