Since the first edition of my book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, I have heard from thousands of people who said, “I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know what.” More than 98% of these were women, although more men are coming forward each year who are suffering on-going verbal abuse from their female partners. It is not surprising that so many women experience verbal abuse from their spouses. After all, verbal abuse defines you and some generations ago, most men defined women as incompetent to vote, own land, or even go to college.
It is important to understand what verbal abuse is and how it is used as a tool to control. Most controlling people are not conscious of themselves as being controlling. Consequently, it is up to everyone else to understand what verbal abuse is, how to respond to it, how it impacts the person it targets, and what is wrong with the person who indulges in it.
Just what is verbal abuse? Verbal abuse includes: withholding, bullying, defaming, defining, trivializing, harassing, interrogating, accusing, blaming, blocking, countering, diverting, lying, berating, taunting, putting down, edifying, discounting, threatening, name-calling, yelling and raging.
Verbal abuse attempts to limit or bring down your consciousness or ability to act. It defines you in a negative way, threatens you, silences you, or even defines you as non-existent by means of giving you the silent treatment. If someone tells you that you are too sensitive, crazy, stupid, or something similar, they are saying something verbally abusive. They are defining you as something other than what you are. Verbal abuse is not just name-calling. There are many ways that verbal abuse can adversely define you.
What constitutes a verbally abusive relationship? If you respond to being called “too sensitive” with something like, “Hey, don’t call me names,” or “What did you just say?” and the perpetrator doesn’t immediately apologize and promise not to do it again, then you are most likely in a verbally abusive relationship. The same is true if someone defines you in ways you are not. For example, they respond to your complaint with, “you’re trying to start a fight,” or “you just want to have the last word.” They have not only told you what you are (too sensitive) as if they knew, but also told you your motive (want to fight) as if they knew. This is considered abusive. And, if this is occurring regularly, it does constitute a verbally abusive relationship!
Why is this kind of defining considered abusive? No one knows what you are, what you think, feel, want, or what you are doing. You are self-defining. If another person asks “How would you describe yourself?” they are expressing curiosity about you. If you say I’m a person who loves to read, go to the theater, or work in my garden, then you are self defining. That person might also ask, “What didn’t you like about that joke,” or “Why did that bother you?” These are okay as well. In contrast, abusive statements might be “You can’t take a joke,” or “You’re blowing everything out of proportion.”
Verbal abuse can occur in any kind of relationship or situation. It can occur even when there is no close personal relationship, for instance when a bully goes after a classmate. Whether the abuser is in a close personal relationship with the target or is a virtual stranger, verbal abusers have at least one thing in common: they invade another persons “space.” That means that they behave as if they live within the target, as if they know what the target is, thinks, feels, is doing, wants, should do, had done, and so forth.
The impact of verbal abuse is tremendous. I have had calls from women who have been battered, even after coming out of a hospital, who say, “I just want you to know the verbal abuse was worse.” Of course, there are life threatening injuries and death from battering, so this comparison is not universal. However, for many women, verbal abuse is debilitating, both psychologically and physically.
How does verbal abuse affect the target psychologically? It creates emotional pain and mental anguish. It creates self-doubt, impairing the targeted person’s ability to make clear choices. It is crazy-making if one does not recognize it for what it is. Verbally abused people ask, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel so bad?” They become depressed. And, because it usually takes place behind closed doors, no one seems to understand what they are going through. The abused may develop insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Many women, who are battered once or even a few times in ten years, don’t really see themselves as battered wives until they understand how the pattern of verbal abuse has clouded their perceptions. Verbal abuse is part of all domestic violence. On the other hand, some women are verbally abused throughout their relationship and have never been battered. Some say, “I wish he’d hit me so people would see the wounds.”
How does verbal abuse impact women physically? Women, who experience verbal abuse over time usually become
exhausted. They may develop chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia or a stress related illness. Some over eat to temper their emotional pain, becoming obese. Headaches, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, hypertension and heart problems are common. Over all, verbally abused women’s immune system can be compromised by the ongoing stress.
If at any time you are defined in a negative way, threatened, raged at, put down, or lied to – know that it is verbal abuse. It is important to know that explaining yourself to the abuser doesn’t work. This is so for two reasons: The abuser is not behaving rationally so won’t comprehend a rational explanation. And, the abuser is not hearing you address the real problem: which is that he is defining you as if he knows what you are, your motives, thoughts, and so forth.
Here are some suggestions for responding to a verbal abuser When an abusive statement is made, respond with, “What did you just say?” When he repeats it, laugh while you say “That’s what I thought you said!” This approach may demonstrate how wrong the statement was. You might define yourself and say, “That’s silly, you aren’t me. You don’t know what I am (or what I’m trying to do, or what I want, and so forth).” If the abuser is yelling, you may choose to state that they are yelling and leave for a day or two. If the abuser is dangerous to you, then it may be a good idea not to respond to the statements and make a plan an exit strategy.
Resources from Patricia Evans
Books on www.verbalAbuse.com explore the topic in great detail.
Watch: MTV ad against verbal abuse voiced by Helena Bonham Carter. Please note that this is graphic and may be uncomfortable to watch.
Printed with permission from Patricia Evans. Copyright ©Patricia Evans. All rights reserved.