How to Identify and Respond to Verbal Abuse in Your Relationship

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Verbal abuse can be difficult to identify and regrettably also can be a common type of abuse in some marriages. Not all words that are meant to hurt are "ugly words." A master at verbal abuse can damage your self-esteem while they simultaneously appear to care deeply for you. The use of words to punish is a very covert attempt to control, and regardless of how loving your spouse may appear to be, verbal abuse is wrong and can be as harmful as physical abuse.

What Is Verbal Abuse?

Verbal abuse is the act of forcefully criticizing, insulting, or denouncing another person.

Physical abuse is easily identified. There is no doubt in that once you have been hit, you have been physically abused. You don’t second guess yourself because the bruises and scars are visible proof that abuse has taken place. Verbal abuse is different. The damage is internal, and there are no physical bruises or scars—just a wounded spirit and sense of self-esteem.

Common Signs of Verbal Abuse

Name-calling: Any negative form of name-calling is unacceptable. If you feel that it is a put-down, then it most likely is. There are names that are unquestionably abusive and then there are veiled attempts to put a spouse down that can be harder to identify. Verbal abusers love to use constructive criticism to beat a spouse down.

If your spouse is constantly criticizing you “for your own good,” this may be a red flag. This is the most insidious form of verbal abuse.

Using words to shame: Critical, sarcastic, mocking words are meant to put you down either alone or in front of other people comprise abuse. These may be comments about the way you dress, talk, or your intelligence. Any comment to make you feel inferior and ashamed is what the abuser is attempting. 

Raising his or her voice: When a spouse yells easily, you may be understandably worried that anything you say will set them off. This is called the “walking on eggshells” syndrome; it may be easier to pinpoint when considering your own reactions to his or her raised voice. 

Using threats to intimidate: Threats to your life or your person will create fear, whether they are empty or not. No threat should be taken lightly, even if your spouse tells you they are only joking, especially if it causes you to change behaviors or to feel on guard in the relationship. 

Victim-blaming: Your spouse loses their temper and then blames you for their actions and behavior. The excuses used to blame you may be intentionally convoluted to confuse you. 

Your feelings are dismissed: Your spouse refuses to discuss issues that upset you. They avoid discussion of any topic where they might have to take responsibility for his or her actions or words.  

Manipulating your actions: This involves the persistent and intense use of threatening words to get you to do something or act in a way you find uncomfortable. This form of verbal abuse is common at the end of a marriage. If your spouse doesn’t want a divorce, they will say whatever it takes to play on your emotions and to get you to stay in the marriage, all in an attempt to get you to comply with their desires, regardless of what is best for you as an individual.

You have low self-esteem and feel like a different person: You may find yourself burying your feelings, walking on eggshells, and working so hard at keeping the peace that every day becomes an emotional chore. You feel depressed and have even wondered if you are crazy. You are turning your stress inward and punishing yourself for your partner's bad behavior; though it feels like it is happening in your head, your abuser is responsible for these feelings as they are an extension of his or her abuse. 

You feel like you are walking on eggshells. Everything you do and say is never good enough for your abuser. You don't have feelings of safety and security if the abuser is around and you feel the need to guard every word that comes out of your mouth. 

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How to Respond to Verbal Abuse in a Relationship

Abuse is never justified. You should never feel that it is your fault and should walk away when it happens. If the person you love habitually verbally abuses you and dismisses your feelings, you will begin to see yourself and your needs as unimportant and irrelevant.

When you realize you are being abused, you should focus on getting help. Here are some dos and don'ts you should consider if faced with verbal abuse. 

  • Seek counseling, either together or separately.
  • Surround yourself with a support system of family and friends who will validate your feelings. Discuss with them what is happening and how you are feeling.
  • Do not engage in conflict with your abuser. If your abuser becomes angry, stay calm, walk away, and don’t give them a reaction.
  • Communicate to your abuser how hurtful their words are and discuss with them the fact that it is unacceptable to you. Set boundaries on what you will and will not accept from your abuser.
  • Take back your power. If you react to the abuser, you are rewarding them by letting them know they have power over your emotions. Don’t allow the abuser to have control over how you feel.
  • Leave the marriage. If setting boundaries, getting therapy, and refusing to respond to the abuse doesn’t work, then it is time to consider divorce. There are times when the best thing you can do for yourself is to break all ties with your abuser. If you make this decision, hire an attorney familiar with domestic violence, stay in close contact with your support system, and focus on learning good coping skills.

Even though verbal abuse doesn't leave a visible mark, those who experience it suffer emotionally and your experience should not be dismissed.

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