Some of the following questions may help you to work out whether you are being verbally abused in less obvious ways, or whether you are being verbally abusive towards your partner:
Does your partner speak to you differently in private and in public?
Do you often leave a discussion with your partner feeling completely confused?
Does your partner deny being angry or upset when he/she very obviously is?
Does your partner act as though you were attacking them when you try to explain your feelings?
Does your partner discount your opinions or experiences?
You feel as though no matter how hard you try, you just don’t seem to be able to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your partner as he/she always seems to misunderstand you, and/or it always seems to cause an argument no matter how you try to approach the subject?
Do you feel nervous or avoid discussing issues which disturb you with your partner because you ‘know’ that trying to discuss them will just leave you feeling even more upset?
Do you feel as though your self-esteem and your self-confidence have decreased?
Do you find yourself spending a lot of time working out either how not to upset your partner or wondering what you did or said which did upset your partner?
The above are just some indicators that verbal abuse may be an issue in your relationship. Some facts which generally apply to verbal abuse:
Verbal abuse tends to be secretive, ie happens in private.
Verbal abuse tends to increase over time, as both abuser and victim adapt to it.
Verbal abuse discounts your perception of reality and denies itself.
Verbal abuse is usually part of a pattern which is difficult to recognise and leaves us with a feeling of confusion and upset without really understanding why.
Verbal abuse uses words (or silence) to gain and maintain control.
From time to time we are all likely to say something which is nasty and abusive to our partner or our children. Usually when we realise that what we have said is hurtful, we feel sorry for the hurt we have caused and apologise. Verbal abusers are not likely to apologise, not because they don’t realise that they have been hurtful, but because that is their aim.
I lived in fear constantly. He rarely hit anyone; he didn’t have to. The threats, coupled with the verbal and emotional abuse, were more than enough to keep us all under his control. (from Carla’s Story)
Categories of Verbal Abuse
Patricia Evans, in her book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship – How to Recognise it and How to Respond” lists 15 different categories of verbal abuse commonly employed by verbal abusers, which we will have a closer look at below. The categories Patricia Evans lists are: withholding, countering, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as a joke, blocking and diverting, accusing and blaming, judging and criticising, trivialising, undermining, threatening, name calling, forgetting, ordering, denial and abusive anger.
“I want us to be happy.” Those are Lauren’s own words. For there to be an ‘us’, we both need a voice. I needed to matter too. “What’s that supposed to mean?” or “You’re telling me….” I felt like I was being analyzed, interpreted, manipulated, lead to a witness stand confession and forced into another apology for something I didn’t really say or do. I heaped anger on me for feeling beaten down and damned to silence by the very person I wanted to spend a life with. (from Donald’s Story)
Withholding basically involves withholding oneself from the normal intimacy needed for a close relationship. We may experience it as a prolonged silence, or an unwillingness to interact with us, or simply get the impression that our partner never shares themselves with us. Where one partner is withholding, there can be no intimate relationship, no exchange of feelings, opinions or thoughts, the whole fabric which is meant to mesh a relationship together is lacking. We end up feeling alone in our relationship and often wondering what we have done wrong to alienate our partner.
When I wasn’t being beaten I was ignored for days on end, I was sent to Coventry that much that I even thought of moving there. (Joanne’s Story)
Countering is as it sounds, countering or opposing any thought, opinion or feeling. If we state that we feel as though there is a growing distance between us as a couple, a counterer would respond with an adamant “you’re wrong”, as though we had just stated a verifiable fact and the counterer knew better. Our reality is being undermined, our perceptions and opinions are opposed. Countering renders any discussion impossible, as the counterer doesn’t listen to our opinion or feelings, but simply opposes anything we may say. A tell-tale sign of dealing with a counterer is that phrases such as ‘I feel’, ‘I think’ or ‘I get the impression’ are neither used by the counterer nor accepted as personal (and therefore valid) opinions when we voice them.
Discounting means giving our feelings, emotions, thoughts and opinions lesser value, and in so doing, devaluing or discounting us. Discounting tells us that our thoughts and experiences are worth nothing. If we are upset, we may be told that we are making a mountain out of a molehill, imagining things, too sensitive, can’t take a joke, too serious, etc etc etc. Basically any statement which tries to discount or deny our reality as we perceive it. We end up wondering whether our partner is right and we are imagining things, too sensitive, etc. We lose our willingness to trust in our own judgment and perception.
When verbal abuse is disguised as a joke it simply isn’t funny. It may be a disparaging comment said with a laugh or a smile, but which actually feels more like an attack on our competencies, abilities or values, or it may be a sexist joke which we find offensive. If we verbalise that we don’t think it was funny, we may then be discounted (“You don’t know how to take a joke.”) or our partner may get angry with us. Some abusers also purposely frighten or scare us and then laugh, as though it were funny when it was actually designed to give us a fright.
In social situations I was often the butt of his jokes, and some of them hurt. If I got upset he would make it look like I was the crazy one by loudly proclaiming that he was only kidding and that I was being too sensitive, so I taught myself to keep my mouth shut and brush it off whenever he said or did something that hurt. (from Sadie’s Story )
Blocking and Diverting are both ways of preventing or controlling a discussion or changing the topic. An example of blocking is simply refusing to discuss an issue, while diverting changes the discussion from the original topic to one of the abusers choice, often by criticising us in some way so that we end up trying to defend ourselves or explain ourselves and lose sight of the original aim of the conversation.
I tried talking to Pat about the way he was treating me but it was like talking to a brick wall. He didn’t want to hear it. (from Sadie’s Story )
“When I want your opinions, I’ll ask for them.” That hurt me. (from Donald’s Story)
Blaming and accusing are self-evident and consist of statements or retorts which are designed to shift the blame and the emphasis from abuser onto victim. While it is easy to pick up blaming and accusing when we are, for instance, accused of sleeping with someone else, it is not so easy to recognise phrases such as “You always have to have the last word” as an accusation.
“When things went his way he was wonderful. When they didn’t, well, he snapped at me and blamed me whether it was my fault or not. If I got upset or challenged him, he’d get even angrier and then bellow and threaten until I backed down.” (Sadie’s Story)
Judging and criticising are ways in which our partner shows his/her lack of acceptance of us as an individual. Phrases such as “you always think you are right” are an example of judging – our abuser believes he/she can know and judge us better than we can ourselves. Comments disguised as being ‘constructive criticism’ are often actually judgmental, critical and abusive, eg statements starting with “The problem with you is …”. Making critical statements or telling critical ‘stories’ about you to third parties are also in the same abusive category.
He would nit-pick on the tiniest, stupidest things, and make me feel like an idiot. It seemed like he enjoyed pointing out my shortcomings and mistakes and was constantly referring to me as stupid, idiot, or moron. Pretty soon I believed it. I had always been extremely self-critical, but after a while I began to hate myself for being such an incompetent fool who couldn’t do anything right. And even when I did manage to do something right it was still never quite good enough for him, so I was still wrong. (from Sadie’s Story)
Robert started to say that people were commenting on what I was wearing and that I looked a bit of a slapper which was one of his favourite words, and that I should try and tone it down a bit, he was so convincing that I believed him. (from Joanne’s Story)
Trivialising is telling your partner in some way that what they do is not significant, not valuable or not worth doing. Abusers tend to trivialise our interests and hobbies, our achievements and often our work or jobs (lack of appreciation for the work of a stay-at-home mum being an obvious one). We may feel confused or that we have not explained ourselves very well so that our partner simply doesn’t understand.
Threats are an overt form of verbal abuse, like yelling and shouting. Threats are designed to frighten us and verbally beat us into submission. Usually we will be threatened either with pain or with loss, and the abuser will often choose threats based on his/her knowledge of what we value most or what we are most afraid of. In the context of physical abuse, threats can be as debilitating as the violence itself. Threats are also often made to prevent us from leaving an abusive relationship or to persuade us back after leaving.
He told me if I didn’t take any pride in the way I looked he would cheat on me. (from Belinda’s Story)
Name calling again is an overt, obvious form of verbal abuse, designed to hurt or degrade us. Terms of endearment can also be used in an abusive way, when spoken with obvious sarcasm for example.
He gave me a nick name which referred to me looking like a duck.[Muggy quacks.] He called me this in a ‘loving’ manner and manipulated me into thinking it was true. (from Belinda’s Story)
His campaign of degradation intensified. He stopped being ‘nice’ about it and started calling me a whore, slut and ‘skettel’ [patois for cheap prostitute]. These words went through me like a hot knife through butter. (from Belinda’s Story)
Forgetting includes denial and manipulation. Verbal abusers will conveniently ‘forget’ incidents or promises which are of importance to us – especially previous incidents of verbal abuse. Denying by ‘forgetting’ (rather than blatant denial) what has happened consistently is way beyond the normal forgetfulness which we all sometimes have, and is in itself abusive.
Ordering is another overt form of verbal abuse. If our partner orders us about, he/she is not treating us as an equal individual but as a servant or someone who is exists to fulfil the abusers wishes and needs. Ordering someone around is an obvious indication that the abuser believes he/she has the right to dominate and have power over us.
He took to ordering me around instead of asking, and if I balked or didn’t jump when he wanted something I’d get a withering verbal tirade, so I learned to jump really fast. I’d still get the tirade, but the faster I jumped the faster it would end. He felt that since I was his wife he didn’t need to be polite, and I soon discovered that trying to convince him otherwise was a useless proposition. (from Sadie’s Story )
Denial underpines most abuse. A verbal abuser will deny outright that he/she has in any way been verbally abusive or that his/her behaviour unacceptable. Denial is dangerous for us because it denies our experiences, and often turns reality on its head. When our partner denies outright that a conversation or disagreement has taken place, that any hurt or upset has been caused, or that he/she was shouting and angry, we may begin to doubt our own perceptions.
Abusive Anger is something only too many of us are familiar with. It is that unexplicable explosion of rage which we try to pacify, and that brooding uneasiness we can sense just in the presence of our partner. When we ask our partner what they are angry about, the anger is likely to be denied outright, or we are likely to be verbally abused in some of the ways described above.
He said the problems in our marriage were because of me, that he didn’t have a problem. That he got angry because of what I did or how I was; if I would just be better, than he wouldn’t have to get angry. So I fixed his favorite gourmet meals, cleaned the house, said the right things and tried to change myself, thinking he would stop being angry. But he always found something else to be angry about.