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How Verbal Abusers Maintain the Upper Hand

Knowing their victims well, and shifting gears when they need to.

Key points

  • Not being ready to exit a relationship often increases tolerance for verbal abuse, as does dependence on the abuser or the relationship itself.
  • Adults who were or are verbally abused by their parents have the most difficulty with recognizing that they've been abused.
  • Verbal abuse is a conscious pattern of behavior and highly motivated; it is never spontaneous and shouldn't be confused with angry outbursts.
 Silvani Bandaru/Unsplash
Source: Silvani Bandaru/Unsplash

Among the questions I field from readers is this one which comes up often: “Why did it take me so long to recognize that I was being verbally abused? Was this willful blindness or something else?” This question comes up in the context of relationships with a wide variety of people, including verbally abusive parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, friends, colleagues, and bosses.

In the case of verbally abusive parents, the recognition is often agonizingly slow in coming, most usually several decades into an adult child’s life. The slowness of recognition seems to hinge on normalizing the parent’s treatment, as most children do when they grow up around verbal abuse; both the men and women I interviewed for my new book, Verbal Abuse, made excuses for their parents or believed that “it was just the way he or she was.”

In most cases, even though the verbal abuse hurt—whether they were ignored, taunted, marginalized, hypercriticized, or scapegoated—they also believed that the parent acted without malice. The reason for this seems to be what I call “the core conflict” in my work: the tug-of-war between seeing the abuse and wanting the relationship to be loving, kind, and different. Hopefulness, rationalization, and denial feed that desire—and it dies a slow death.

Alas, people who grow up around verbal abuse appear to be much more likely than securely attached people—who had healthy models of what relationships look like and were loved and supported in childhood—to end up in adult relationships that include verbal abuse. And, yes, they tend to bring the same habits of normalizing and rationalizing—“It’s just the way he/she is, but he/she means well,” “He/she believes in straight talk and tough love, you know?” and the like—to their adult relationships. That said, even those who grow up without verbal abuse can be ensnared in a relationship that includes it.

But while certain habits of mind can keep the target of verbal abuse stuck, it’s important to realize that it is the verbal abuser who uses his or her best efforts to maintain control over the other person. Verbal abuse is all about an imbalance of power, with one person having more control than the other. In a relationship of true equals, verbal abuse tends not to come up. (I am distinguishing between a relationship that includes a consistent pattern of verbal abuse and the occasional blowup in an otherwise healthy and respectful relationship. Yes, we all cross lines in moments of anger—and may use tactics that are verbally abusive, such as stonewalling or name-calling—but we also apologize. Verbal abusers never truly apologize unless it’s in the context of shifting gears; see below.)

Sources of an Imbalance of Power

There are many sources, some of them emotional and others material. One partner may be more dependent on both the relationship and the lover or spouse; their levels of commitment may be significantly different as well.

An imbalance of power can also be fueled by insecurity; one partner may be anxious about being left or abandoned, for example, or feel that while the relationship isn’t as satisfying as he or she would like, there’s probably nothing better out there. It’s important to realize that, generally, humans tend to stay put rather than risk the unknown; those observations about loss aversion won psychologist Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize in Economics. The truth is that we tend not to bolt and head for supposedly greener pastures. When children are a part of a verbally abusive relationship, the choices are harder and more complex.

Of course, an imbalance of power may also have to do with money and earning power in a relationship; workplace verbal abuse is usually a top-down situation, for example.

How the Verbal Abuser Maintains Control:

These are anecdotal observations drawn from the interviews and research I did for my book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

1. He or she knows you well.

Because the name of the game is control, the verbal abuser knows all the important things about you, which include weaknesses such as what scares you most, what you fret and worry about, along with your deepest insecurities. That gives him or her the opportunity to push those buttons when needed. If your default positions are self-blame or feeling guilty, he or she will make it seem as though it’s your fault that you’re being abused; statements like “If you weren’t always complaining, I wouldn’t have to push back” (that is blame-shifting) or “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave?” (that’s brinksmanship). If you complain about being hurt, you will most likely be told that you are “too sensitive,” and you may well believe it.

2. He or she can shift gears as necessary.

If you keep in mind that the abuser is using what he or she knows about you to maintain control, it won’t surprise you that he or she is good at reading your reactions. So, when one tactic of manipulation fails, the abuser will turn to another or perhaps none at all.

Yes, calling a halt to the verbal abuse—perhaps showering you with compliments or doing something sweet or simply not putting you down—keeps you in place and can make you wonder whether you’re exaggerating the verbal abuse or that maybe you are “too sensitive.” This “honeymoon” phase is calculated, in case you were wondering. The chances are good that your hopefulness will claim victory over your recognition, and another coat of glue has quietly been applied to your feet.

3. The abuser knows you aren’t ready to head for the door.

This part is important because the verbal abuser knows when to push the pedal to the metal and when to stop. They enjoy the rush of power that comes with putting you down, after all, and they’ll moderate their behavior accordingly.

Verbal Abuse Is Motivated and Calculated.

It’s important to be able to distinguish between an angry outburst that may include abusive comments and a consistent and repeated pattern of verbal abuse. Even though targets often normalize and rationalize the abuser’s behavior—this is especially true of adult children who, on some level, believe that their parent or parents “can’t help how they act”—recognition involves seeing what motivates verbal abuse clearly.

Copyright © 2022 Peg Streep.

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