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Why You Can’t Reason With a Verbally Abusive Partner

Verbal abuse has no rational explanation. Don't waste time looking for one.

Key points

  • When someone is verbally abusive, their actions are not grounded in reason at all.
  • Responding effectively to verbal abuse first requires recognizing it when it occurs.
  • There is only one way to end verbal abuse: Call it to the abuser’s attention, and if that doesn’t work, leave.

Trivializing can be very subtle so that the partner is left feeling depressed and frustrated but isn’t quite sure why. Following is an example of trivializing in the relationship of "Ellen" and "Ernie":

"I spent several weeks going through the papers and old household files that Ernie and I had accumulated for more than 20 years. After extensive sorting, I categorized everything and made color-coded files: Business, Medical, Insurance, Personal, etc. The result was three drawers of files in a new file cabinet. It was a long and tedious job. Occasionally I had mentioned to Ernie how the work was progressing. Finally, after a couple of weeks work, I was glad to be done. I said, 'Ernie, I finished the files. It was really a job.' I opened the drawers and showed him what I’d done. He said, 'Wow! I’m impressed.' I didn’t remember him acknowledging me like that ever before. With a smile I said, 'You are?' He answered in a strange voice: 'I’m impressed with how you got those names to fit on all those little itty bitty labels.' I said, 'Oh, Ernie, I just typed them on. That wasn’t the hard part.' He looked seriously at me and said, 'Well, I think it was.'"

— Evans, Patricia (2009), The Verbally Abusive Relationship (Kindle Locations 1859-1869). Adams Media.

Source: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Verbal abuse can be ever-so-subtle, as Evans’ story illustrates. Yet it leaves the victim in a lot of pain and confusion. Believing in a different reality where people reason and communicate in rational ways with each other, the victim tries to make sense of his or her abuser’s treatment, not understanding that sometimes other people’s mean behavior makes no sense, has no rational explanation, and has nothing to do with him or her.

But the victim so badly wants to make sense of the behavior that he or she doesn’t put an end to it, instead continuing to search for explanations of what could have caused the abuser to treat him or her that way. The victim thinks that perhaps something about his or her behavior made it the case that they deserved to be treated badly.

Because the victim does not yet fully grasp the idea of verbal abuse—abuse at a purely verbal or mental level—he or she thinks that the abuser’s maltreatment must have a rational explanation.

So, the victim confronts the behavior, not the way he or she ought to confront this behavior, but the way he or she ought to confront rational behavior. The victim asks for an explanation, asks for examples of the generalizations made by the abuser, and asks the abuser to make sense of the abuse.

But the victim is losing. Abusers—verbal, and emotional abusers included—do not act rationally. Asking them for a reason or trying to reason with them is pointless. They have no good reasons for behaving the way they do. They will respond with more abuse.

You cannot reason with an abuser.

Few people truly understand verbal abuse. People who are exposed to it typically don’t realize that they are so exposed. And they desperately want others to behave in rational ways. They understand anger and irritation when there are good reasons for it. They understand that we don’t all get along all the time. But they fail to see that when someone is verbally abusive, their actions are not grounded in reason at all.

Responding effectively to verbal abuse requires recognizing it when it occurs and realizing that it makes no sense whatsoever to try to reason with the abuser.

A verbal abuser will define your reality, decide what you can or cannot do, and treat you as an (in-their-eyes) ugly part of themselves, a part that they have to undermine in order to keep up their own sense of self.

There is only one way to end verbal abuse: Call it to the abuser’s attention.

If that doesn’t work, the only way out is to leave, as fast as you can.

More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
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