Not all abuse is physical. There are numerous types of abuse and abusive tactics other than bodily harm that are equally or often times more detrimental to the victim. Verbal abuse is an extremely common and enormously hurtful form of abuse, the effects of which can last a lifetime. In a survey of nearly 2000 survivors, DomesticShelters.org asked, “Did you find verbal abuse more or less damaging, long-term, than physical abuse?” 62% responded that verbal abuse did feel more damaging than physical, 36% felt that all types of abuse they endured were equally damaging, and only 2% felt that physical abuse was more damaging than verbal. Verbal abuse can be difficult to define and to identify. It overlaps substantially with emotional abuse, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. Emotional abuse also intersects, and is frequently used synonymously, with psychological abuse. All of these terms are linked in a cacophony of insidious manipulation and control.
Verbal vs. Emotional vs. Psychological Abuse
Verbal abuse is a pattern of speaking with intent to demean, humiliate, blame, or threaten the victim. It may involve shouting or an angry tone of voice but can also be any manner in which the abuser speaks to the victim to degrade, intimidate, or control them. With emotional abuse, an abuser specifically targets feelings, either those of the victim toward the abuser or vice versa, to achieve the same goal of power and control. They may use verbal tactics to make their victim feel like the abuse is their own fault, that no one else will love them, and/or that the abuser is controlling because they love the victim and want to keep them safe. Psychological abuse is very similar to emotional abuse but includes manipulating more than victims’ feelings to make them dependent on the abuser for the “truth”. Psychological abusers may use techniques such as gaslighting and brainwashing to alter their victims’ sense of reality and perhaps even cause them to question their own sanity. Though less common, the term “mental abuse” is also used in place of, or as a combination of, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse.
For more information on abuse terms and definitions, as well as the difficulties the physical-abuse-focused legal definition of domestic violence presents in seeking protection or prosecution, check out DVSN’s October 2021 blog post, “Defining Domestic Violence: Exploring an Imperfect Term”.
There are a plethora of methods abusers use to emotionally and/or psychologically abuse their victims. As this post is exploring the intersection of these forms of abuse with verbal abuse, it will focus on tactics that use words. However, to better understand the complete picture, here are a few common examples of non-verbal techniques used to emotionally or psychologically abuse victims: use of size or physical positioning to intimidate, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, isolation, limiting access to information, reckless behavior intended to cause fear, and forcing drug and/or alcohol use.
name-calling, insults, put-downs
eg: “You b*tch!”, “You’re too fat!”, “You’re so bad with money!”, “You’re a terrible mother!”
being unfairly negative and critical
eg: “You’re never going to be successful.”, “Don’t even try, you totally screwed it up last time!”, “You’re useless!”
everything is the victim’s fault, including the abuse
eg: “You don’t have any friends because you never listen.”, “You didn’t get the promotion because you’re not good at your job.”, “You made me so angry, I just snapped!”, “Look what you made me do!”
Disguising digs and insults by making the victim the butt of a joke or teasing comment
eg: “Not like this slut over here!”, “She not only kept her hourglass figure, she doubled it! Just kidding!”, “Don’t be so serious; it’s just a joke!”
minimizing accomplishments and abuse, making things seem less/not important
eg: “It wasn’t that good of a dinner!”, “You got the job, but we’ll see how long you can keep it!”, “Any five-year-old can do that!”, “Come on, that didn’t really hurt!”, “You’re too sensitive!”
putting down the victim’s interests and preferences
eg: “That’s so old fashioned!”, “You’re such a bore!”, “Nobody likes those but you!”, “What a waste of time!”
questioning the victim’s ability, knowledge, skills, etc.
eg: “Are you sure you’re right? I don’t think you are”, “Can you handle that?”, “Check it again.”
pushing the victim to make quick decisions and/or to go with the abuser’s choice
eg: “Hurry up, we don’t have all day!”, “Don’t you trust me? Just do it!”
any of the above tactics used in front of others, particularly friends & family, designed to embarrass the victim
eg: “What are you doing? That’s so stupid!”, “I can’t take you anywhere…”, “Why can’t you be more like her?”
displaying overt/unwarranted jealousy and/or attempting to cause jealousy by paying attention/flirting with others
eg: “She looks so much better than you do tonight!”, “I don’t want you to be alone with him!”
always needing to know where the victim is and with whom, keeping tabs on everything a victim does to the point that the victim always has the abuser on their mind, worrying what they will think or do
eg: “Your friends are taking away from our alone time!”, “I need you more than your mother does right now!”, “Where were you?!”, “You should have told me!”
the abuser becomes upset and evades or refuses to respond if the victim questions them
eg: “How dare you ask me that?”, “You don’t need to know where I was.”, “None of your business!”
subtly manipulating a victim to make them doubt reality and think they are crazy. Check out DVSN’s July 2021 blog post “Fostering Self-Doubt: The Manipulative Abuse of Gaslighting” for more details.
eg: “I don’t hear anything. You’re imagining it.”, “You never remember things correctly!”, “I would never say that!”
manipulating how a victim thinks, defining the relationship
eg: “You don’t really want that job. You know you’re not smart enough to do it.”, “You don’t want to hang out with her anymore. She’s not a good friend to you.”, “It will make me so happy if you do that for me!”
turning children against the victim or having children carry messages to the victim or spy on the victim
eg: “Mom didn’t do a very good job of cleaning the house, did she?”, “Who do you like better, Mommy or Daddy?”, “Go tell your father to get in here right now!”, “Did mom talk to anyone when you were in the park today?”
yelling in a rageful/intimidating fashion
eg: “S#*%! F^@$!”, “What the hell!”, “Arrrgh!”
telling the victim they will do/say something or not do/say something if they do not comply with the abuser’s wishes, trapping them using fear
eg: “If you tell anyone, you’ll regret it!”, “No one will believe you!”, “Just do it, or I’ll leave you and take the kids!”, “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself!”
shutting a victim out, ignoring them, not talking to them at all for hours or days to make them feel isolated, despondent, and desperate for the abuser’s acknowledgement and approval or threatened, like they are walking on eggshells and the abuser could explode at any moment
preventing the victim from speaking by cutting them off or accusing them of talking out of turn
eg: “Shut up!”, “Hey – I’m talking now!”, “Don’t bother!”, “Enough!”
Patterns of Verbal, Emotional, Psychological Abuse
Beyond these frequent tactics, there are familiar patterns that verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse often take as far as when they occur and how the victim and abuser interact. Here are some of the most common, drawn primarily from those identified by Patricia Evans’ in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship.
Behind Closed Doors
rarely happens in public, rather when the abuser and victim are completely alone
Comes Out of Nowhere
occurs with no warning signs or build up, when the victim feels everything is going fine in the relationship
When the Victim is Happy
often happens when the victim is visibly enjoying themselves, is enthusiastic about something, or is gaining success somehow, such as a job promotion
Normal Relationship Between Incidents
before and after verbal abuse, the victim feels the relationship is functioning and things are ok
the abuser does not apologize for the abuse and may refuse to talk about it and/or deny they did anything wrong
showering a victim with attention, adoration, gifts to make them fall in love, then beginning to degrade and intimidate them, convince them no one but the abuser will ever love them, and/or being overly sweet and loving after an abusive incident
Escalation Over Time
incidents slowly increase in severity, from joking comments to verbal tirades, for example, and often eventually include other types of abuse
The ramifications of verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse can be sneaky and enduring. Victims may become confused that the person they love(d) and trust(ed) has become their biggest critic and start to question themselves. They may feel responsible or that they deserve the abuse and try to “behave better”, to not make any “mistakes” that trigger it. Some feel guilty for being unhappy with the situation or ashamed that they are experiencing the abuse. They can become subservient and passive, withdrawn and almost invisible, a shell of themselves. Over time, the constant tearing down of the victim’s self-esteem and confidence, sprinkled with moments of positive validation, makes the victim feel dependent on the abuser for their sense of self-worth. Often abusers try to separate victims from their friends and family, but even if they don’t, victims may begin to feel a growing distance, more isolated from their support system, which can compound their reliance on the abuser.
Verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse often lead to issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and thoughts of self-harm. Check out DVSN’s May 2023 blog post, “The Enduring Impact of Abuse on Mental Health” for more details and context. The prolonged stress of dealing with abuse can also compromise one’s immune system and lead to a variety of illnesses and physical issues such as back pain, exhaustion, digestive problems, and chronic headaches (Evans, DomesticShelters). Even after leaving a verbally, emotionally, or psychologically abusive partner, survivors may have a skewed perception of what a healthy relationship is due to that experience. They may have a difficult time trusting people, romantic partners or not. Feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem can persist and bleed into many aspects of their lives and relationships.
Identifying Verbal Abuse
Because of all of the mind-games, mixed emotions, manipulation, and confusion, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse can be extremely difficult to recognize. There are no physical bruises to act as a visible sign to victims or those who wish to support them. Domestic Shelters created a “pop quiz” to help identify emotional abuse. It illustrates five examples of how easy it is for victims to think that abuse is normal, that they are imagining things, or blowing things out of proportion. Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist, psychology professor, and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist says of her clients, “…I always try to bring them back to their sense of instinct. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” People wondering if they are being verbally, emotionally, or psychologically abused can think about how the things their partner says make them feel. Do they often feel demeaned or insulted by their partner? Are they afraid? Are they always “walking on eggshells” around their partner? Does their partner show sincere remorse if they express hurt at their words?
Those wanting more clarity can check out DVSN’s February 2022 blog post, “Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships”, which lays out and contrasts corresponding aspects of relationships that are either normal or abusive, including several of those discussed above. Keeping a journal or some sort of log of incidents can be useful for victims to identify the frequency, severity, and repercussions of abusive incidents and to help them discern between reality and the things their abuser is trying to gaslight, brainwash, and/or manipulate them into believing. DVSN’s May 2021 blog post, “The Essentials of Self-Care”, discusses the concept of self-care, why it is important, and gives some tips for victims and survivors to help manage their stress and mitigate the toll of verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, even in small ways. It also touches on secondary trauma for those lending support. If you are concerned about someone you think might be experiencing abuse, check out DVSN’s May 2022 blog post, “Listen & Believe: That’s All You Need to Do”, for things to keep in mind in order to best assist them.
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