By Janet Kozak
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When we think about domestic abuse we often first think of physical abuse, the physical bruises and wounds that accompany a violent relationship. While these types of relationships can be devastating, and even cost victims their lives, there exists a much more insidious type of abuse that can leave lasting scars and psychological trauma long after the outward wounds heal.
I’m talking about verbal and emotional abuse.
Many of us have heard, or even experienced, an argument. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, like I did, arguments and verbal abuse may have been a daily occurrence. After reading over the descriptions below, you may recognize some of these behaviors in your own relationships. These are all aspects of verbal abuse – a form of spiritual and emotional violence – accomplished though sneers and contemptuous remarks, mind games and shaming, blame and foul language.
Verbal abuse is a tool used by abusers to maintain a sense of power and control over their partner. It whittles down a victim’s self-esteem, ability to rationalize, and desire to seek help.
Verbal abuse also comes in many forms. However, underneath all the masks, its success is always measured by its ability to belittle the victim until they feel worthless, guilty, depressed, and ashamed.
The sooner you recognize these behaviors, the more easily you can address them and call them what they are. You’ll also learn to steer clear of people who exhibit any of these behaviors.
Here are a few of the most common types of verbally and emotionally abusive techniques outlined by Patricia Evans in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Some of these categories of verbal abuse are obvious, while others are more subtle and insidious. Consider this an introduction to verbally abusive techniques and behaviors. Remember, however, that this is in no way an exhaustive list.
Withholding is a way of maintaining emotional distance in a relationship. It is a way of interacting with a partner without exhibiting emotional vulnerability. Lack of openness and communication then leads to an unhealthy and distant relationship.
With this type of verbal abuse, all communications are limited to factually abrupt and information-based statements like “We’re out of milk” or “The bill is due on Friday” without ever discussing emotions and feelings, hopes or dreams.
Stonewalling is another technique whereby the abuser simply refuses to talk to, or even acknowledge the existence of the victim. In these cases, the abuser punishes the victim for a real or perceived wrong, by acting like a “stone wall.” The abuser may refuse to speak or interact with the victim for hours, days, or even weeks in extreme cases.
While having differing viewpoints is perfectly normal and healthy, countering is a technique whereby the abuser constantly argues with the victim and tries to convince the victim that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are wrong.
In this type of constant argument, there is no room for “agreeing to disagree.” A verbally abusive partner may counter everything a victim thinks, feels, or says, even in ordinary conversation.
Gaslighting, also known as “crazy-making” is a technique similar to countering but actually much worse. The term originates from a 1938 play, Gaslight, later adapted into the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman.
Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity. The abuser will attempt to convince the victim that their memories and perception of reality are completely wrong. For example, an abuser will try to convince a victim that they had a different lunch than they actually did. Examples like this, and other nonsensical attempts to twist the victim’s memories of reality, ensure that the victim feels like they’re going crazy and completely losing their mind.
Discounting is another attempt to deny victims a right to their own thoughts and feelings. The abuser will regularly tell the victim that they’re “too emotional,” “too sensitive,” “angry about nothing,” “childish,” that they “don’t have a sense of humor,” etc. This denies and trivializes the victim’s inner reality. It’s a type of criticism that discounts the victim’s feelings and tells the victim that their feelings are constantly wrong.
“Joking” verbal abuse
With this type of abuse, the abuser may say mean and hurtful things under the guise of a “joke.” When the victim takes offense to the name-calling or criticism, the abuse says that they were “only joking.”
This usually proceeds on to also discounting the victim’s feelings (see above) by minimizing the abuse and placing the blame again on the victim by saying things like, “You can’t even take a joke,” “You have no sense of humor,” etc. Abuse in any form is not okay and jokes that hurt are abusive.
Diverting and Blocking
Diverting and blocking is similar to withholding in that the abuser decides what topics are “allowed” conversations topics. Anything not on the “allowed” list is blocked and conversations are diverted to other subjects.
If a legitimate issue or concern is raised by the victim on a “taboo” subject, the issue is diverted by the abuser, usually placing blame back on the victim. The victim is further ridiculed and discounted for raising the “un-allowed” concern. Other things that an abuser practicing this form of abuse may say include telling the victim they’re “talking out of turn” or “complaining too much.”
Accusing and Blaming
With this type of abuse, the abuser accuses the victim of things that are not their fault. The abuser also blames the victim for things that are outside the victim’s control. The abuser might blame the victim for the abuser’s own job loss, fights at work, road rage, or even getting a flat tire. An abuser might accuse the victim of ruining the abusers reputation by buying second hand clothing or shopping with coupons. With this type of abuse, anything any everything that happens to the abuser can become the “victim’s fault.”
Judging and Criticizing
Critical and judgmental abuse is similar to accusing and blaming. Evans points out that “Most ‘you’ statements are judgmental, critical, and abusive.” Abusers use “you” statements to pass grand judgments and make incorrect, yet authoritative, statements of “fact”. “You’re never satisfied with anything,” or “Nobody likes you because you complain all the time,” are examples of statements that can be proven untrue. When you take a step back they are merely critical and judgmental verbal abuse.
Trivializing is a form of verbal abuse that makes anything that the victim does, feels, or wants, seem insignificant. This can be done by downplaying personal or professional achievements (“You only lost five pounds, that’s it?”) or outright undermining the victim’s work, personal style, health and medical problems, or even food choices.
Instead of celebrating milestones and accomplishments, an abuser trivializes everything to the point that the victim may stop taking interest in things that used to bring them joy.
Undermining is similar to trivializing, but is more duplicitous. It’s accomplished my making it hard for the victim to achieve goals, make headway, or accomplish tasks. This type of verbal abuse can be accomplished by starting a fight hours before an important event, like a critical job interview or review. It can also include things like talking loudly while the victim is on the phone with friends or co-workers, or making fun of the victim and putting them down in front of others.
Ultimately, undermining can make it difficult for the victim to complete tasks. Eventually, this type of constant abuse and can even make the victim isolate themselves from friends and family and question their own goals, opinions, and interests.
Threatening is a very common tactic of verbal abusers. This can encompass everything from explicit threats of abandonment, or physical abuse, (eg. “I’ll leave you/hit you if you… again”). Threatening can also be more subtle (“No one will believe you,” “They’ll find out you’re just a liar.”)
Name calling can be either explicit or restrained. The most obvious and explicit name-calling can consist of calling the victim a “kaffir,” “bitch,” “whore,” or dozens of other common hurtful and demeaning words.
Verbal abuse can also be more subtle, like making fun of physical features: “Say you’re short,” he might say, before reaching you something on a high shelf. Any kind of name calling that is neither endearing, nor kind (including animal names, like pig, duck, or cow) is verbal abuse. Name calling from a verbal abuser is meant to be hurtful and is not funny.
“Forgetting,” whether on purpose or not, is always a form of abuse. In a loving relationship, partners make an effort to remember important dates, appointments, anniversaries, and promises. Claiming to have forgotten something important is no excuse. If the abuser really cared, they would make an effort to remember.
Telling, ordering, or demanding anything, for any reason, is a form of control and verbal abuse.
Denial becomes abuse when an abuser refuses to admit the initial bad behavior or the consequences of said choices. Abusers work hard to find ways to rationalize, excuse, and justify their abusive behaviors.
Abusers usually deny they are in the wrong and even place the blame on the victim (“I wasn’t yelling,” I didn’t hit you,” “You tripped!”) Denial is a way of ignoring and downplaying the fact that the abuser has done anything wrong.
No one deserves to be the target of anger or abuse. Abusive anger includes shouting, yelling, screaming, banging, slamming, and throwing objects. Even yelling “Go Away!” is abusive, no one deserves to be yelled at.
If someone you know is experiencing verbal or emotional abuse, understand that it may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the types of abuse they’re living with. To help a victim, it’s important to learn as much as possible about domestic violence. The more you know, the better able you will be to help the victim understand that what they are experiencing is not okay and make a plan to get safe.