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6 Steps to Leaving a Verbally Abusive Relationship

How to get yourself unstuck.

Key points

  • It's counterintuitive, but targets of verbal abuse, especially if they grew up with it, are slow to recognize it.
  • Human nature keeps people stuck, including our inclination to stay with what we know instead of an unknown future.
  • The cyclical nature of verbal abuse and certain habits of mind sustain the verbally abusive relationship in many ways.
Photograph by Matthew Henry. Copyright free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Matthew Henry. Copyright free. Unsplash.

If there was a single plaint that emerged from the questionnaires women and men filled out for my book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering, it would be this: “Why did it take me so long to realize I was being abused and why was it so hard to get out?” The answer to that question is both simple and complicated at once.

Verbal abuse is founded in an imbalance of power between the two people in the relationship. In a parent-child relationship, that imbalance is built-in since the child is dependent on the parent, and the parent not only rules the little world the child lives in but decides how to interpret it.

In a relationship between two adults, whether romantic or not, one person may have the power because of finances or other material assets or because the other person wants or needs the relationship more than the other. Verbal abuse is one way of maintaining control over the other person; it works by tearing down the target’s self-regard and confidence, on the one hand, and tightening the hold the abuser has on him or her, on the other.

Why Leaving a Relationship May Be Difficult, Even a Verbally Abusive One

We like to think of ourselves as risk-takers and adventurers, but the reality is that humans are a conservative lot, preferring the known to the unknown, even when the known makes them actively unhappy; loss aversion rules. (This observation won a Nobel Prize in Economics for psychologist Daniel Kahneman.) Outwitting the impulse to stay can be tricky, but it can be done, especially if you pay attention to the following steps.

Six Steps That Facilitate Leaving

There are predictable patterns as to why people stay in these hurtful relationships; these steps come from research studies and personal anecdotes. I will use feminine nouns and pronouns to avoid a pile-up but keep in mind that men are also targets and victims of verbal abuse.

1. Stop normalizing and rationalizing the abuse.

Small children normalize verbal abuse because they assume that what happens at their house goes everywhere. The moment they discover that people do not weaponize words in every home or room is when there’s a glimmer of recognition.

But, if the parent is abusive, the child’s need for that parent’s love and support trumps recognition. She will likely try to comfort herself by thinking that the parent didn’t mean it or, more ominously, that maybe the parent is correct and she is unworthy or unlovable.

Parental verbal abuse conveys messages often carried into adulthood, making the adults more vulnerable to normalizing verbal abuse. In the adult-on-adult relationship, the target makes excuses for the abuser or blames herself for the treatment because she’s not ready to head for the exit and still has hope that, somehow, the abuser will stop and be kind and loving. Unfortunately, the cyclical nature of verbal abuse feeds this particular stream.

2. Recognize the cycles of verbal abuse.

If verbal abuse took place 24/7, there’d be no room for the target’s denial and hopefulness, and the abuser knows that; if the onslaught were constant, you would certainly walk. Lenore Walker analyzed a three-part pattern for physical abuse, which is not dissimilar from that of verbal abuse.

It begins with a tension-building phase, as the abuser starts the cycle of criticism and verbal battering; in physical abuse, there is then a violent incident which, broadly speaking, is absent from the verbal cycle, although it may take shape as a huge argument; and, finally, there is the honeymoon phase which is most significant to our inquiry. During this phase, the abuser becomes complimentary and caring and may even apologize for his behavior, promising to change. Needless to say, this charade reminds the target why she fell in love in the first place and amps up every bit of denial and hopefulness she’s clung to. She will tell herself that things have turned the corner.

Your ability to recognize the cycle for what it is helps to put the brakes on thought patterns that keep you stuck, which I discuss next.

3. Confront automatic or fallacious thinking.

Decades ago, B.F. Skinner discovered something about rats that also applied to humans, called intermittent reinforcement. He put hungry rats in cages with levers that delivered no food, food all the time, and food sometimes. The rats hooked on the levers were the “sometimes” ones. Humans do this too. If we get nothing from our partner, we walk. If we get what we need, we stay. But If we get what we want sometimes, we’re inclined to stay put, just in case it happens again. Intermittent reinforcement is what gives the honeymoon phase the power of super glue.

Then there is the fancy name thing, the sunk-cost fallacy, which, once again, testifies to how humans are more likely to stay than leave. When we think about changing or replacing something, we think not about what change could bring us but about the cost of abandoning whatever we’re leaving. The thinking goes, "If I leave this relationship, I will have lost all the time, emotion, and energy I have invested in it.” Of course, those investments are long gone anyway, which is why it’s called a fallacy.

4. Focus on how you are affected by the verbal abuse.

Shift your focus from the abuser’s behavior to you and the behaviors you’ve developed to cope. Take a long, hard look at what is happening to you, your sense of self, and your ability to think independently. Once you begin to take an honest reckoning of what has been worn away by the constant barrage, it will become harder to normalize, rationalize, and be swept up in those honeymoon periods.

5. Allow yourself to feel your emotions.

Denial and hopefulness require you to tamp down emotions like anger and pain while permitting yourself to feel outrage at how you are being treated is key to being able to deal. You may be surprised by the mix of emotions you feel and by their strength; even in a verbally abusive relationship, you may feel an enormous sense of loss which co-exists with feeling ashamed that you stayed and permitted it to go on. This step is best accomplished with the help of a gifted therapist.

6. Imagine a different future.

Talk down the self-doubting voice that tells you the next time won’t be different, or things could be worse. Remember that you can’t change anyone except yourself and that change and having a different life are possible. Seek out support if you need it.

This post was adapted from material in my book Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

Copyright © 2023 Peg Streep

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