How to Identify and Respond to Verbal Abuse in Your Relationship

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Verbal abuse can be difficult to identify and, regrettably, it can also be a common type of abuse in some relationships. Masters of manipulation, verbal abusers 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 insidious—and can be as harmful as physical abuse.

What Is Verbal Abuse?

Verbal abuse is an act of violence with speech, which can include forcefully criticizing, insulting, or denouncing another person.

"Verbal abuse can be any way a partner uses their language to exert control in the relationship," says Amelia Peck, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "It can be speech that is used to make a partner feel less valued or important in the relationship." Verbal abuse often targets someone's insecurities, but it can vary in form, ranging from shouting and humiliation to more subtle and manipulative tactics.

Meet the Expert

Amelia Peck is a licensed marriage and family therapist with 10 years of experience. She offers online therapy services for clients based in New York and California.

Physical abuse is easily identifiable. There is no doubt that if you've been hit or injured by your partner, you have been abused. 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 signs to watch out for in your relationship.

Common Signs of Verbal Abuse

They Call You Names

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 are more like backhanded compliments. These can be harder to identify—but trust your gut. Verbal abusers often use "constructive" criticism to negatively affect their partner's self-esteem. "Generally speaking, verbal abusers use their words to target insecurities and feelings of shame in their partners," says Peck.

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

They Put You Down

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. Any comments that make you feel inferior or ashamed are often intentional by the abuser. "When a partner is verbally abusive, they do not have equality in the relationship at the center of their values," says Peck. "They work to make their partner feel 'less-than' to gain a sense of power in the relationship." 

They Raise 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 and have to censor what you say around them, it's not a good sign. If your partner is emotionally volatile and shouts to intimidate you, you probably won't feel safe in the relationship.

They Use Threats to Intimidate You

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. It's especially important to take a threat seriously if it causes you to change your behavior or feel on guard.

They Blame You for Their Actions

If your spouse loses their temper, do they 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 may be intentionally convoluted to confuse you, resulting in your apologies for their actions. They may then be overly affectionate to make you believe that they never really hurt you.

"It’s important to remember that people in abusive relationships aren’t always experiencing volatile abuse 100 percent of the time," says Peck. "Often, after an abusive episode, couples make up and have a sort of 'honeymoon phase' for a bit. This is a piece that leads to emotional complexity and leads victims to justify their partner’s abuse or take the blame for it."

They Dismiss Your Feelings

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. 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.

"Many clients of mine who have experienced or are experiencing verbal abuse in a relationship are also feeling the effects of emotional abuse and gaslighting," says Peck. "They often report their partners telling them they feel a certain way, which is contradicting what they really feel (or think they really feel; the abuse makes that emotional awareness very challenging for some victims)." 

They Manipulate You

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.

Signs You Are a Victim of Verbal Abuse

You Have Low Self-Esteem

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. Peck says her clients report that verbal and emotional abuse "leads them to believe anything wrong in the relationship is their fault or that their lack of happiness or satisfaction in the relationship is a result of them not trying hard enough."

You Feel Like a Different Person

When someone abuses you, it can change the way you feel about yourself. You become so caught up in the relationship and trying to avoid upsetting your partner that you abandon the person you used to be. You lose your voice and let go of personal boundaries. If you find yourself justifying abuse in your relationship for any reason when in the past you would have never imagined putting up with the behavior, it's probably time to seek help.

"Often, I hear clients say a justification for staying in the relationship was that 'at least' the abuse wasn’t physical," says Peck. "Physical or not, the abuse is real, and when I hear people use this type of justification in their narrative, it makes me realize how much they’ve had to repress their own feelings and emotions and have struggled to find their own voice in their life," says Peck.

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. "When I hear people say they’re too afraid to say something because of how their partner will respond, in a way that seems to trigger some sense of fear, I begin to assess for signs of abuse or safety concerns," says Peck.

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. "Listen to those feelings that go against what you know is right for you. If you’re being told in any way your feelings, thoughts, emotions aren’t valued, it’s time to reach out for some support to help you get into a healthier space," says Peck.

When you realize you are being abused, try to focus on getting help. Here are some dos and donts to consider if you're faced with verbal abuse:

  • Do: Seek counseling with a relationship therapist, 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: Leave the marriage or relationship (when nothing else helps). If you make this decision, hire an attorney familiar with domestic violence, stay in close contact with your support system, and focus on learning positive coping skills.
  • Do: Seek out a shelter if you feel that you are in danger after taking steps to leave the relationship.
  • Don't: Engage in conflict with your abuser. If your abuser becomes angry, stay calm, walk away, and don’t give them a reaction.
  • Don't: Blame yourself for someone else’s behaviors.
  • Don't: Stay in a relationship with someone who is hurting you
  • Don't: Tell yourself that you don't deserve to be treated better.
  • Don't: Ignore your thoughts, feelings, and instincts.

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 start on the road toward a fulfilling future. "The more clear and aware you get of yourself as a person, your values, standards, boundaries, the more you’re going to be aware when you are in a relationship with someone who does not respect those things," says Peck.

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