15 Common Forms of Verbal Abuse in Relationships
The abuser feels more powerful when he puts down his victim.
Posted Mar 27, 2015
If we look at verbal abuse as a means of maintaining control and power over someone, we can think of the types of verbal abuse listed and explained in this post as being ways that someone tries to dominate or control their partner.
Does this mean that the abuser actually feels more powerful when he (or she), for instance, subtly puts down his partner’s interests? Yes, as incomprehensible as this is to some of us. Does this mean that their partner feels put down? Not always. He or she may feel a twinge of sadness because they cannot share this interest. Or he or she may feel a twinge of sadness that their partner can't enjoy, say, a particular artist or composer. Does this mean that the abuser can't (or doesn't) enjoy this pleasure? Not always; he or she may simply find greater pleasure in feeling that they have power over their partner.
We will also see that verbal abuse prevents real relationships. This seems obvious, but the partner of an abuser may live under the illusion that he or she has a real relationship. This may be for a number of reasons; an important one is that, as a couple, the abuser and their partner may function adequately in their respective roles. Verbal abusers generally experience many of their feelings as anger. For instance, if a verbal abuser feels unsure and anxious he may simply feel angry—possibly angry that he is feeling unsure and anxious. Yet part of being human is the ability to feel. The ability to feel, like the ability to think, is universal to humanity. Unfortunately, the abuser is generally unwilling to accept his feelings and unwilling to reveal them to a partner. He builds a wall between himself and his partner and maintains that distance.
In The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans identifies a number of categories of verbal abuse. Some are obvious, while others are more subtle:
Withholding is primarily manifested as a withholding of information and a failure to share thoughts and feelings. A person who withholds information refuses to engage with his or her partner in a healthy relationship. He or she does not share feelings or thoughts. When he or she does share anything, it is purely factual or functional information of the sort their partner could have looked up online, read on his or her Facebook wall, or figured out on their own. Examples of withholding communication that fail to engage the partner include: “The car is almost out of gas"; “The keys are on the table"; and “The show is on now.”
Countering is a tendency to be argumentative—not merely in political, philosophical, or scientific contexts but in ordinary contexts as well. The victim of the abuse may share her positive feelings about a movie she just saw, and the abuser may then attempt to convince her that her feelings are wrong. This is countering, or dismissing the victim’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences on a regular basis.
Discounting is an attempt to deny that the victim of the abuse has any right to his or her thoughts or feelings. It may come out as criticism—but criticism of a particular kind. The abuser may tell the victim on a regular basis that he or she is too sensitive, too childish, has no sense of humor, or tends to make a big deal out of nothing. The abuser thereby denies the victim’s inner reality, indirectly telling a partner that how they feel and what they experience are wrong.
4. Verbal abuse disguised as jokes.
The abuser may say something very upsetting to the victim of the abuse and, after seeing her reaction add, “It was just a joke!” Abuse is not OK in any form; jokes that hurt are abusive.
5. Blocking and diverting.
Blocking and diverting is a form of withholding in which the abuser decides which topics are "good" conversation topics. An abuser practicing this form of abuse may tell the victim that she is talking out of turn or is complaining too much.
6. Accusing and blaming.
In these forms of abuse the abuser will accuse the victim of things that are outside of his or her control. He or she might accuse a partner of preventing them from getting a promotion because the partner is overweight, or ruining his or her reputation because the partner dropped out of college.
7. Judging and criticizing.
Judging and criticizing is similar to accusing and blaming but also involves a negative evaluation of the partner. As Evans points out, “Most ‘you’ statements are judgmental, critical, and abusive.” Some abusive judging and criticizing “you” statements are: “You are never satisfied"; “You always find something to be upset about”; and “No one likes you because you are so negative."
Trivializing is a form of verbal abuse that makes most things the victim of the abuse does or wants to do seem insignificant. The abuser might undermine his or her work, style of dressing, or choice of food.
Undermining is similar to trivializing, which consists of undermining everything the victim says or suggests, or making her question herself and her own opinions and interests.
Threatening is a common form of verbal abuse and can be very explicit, such as, “If you don’t start doing what I say, I will leave you.” Or it can be more subtle, such as, “If you don’t follow my advice, others will find out that you are a very unreliable person.”
11. Name calling.
Name calling can be explicit or subtle. Explicit name-calling can consist in calling the victim of the abuse a “bitch” or other hurtful words. But it can also be more subtle, such as when someone says things that are implicitly hurtful, for instance, “You are such a victim,” or “You think you are so precious, don’t you?”
The category of forgetting covers a range of issues ranging from forgetting a promise to forgetting a date or an appointment. Even if the abuser really forgot, it is still abuse, because he ought to have made an effort to remember.
Any form of ordering or demanding is a form of verbal abuse. It falls under the general issue of control. (See my previous post about controlling people.)
Denial is abusive when it consists of denying one's bad behavior and failing to realize the consequences of this behavior. An abuser will always try to find a way to justify and rationalize his behavior. This is a way of denying that he has done anything wrong.
15. Abusive anger.
Any form of yelling and screaming, particularly out of context. Even yelling “Shut up!” is abusive. No one deserves to be yelled at.
Evans, Patricia (2009). The Verbally Abusive Relationship (pp. 84-85). Adams Media. Kindle Edition.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love