Verbal Abuse in Relationships: What is it and what can you do?

by | Feb 15, 2012

The definition of verbal abuse is spoken words used with the intent to cause harm. Verbally abusive statements are directed at another person, causing emotional suffering and leading to depression, low self esteem and even thoughts of suicide. In addition to the psychological effects, verbal abuse can lead to physical ailments resulting from stress and a depressed immune system.

What is Verbal Abuse?

  • Verbal abuse is hurtful and frequently attacks the character and/or abilities of the victim. Over time, the victim may begin to believe that there is something wrong with them or their abilities. The victim may come to feel that they are the problem, rather than their partner.


  • Verbal abuse is judging and criticizing. The abuser may judge the victim and then express that judgment in a critical way.
  • Verbal abuse may be overt or covert. Overt abuse usually involves blame and accusations. Covert verbal abuse involves hidden aggression, and is even more confusing to the victim.


  • Verbal abuse is about control and manipulation. Even reproachful comments may be voiced in an extremely sincere and concerned way.
  • Verbal abuse is often subtle. The victim’s self-esteem gradually diminishes, usually without them realizing it. They may consciously or unconsciously try to change their behavior so as not to upset the abuser.


  • Verbal abuse is unpredictable.
  • Verbal abuse is not a side issue; it is the issue in the relationship. When a couple is having an argument about a real issue, the issue can be resolved. In a verbally abusive relationship, there is no specific conflict. The issue is the abuse, and this is not resolved. There is no closure.


  • Verbal abuse may escalate, increasing in intensity, frequency, and variety. It may begin with put-downs disguised as jokes and evolve later into other forms. Sometimes it can escalate into physical abuse.
  • Trivializing can also be a form of verbal abuse. It is an attempt to take something that is said or done and make it insignificant.


  • Verbal abuse is blocking and diverting. The abuser refuses to communicate, decides what can and can\’t be discussed, or withholds information.
  • Verbal abuse may also include undermining, threatening, name-calling, forgetting the abuse ever happened and/or giving orders.


Currently, it is thought that verbal abuse may be the worst of the three principle abuse categories (physical, emotional and verbal) because memories of physical or emotional abuse may fade, but insults can often be remembered word for word, indefinitely. Abuse is about control. To escape it, you can take control of your own feelings and the way you communicate without trying to control the other person. Love should not hurt.

The first step in ending verbal abuse is recognizing that you are in a verbally abusive relationship. If your partner often makes malicious comments that hurt you emotionally, seek outside help in putting a stop to it. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is clearly untrue ? words can cause damage. And that damage may stick with you throughout your entire life. Some relationships are much more abusive than others. If you generally have a good relationship but it deteriorates into pointless arguing, you can probably fix it. Even a more abusive relationship may be worth working on if you can see improvements over time. If you seem to be moving in the right direction, don’t ask why, just keep moving. Consider leaving if the abuser will not listen, is inflexible, will not consider counseling, tells everyone that you are crazy or that you are the abuser, wears two masks (a nice one for the world and the abusive one for you) or insists that everything be done their way or the highway.


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