- Verbal abuse is all about control. In these relationships, there is an imbalance of power, and it's the abuser who has it.
- People who stay in verbally abusive relationships aren't "gluttons for punishment." They stay for reasons both simple and complex.
- Childhood experience of regular verbal abuse can greatly influence an adult's response to it.
- Recognizing verbal abuse is a process often blocked by denial, normalization, and rationalization because the target isn't ready.
We all know that verbal abuse is tolerated in the culture because many people believe the sticks and stones thing, wrongly, as it happens. Physical abuse is the gold standard for abuse, and if it doesn’t reach that level, many are skeptical. But recognizing verbal abuse is actually more complex than you might think.
One thing that came up during my research for my forthcoming book on verbal abuse was the 20/20 hindsight problem, which was expressed by both men and women alike, whether they were discussing a verbally abusive relationship with a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or even a boss. Celia, 50, wondered about what motivated her dealings with her ex:
“While it’s true that I was cowed by him and he made me feel bad about myself in specific ways when he harped on my weight or criticized my spending habits, his inability to control his anger also made me feel superior in a way. I think that’s why I tolerated his verbal abuse for years until he started in on our son. I felt like the ‘better person’ for forgiving him when he blew up because I thought he couldn’t ‘help it.’ I know it sounds strange because my therapist emphasizes how his put-downs affected me but, trust me, there was also that other thing going on.”
Dan, 41, described his dealing with his father’s verbal abuse in similar terms:
“I normalized his behavior in part because he had a rough start in life and his own father was horribly abusive and violent. But, looking back, I also thought that I was the stronger man for not stooping to his level, or calling him out. My wife finally called me out on that, by the way, because she felt I was actually enabling him. And maybe I was.”
But while empathy for the abuser—and giving yourself kudos for displaying it—can be part of the equation, it’s not usually the main factor. Not everyone tolerates verbal abuse, of course; some people head for the door pronto with nary a second thought. These people see the red flags waving in the wind, like a field of poppies, no questions asked. So what is it that makes people stay?
The relationship the abuser has with his or her target is founded on an imbalance of power. Most often, it’s that the person being abused is much more invested in staying in the relationship or making it work than the abuser; that investment could be emotional (an adult child still yearning for a parent’s love or a romantic partner not willing to give up), a reflection of inadequate economic resources, worry about shared children, or other factors that prevent her or him from leaving.
But what keeps them in the relationship rather than running for the hills, any hill? That is the question at hand.
5 reasons people might stay in verbally abusive relationships
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but it is drawn from common themes that emerged from people’s stories in my research for my books.
1. They don’t recognize that they’re being verbally abused. Let’s begin at the beginning—with childhood—because this is really where it starts for most targets of verbal abuse. They grow up in households where verbal abuse (put-downs, not being heard, being ignored or stonewalled, being picked on, marginalized, yelled at, or gaslighted) was their regular day-to-day experience. Children form mental models of how the world works from early experiences, and if verbal abuse is consistent, they think it goes on everywhere. As young adults, they’re likely to gravitate toward people who treat them in similar ways because they think the behavior is “normal.” They’re likely to deny the impact of words—“they’re only words, not fists”—and to make excuses for the abuser (“My mom is tough with me because she wants me to be strong”; “He means well, but he just loses it sometimes”; and similar statements).
2. The abuse is intermittent. B.F. Skinner’s experiments with hungry rats revealed the power of intermittent reinforcement. In the first cage, the rat had a lever that, when pushed, always delivered food. That rat went about his business. In the second cage, the lever never delivered food, and that rat paid no mind. But, in the third cage, the lever delivered food some of the time, and the rat was transfixed and focused.
This happens to humans, too: When we get what we want some of the time, we are focused on getting it again. So, in a verbally abusive relationship, when the abuser’s behavior shifts—he or she doesn’t say anything demeaning or perhaps actually gives you a compliment and is sweet—the sufferer becomes like that third rat, except that, being human, they start extrapolating from the behavior, buoyed by hopefulness. “See?” they say to themselves. “We’re turning a corner.” Or, “He/she is really loving after all, and that nasty stuff was just a blip.” It’s the superglue of verbally abusive relationships, including those with parents.
3. They don’t see the element of control. Because they normalize and rationalize the use of verbal abuse, they don’t see how it’s a tool to control them. They see accepting it as “trying to keep the peace” or “turning down the volume,” and they don’t recognize the abuser’s blame-shifting (“I wouldn’t have to yell if you listened in the first place”) as manipulation. They tell themselves that everyone who’s in a relationship argues; they don’t register what Dr. John Gottman has pointed out, which is that it’s not whether you fight or argue, but how you fight that matters. They do not see that they have been robbed of their sense of agency because they are too focused on keeping the relationship afloat, turning down the heat by placating, and perhaps getting back to one of those intermittent “good moments.”
4. They believe what’s said to and about them. Those who are most vulnerable to verbal abuse in adult relationships are those who experienced it young and have continued to normalize those early experiences; basically, whatever is said in the adult present reaffirms and confirms what was said over the course of those early years. Whatever objections the target may voice are often deflected by familiar phrases, such as “Nothing I said was hurtful; you’re just too sensitive,” or the gaslighting version, “Can’t you even take a joke? That isn’t what I meant.”
As Melanie, now 55, explained:
“The transition from my father’s house to my husband’s at age 23 was seamless in that way, and, for the longest time, I accepted what he said about me because it echoed what had always been said about me. That I was lazy. That I was sloppy. That I was inadequate. But the feedback I got from my teachers and, later, my colleagues was different. I started therapy at 27. At 29, I left and divorced him. And started life over without verbal abuse.”
5. They aren’t ready to recognize the verbal abuse. Perhaps the most revelatory stories were those recounted by people who actively resisted the verbal abuse being identified or called out, even by a therapist. One man wryly noted that “the third time had been the charm” when the third therapist he consulted in his 40s once again pointed to his father’s abuse (and his mother’s tacit cooperation), and his denial “finally fell away.” In his words: “Mind you, I had been told this again and again, and all it did was to inspire me to defend my father and point out that he loved me and was trying to make me stronger by being tough on me. I could not hear it in my 20s and 30s, but, finally, it got so bad and so hurtful that I couldn’t not hear it the last time.”
While counterintuitive, I wrote about this denial in my book Daughter Detox and called it the “core conflict,” which is the tug-of-war between the recognition of the mother’s abusive behavior and the hopefulness that she and it somehow can be changed. This conflict typically goes on for decades of adult life when a parent is involved.
Seeing from the inside out
As onlookers—as relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues—we may find it hard to believe that someone we care about stays in a verbally abusive relationship when we are positive we’d have our running shoes on, but it may look very different from the inside. Yes, it can result from blindness (willful or not), denial, hopefulness, and, finally, the failure to imagine a better and happier life. Try to be helpful, not judgmental. Suggesting that he or she work with a therapist is a good idea because verbal abuse is never OK, and it always does damage.
Thanks to my readers for sharing their stories.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2022
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside Books, 1994.
Streep, Peg. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Île D'Éspoir Press, 2017.