Verbal abuse is one of the most serious forms of domestic abuse, defined by The Verbally Abusive Relationship (1992) author Patricia Evans as ‘a lie told to you or about you. Generally, verbal abuse defines people telling them what they are, what they think, their motives, and so forth.’ Although verbal abuse is sometimes taken less seriously than physical abuse, its victims can suffer psychological effects that last decades or even a lifetime in some cases. But of course, shouting, name-calling, and blaming can all be common aspects of an argument in any relationship (and most couples argue); so how do you know when you are being verbally abused?
Well, to put it simply any occurrence of shouting, name-calling, blaming or critically defining is verbal abuse, just as any isolated occurrence of violence is physical abuse. However, domestic abuse is defined as a pattern of behaviours rather than just one isolated incident, so if you are in a verbally abusive relationship you will have noticed this happening on a regular basis. Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell if your partner is being verbally abusive, but here are some signs to look out for;
- Constant criticism
One of the most common aspects of verbal abuse is constant criticism. This does not just refer to occasions when your partner harshly criticises you in order to intentionally hurt you, but also times when it may seem like the criticism is just a simple observation. Even a low level statement such as ‘you’re not very good at maths, are you?’ repeated over a long period of time can constitute abuse. As Patricia Evans said, this is abusive because it tells you what you are, and is designed to lower your self-esteem.
- Shouting, threatening, profanity and name-calling
Any attempt to make you afraid or diminish you constitutes verbal abuse. This includes shouting anything very loudly in a threatening manner, or actually making any form of threat. Like constant criticism, name-calling can take place on a very low-level basis over a long period of time so that the victim hardly even realises he or she is being abused. Perhaps your partner has an abusive pet-name for you; dummy, idiot, chubby, etc. These are disguised by affection, but can actually be very detrimental to the victim’s self-esteem.
- Humiliation, ridicule and disrespect
Another aspect of verbal abuse is where the abuser will attempt to humiliate, ridicule or disrespect the victim either in public or in private. In private, this can be drawing attention to events, difficulties, or features of the victim’s physical appearance that he or she would rather not have mentioned. For example, the abuser may repeatedly refer to a time when the victim was embarrassed in public, or they may mention constantly an embarrassing inability (for example, if the victim is unable to swim). In public, this could be shouting at the victim in order to humiliate them, or making loud statements designed for other people to hear. All of these behaviours are designed to undermine the victim’s self-esteem and thereby control them.
These are the most common signs of verbal abuse, but there are many more ways your partner can use his or her voice to abuse you. If you are in any doubt, think of Patricia Evan’s definition. Is your partner telling you what you think, what you are, how you feel or what your motives are? Stop and consider whether or not their statements are true, and do not take them at face value. Although they may seem like simple observations, they may be part of a subtle overall attempt to control your behaviour.
If you do feel you are in a verbally abusive relationship, you should take action to stop this pattern of behaviour now.
- Listen to yourself
Verbal abuse can be powerfully convincing. You may begin to believe what your partner is saying about you when they criticise you, and think that the whole situation is your fault. You must remember that domestic abuse is never the victim’s fault. Verbal abuse tends to be particularly manipulative and can often be disguised by jokiness or affection. Do not believe your spouse when they say you are too sensitive or simply can’t take a joke. If you are hurt by their words then their words are hurtful.
- Point out their behaviour
Every time your partner is verbally abusive towards you in any form calmly ask them not to speak to you in that manner. If they continue anyway, or become enraged by your request, remain calm and get out of the situation. Leave the room and close the door. Leave the house if necessary. Do not allow them to continue the abuse. If they become physically violent, leave the situation immediately. Don’t let the situation turn into a heated argument.
- Get help
Don’t try to deal with the situation on your own. Look for advice and support groups online. This will help you to recognise all the behaviours your partner displays that are abusive, and how to deal with them. See a professional counsellor or domestic abuse professional. You may need individual counselling in order to deal with the blow your self-esteem has taken due to the abuse you have suffered. If you feel your relationship is worth saving, couples counselling can help you to work through your communication issues and help your spouse stop seeking to control you. Your spouse may need individual counselling too to work out why these behaviours have arisen and how to stop them.
Whatever you do, do not allow the situation to continue as it is. It will not change spontaneously, and can become much worse over time if you don’t take any action. You don’t deserve to be abused in this way, even if your partner is unaware that their words are abusive.