Are You Being Verbally Abused?
Learn to identify and heal from this under-recognized but serious form of abuse
Jackie*, a mother from New York City, was waiting in the car with her 3-year-old daughter while her husband ran into a store. It started pouring and she couldn't put up the windows because the car was off and her husband had the keys. When he returned and saw the car soaked, he flew into a rage, screaming at her and blaming her for the wet seats.
This was typical behavior for her husband. He often reacted to minor incidents with disproportionate anger, though he wouldn't always yell. Sometimes he delivered his insults in a regular speaking voice. He'd criticize her parenting and blame her for doing something wrong if their daughter so much as caught a cold.
"I used to think maybe I did do something wrong," says Jackie. "I didn't, but I would doubt myself."
In between his outbursts, Jackie's husband was charming, loving, and affectionate. And because Jackie grew up with her father similarly belittling her mother, she was accustomed to this kind of behavior. She didn't realize the extent of the abuse at first.
Her reaction is common, says Patricia Harteneck, PhD, MBA, a senior psychologist at the Seleni Institute who notes that people often either downplay verbal abuse or aren't even aware of it. “Patients come to me and they have no idea. They're just complaining about the relationship. When they start describing it, I realize that there's verbal abuse," she says.
Verbal abuse can be difficult to recognize, and the effects of it are often less obvious than physical abuse. But the impact can be devastating, so it's important to know how to identify verbal abuse and where to get support and help if you need it.
Defining verbal abuse and recognizing the signs
"The easiest way to describe verbal abuse is verbal bullying that creates emotional pain and mental anguish in the person it's being done to," says Eris Huemer, PsyD, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles and founder of Second Chances Counseling. It can manifest in a wide range of behaviors, she says, from those that are obvious, like criticizing, lying, blaming, accusing, yelling, name-calling, raging, and threatening, to more subtle and indirect forms, like hurtful jokes or the silent treatment.
One of the first ways to recognize verbal abuse, says Harteneck, is to notice how you feel about the way you are being treated. For example, if you are being subjected to verbal abuse, you may constantly feel invalidated by your partner or believe all the problems in the relationship are your fault. You also might start to notice that your self-esteem is diminishing, or that you frequently doubt yourself. These reactions could all be signs of verbal abuse.
In addition to paying attention to whether your self-esteem is eroding, Huemer says that recognizing patterns in your partner's behavior, like recurring put-downs or mind games, can be helpful in bringing the abuse to light.
Robin*, who lives in the Detroit area, was married to a man who rarely yelled at her. But he did subject her to a variety of abusive behaviors, including direct and indirect put-downs, insults about her physical appearance, sarcastic or mocking jokes at her expense, and doing things to make her doubt her own reality (a behavior known as gaslighting). It was hard for her to see that he was being verbally abusive because his behaviors always changed and were often subtle.
For example, one night at dinner he asked her a question and gave her the silent treatment punctuated by insults because he didn't like her answer. Punishment and control were a big part of the dynamic in their home, she says.
It took Robin 10 years of marriage to realize that she was being verbally abused. It wasn't until she described her husband's behavior to a friend, who questioned his actions, that she realized something was seriously amiss in her relationship. She eventually called a domestic violence hotline, where she was able to get help.
The effects of verbal abuse are serious
It might seem easy to dismiss verbal abuse as just words, but the effects can be incredibly damaging. Verbal abuse can actually be just as detrimental to your health as physical abuse. Huemer says that verbal abuse can cause fear, anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, memory gap disorders, difficulty sleeping, eating problems, hypervigilance, and substance abuse as well as other self-harming behaviors.
For Robin, in addition to anxiety and depression, the verbal abuse left her with a deep sense of shame, paralyzing self-doubt, immense difficulty making decisions and solving problems, and a feeling of immobility and inertia in her life. She also struggles with alcohol abuse because she relied on drinking to take the edge off her anxiety.
Robin, who was also physically abused in a previous relationship, says the damage from the verbal abuse was worse because it remained with her long after the abuse was delivered. "[With physical abuse] it's over and done, and you can heal and recover from it," she says. "The wounds of verbal abuse devastate the psyche and self-esteem."
Verbal abuse is not your fault
Many people blame themselves for the abuse say both Harteneck and Huemer. This can come from erosion of self-esteem as well as the abuser's messages that the victim (rather than the perpetrator) is to blame. So the first step to getting help is understanding that a partner's behavior is abusive, and labeling it as such. When you are able to recognize that someone is being verbally abusive, you can take a step back and see that your partner is treating you this way because of a problem he or she has, and not because of anything you did, says Harteneck.
Labeling her husband's treatment of her as verbal abuse was a pivotal moment for Robin. When she described her husband's behavior to the person at the domestic violence hotline, Robin was told she was being verbally abused. Although she was shocked to discover this, naming it opened her eyes to the severity of her situation and prompted her to take steps to seek help.
How to get help for verbal abuse
For victims of verbal abuse, going to therapy can help build self-esteem and address depression, anxiety, and other symptoms that may have resulted from the abuse. Huemer says that a therapist can also work with you on setting boundaries and limits with your partner, and even help you formulate a plan to get out of the relationship if you choose.
Attending a women's support group led by a trained professional can also be beneficial. When Robin went to a support group, she found "there were similar voices and similar stories. [The abusers'] patterns are pretty predictable, and to see that predictability in other women's [experiences] was very helpful."
If you can't afford mental healthcare or don't know where to start, there are low and no-cost options available. And because verbal abuse is considered a form of domestic violence, organizations provide resources for victims of verbal as well as physical and other types of abuse. You can call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233, which is free and confidential. They can not only help you identify what is happening in your relationship, but will provide you with a vetted list of domestic violence programs in your area where you can find support groups, professional help, and, if necessary, practical and emotional support for ending the relationship.
How to know when you need to leave the relationship
Sometimes it's possible to salvage the relationship, but it takes a lot of work from both partners and a sincere effort on the part of the abuser, according to Huemer. "The only way that it's really workable is if the person who's being verbally abusive is willing to get help and make permanent changes, and you see those changes immediately," she says. These changes also need to be lasting, says Huemer, and not just part of a cycle in which the abuser feels remorseful and promises to change, modifies his or her behavior temporarily, but eventually returns to the same abusive patterns – again and again.
If an abuser refuses to address the behavior and the abuse continues, then it's probably best to end the relationship. But because abusers can be volatile, and verbal abuse can sometimes lead to physical violence, it's important to enlist the support of a therapist, an expert from a domestic violence advocacy organization, or another trained professional.
Robin and her husband tried marriage counseling, but his verbal abuse continued, and she ultimately decided to get divorced. It's been three years since the relationship ended, but she still feels the effects of his abuse in the form of shame and chronic self-doubt. Still, it is a tremendous relief to live free from her ex's ongoing insults, criticism, and accusations. She no longer feels like she has to walk on eggshells in her home, and she's more at ease now and able to simply enjoy her own company.
Jackie entered into both individual and group therapy, but her husband refused to get help. Although he never hit her, his verbal abuse escalated to threats of physical violence, so she knew that she had to leave her marriage. On her own, Jackie continued going therapy, which she describes as the launching pad that made her realize she deserved a life free from abuse. "I felt so liberated," she says. "I felt like I saved my own life."
*Names have been changed.