Verbal abuse is more than just harsh words hurled in the heat of an argument. It’s a calculated effort to demean, frighten, and control another person. Over time, it eats away at a person’s self-esteem and emotional well-being, often with the potential to escalate into physical abuse, domestic violence, or child abuse.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of verbal abuse, know you’re not to blame. Awareness of verbal abuse patterns is the first step toward spotting the red flags and ultimately protecting yourself. In the following article, we provide an overview of verbal abuse, the steps you can take to regain control of your life, and guidance on creating healthier, more supportive relationships.
Defining Verbal Abuse
Research suggests one in five college women has experienced verbal abuse by a dating partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Moreover, 43% of dating college women report having experienced abusive and violent dating behaviors, including verbal or other controlling abuse.
Yet emotional abuse is not limited to a romantic relationship. Verbal abuse can occur in the workplace, parent-child and other family relationships, and social situations.
Part of the issue with identifying verbal abuse is that it can be subtle, as noted in this article, 5 Signs You’re In an Abusive Relationship. In addition, if you have low self-worth, you might accept abusive behavior as normal and fail to notice the patterns of abuse.
As a starting point for defining verbal abuse, you can think of it as a behavior pattern where one person uses words to gain control over another. Abuse can manifest as insults, threats, manipulation, and more.
Differentiating between healthy communication and verbal abuse is essential to discerning the differences between construction conversations and abusive behavior. Whereas healthy communication fosters understanding, respect, and empathy, verbal abuse seeks to harm and control. Understanding the gravity of this issue is the first step in addressing it.
Common Verbal Abuse Patterns
Verbal abusers employ specific patterns and tactics to manipulate and control their victims. It’s essential to recognize that verbal abuse isn’t always loud and aggressive; it can be subtle and insidious. Let’s explore some common patterns.
Definitions of gaslighting differ, depending on the source. The term comes from a 1938 play and 1944 film of a similar name, “Gaslight,” in which a husband convinces his wife she has a mental illness.
Far from a pop culture phenomenon, however, gaslighting is a manipulation tactic used to make victims doubt their reality. Abusers deny their actions or words, making victims feel like they are losing their minds and eroding their self-confidence.
In verbal abuse patterns, gaslighting manifests as controlling behavior that diminishes the victim’s sense of reality. Gaslighters’ goal is to maintain control by shifting the balance of power in their favor.
Verbal abusers frequently resort to name-calling and derogatory language to demean their victims. Such language undermines self-esteem and creates emotional turmoil.
The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse that involves deliberately ignoring or refusing to communicate with a partner. By intentionally withdrawing from interaction, the abuser exerts control and punishes the victim, often resulting in victims lacking a feeling of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence. Most people compare it with stonewalling, but these two differ when it comes to intent. They may look similar in some ways, but unlike the intentional silent treatment, stonewalling is a coping behavior a person subconsciously does when he or she is angry or overwhelmed with emotions.
Abusers often deflect responsibility for their actions by blaming their victims. In the heat of an argument, they might say words to the effect of:
- “You made me do this.”
- “It’s your fault.”
- “If you listened to me, I wouldn’t have to yell.”
- “You know how upset I get when you forget to make the kids’ lunches.”
These manipulation tactics keep victims in a constant state of guilt, as though their actions directly result in calamities. The blame game keeps the abuser on a pedestal while the victim bears the responsibility when things go awry.
Threats and Intimidation
Threatening behavior, whether it’s physical, emotional, or financial, is a clear sign of verbal abuse. Abusers use these tactics to keep their victims compliant and afraid.
Threats are not only frightening but might escalate into physical abuse. They include scare tactics that keep victims in a state of fear. Abusers might say things like, “I’m taking the kids and calling social services on you,” or “Talk to the neighbor again, and you’re not getting an allowance next week.”
Recognizing the Red Flags
The above verbal abuse patterns are some of the behaviors abusers might employ. When you start to recognize verbal abuse patterns, it becomes easier to identify the red flags that you’re dealing with a verbal abuser — so you can take steps to shield yourself from abuse.
To help you identify verbal abuse patterns, look closely at the typical red flags and warning signs of verbal and emotional abuse.
1. Constant Criticism
If you constantly hear criticism, no matter how small the issue, it could be a sign of verbal abuse. An abuser aims to break down your self-esteem.
Abusers often isolate their victims from friends and family, creating a sense of dependency. If you find yourself cut off from your support network, it’s a red flag.
3. Manipulative Behavior
Recognize manipulation tactics, such as guilt-tripping or playing the victim. Verbal abusers use these techniques to maintain control.
4. Frequent Anger
Explosive, unpredictable anger can be a sign of verbal abuse. Angry outbursts keep victims on edge and compliant.
5. Withholding Affection
A sudden withdrawal of affection or emotional support is another tactic to control and manipulate. If your partner frequently withholds affection, consider it a warning sign.
6. Invasion of Privacy
Reading your texts and emails, monitoring your activities, tracking your location, and other invasions of privacy are typical for abusers. If someone crosses the privacy line without your consent, it violates boundaries and trust.
Verbal abusers often dismiss your feelings or experiences, making you doubt your emotions and perceptions.
8. Threats of Violence
Any threat of physical harm is something to take seriously — for instance, “If you go out with your friends, I can’t be held responsible for what happens when you get home.”
The critical factor to remember with red flags is that if someone routinely threatens you, belittles you, and makes you feel like you’re less than the person you are, they are likely engaging in verbal abuse. Red flags might also look like:
- Accusatory or humiliating language.
- Frequent yelling and screaming at you.
- Seemingly out-of-the-blue arguments that end with you shouldering the blame.
- Attempts to flip the script where they try to play the role of victim.
- “Jekyll and Hyde” behavior where the abuser demeans you privately but acts differently around others.
- Behavior that toes the line between verbal and physical abuse, such as punching walls or blocking you from moving through space.
Addressing verbal abuse is a complex and often emotionally charged process, but there are several steps you can take to regain control of your life. Firstly, consider confronting the abuser. While this step can be challenging, addressing the issue directly may lead to positive change. It’s crucial to approach this situation with caution and, if needed, seek professional guidance for support. Trained professionals can help you navigate common mistakes couples make during conflict and learn how to resolve issues without blaming, yelling, or avoiding the situation.
Seeking professional assistance is a critical step, especially when abusers aren’t willing to engage in counseling. Therapy, counseling, or support groups can be invaluable in dealing with verbal abuse’s emotional and psychological effects and rebuilding self-esteem. These professionals are well-equipped to provide the guidance and strategies necessary for your recovery.
In severe cases of verbal abuse, especially when it escalates into physical violence or harassment, legal action and other steps may be necessary. Getting to safety and consulting with a legal expert can help you remove yourself from dangerous situations and explore legal avenues for protection and justice. For immediate assistance, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
Finding the Support You Need
Creating a robust support network is vital in breaking free from an abusive relationship. Reach out to friends, family, and support groups that can provide emotional support, practical assistance, and a safe space to heal and recover. Remember that you don’t have to face this journey alone; people and resources are available to help you through this challenging time.
Additionally, here are some actionable tips for survivors:
- Seek therapy: Consider therapy to work through the trauma and emotional scars of verbal abuse. A therapist can help you rebuild your self-esteem and self-worth.
- Practice self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. Healing takes time, and it’s essential to be patient with your journey to healing.
- Establish healthy boundaries: Learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships, a crucial aspect of self-care and self-protection.
- Build a positive self-image: Engage in activities and hobbies that make you feel confident and capable, from yoga and martial arts to painting and journaling. Surround yourself with positive influences.
Verbal abuse is a serious issue. However, recognizing the signs, understanding verbal abuse patterns, and taking action can help individuals take steps toward safeguarding their well-being and fostering healthier, more supportive relationships. Remember, you are not alone in this battle, and there is hope for a brighter, abuse-free future.