Verbal abuse can be difficult to identify, and regrettably can also be a common type of abuse in some marriages. Not all words that are meant to hurt are "ugly words." A master of verbal abuse can damage your self-esteem while simultaneously appearing 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 that if you've been hit or injured by your partner, you have been abused. With physical abuse, you don’t second-guess yourself: There is often visible proof on your body 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. While both can have long-term effects like low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and more, emotional abuse can be difficult to define without knowing the signs.
If you're concerned that you may be experiencing verbal abuse, read on to learn about identifiers to watch out for in your relationship.
Common Signs of Verbal Abuse
Negative name-calling is a sign of verbal abuse. If the name feels like a put-down to you, it likely was meant to be. Some names are unquestionably abusive, while others come as veiled attempts to make a spouse feel hurt. These can be harder to identify—but trust your gut. Verbal abusers often use constructive criticism to negatively affect their partner.
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, or mocking words that are meant to put you down (either alone or in front of other people) are a type of abuse. These may be comments about the way you dress, how you talk, or your intelligence. "If you are unsure of whether you are the victim of verbal abuse, chances are that you are. If your abuser’s words (or lack thereof) constantly hurt you, you are almost certainly in a verbally abusive relationship," says author and professor Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci., P.h.D. Any comments that make you feel inferior or ashamed are often intentional by the abuser.
Raising Their Voice
When a spouse resorts to yelling without much provocation, you may be understandably worried that anything you say will set them off. If you feel like you're walking on eggshells, it may be easier to pinpoint their behavior when considering your own reactions to their raised voice.
Using Threats to Intimidate
Threats to your life or your body can create fear—whether they're empty or not. No threat should be taken lightly. Even if your spouse tells you they're only joking, there shouldn't be concerns about your safety in a healthy relationship. "Many victims get so used to [abuse] that they actually become immune to it. People in these unfortunate relationships need to see that the danger is clear and present," says Licensed Psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D. It's especially important to take a threat seriously if it causes you to change your behavior or feel on guard.
If your spouse loses their temper, do they sometimes blame you for their actions or subsequent behavior? This is called victim-blaming, and it's a sign of verbal abuse frequently associated with narcissistic personalities. The reasons—or excuses—they describe to blame you may be intentionally convoluted to confuse you, resulting in your apologies for their actions.
Your Feelings Are Dismissed
When your spouse refuses to discuss issues that upset you, they might be avoiding responsibility. Conversations about actions and words that hurt you are ended, and issues that reflect poorly on their behavior are dismissed. "What characterizes all forms of verbal abuse is that words, or the lack thereof, are used to control another person in a way that harms them emotionally," says Brogaard. This is also a form of gaslighting: Concerns are ignored, and your partner insists that certain events "didn't happen" or you're remembering things wrong. Gaslighting can make you question your own reality, leading back to a cycle of victim-blaming.
Manipulating Your Actions
The persistent, and intense, use of threatening words may lead you to do things or act in ways 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'll say whatever it takes to play on your emotions and keep you in the marriage. It's an attempt to make you comply with their desires—regardless of what's best for you as an individual.
You Have Low Self-Esteem and Feel Like a Different Person
You find yourself burying your feelings, trying not to upset your partner, and working so hard at keeping the peace that every day becomes an emotional chore. You may feel depressed or wonder sometimes if you're crazy. You turn your stress inward. Punishing yourself for your partner's behavior, you feel like it's all happening in your head. "The victim in a verbally abusive relationship needs to learn to set strong boundaries, and may even have to leave the relationship for a time," says Goldsmith. It's important to remember that your abuser is responsible for these feelings: They are an extension of the emotional abuse in your relationship.
You Feel Like You're Walking on Eggshells
If you don't have feelings of safety and security when your partner is around, you may feel the need to guard every word you speak. Everything you do or say is never good enough. When you feel like you can't be yourself to the fullest extent, it might be time to reevaluate your relationship and the role you want to play in it.
How to Respond to Verbal Abuse in a Relationship
Abuse is never justified. Remind yourself that it is not your fault—and consider your options for walking away when you experience it. If the person you love is verbally abusive and dismissive of your feelings, you might not see yourself (and your needs) as important. You are.
"Because you don't have any visible proof of the abuse, you may be wary of confiding in others. You may doubt that others will believe you…The people you trust are going to be on your side," says Brogaard. When you realize you are being abused, try to focus on getting help. Here are some Do's and Don'ts to consider if you're faced with verbal abuse:
- Do: Seek counseling, either together or separately.
- Do: Surround yourself with a support system of family and friends who can validate your experiences. Discuss with them what is happening and how you're feeling.
- Do: Communicate with your abuser about their hurtful words, and discuss that this behavior is unacceptable to you. Set boundaries on what you will and will not accept in a relationship.
- Do: Take back your power. If you react to your abuser, you are rewarding them by showing that they have power over your emotions. Don’t allow the abuser to have control over how you feel or act.
- Do: Leave the marriage (when nothing else helps). If setting boundaries, getting therapy, and refusing to respond to abuse doesn’t work, then you may need 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.
- Don't: Engage in conflict with your abuser. If your abuser becomes angry, stay calm, walk away, and don’t give them a reaction.
Even though verbal abuse doesn't leave a visible mark, those who experience it still suffer emotionally. Your experience should not be dismissed. By showing yourself the care you'd show for others, you can be the first to validate your experience (and start the road to a fulfilling future).