The Facts of Verbal Abuse

Kathy Rogers, MSW LCSW

"I didn't realize I was in a verbally abusive relationship." These are words I hear frequently after assigning some readings in The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. Then the client might also remark, "I've done some of those behaviors myself." Why do people need to be aware of the categories of verbal abuse? Anyone may be involved in a verbally abusive relationship with a spouse or date, in the workplace, or unintentionally in their parenting style.

All intimate relationships involve conflict. Conflict is normal and healthy. In functional relationships power is shared and participants collaborate to create solutions that enhance the relationship and benefit both individuals. In abusive relationships, one participant seeks to maintain power over the other.

Some verbal abuse categories need little explanation, for example name calling (lazy slob, stupid). Others may have made the recipient feel crazy but like they were wrestling with jello.

Withholding. This refers to the behavior of withholding intimacy by refusing to share thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams. There is an aloofness, an emotional unavailability. There is also an absence of empathy. Only functional information, such as "I'll be late tonight." is communicated.

Countering. The partner argues against your perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of life. In effect, they deny your reality. If you say, "It's a beautiful day.", they say, "I don't see what's so beautiful about it." Communication is blocked.

Discounting. Another destructive way that an abuser denies the partner's reality is to communicate that their experience and feelings are wrong---worth nothing. "You're too sensitive." "You can't take a joke." "You're making a big deal out of nothing."

Abuse Disguised As Jokes. "You sound just like your mother…J-u-u-s-t kidding." "Having a bad hair day, are we?" The humor may be crass or witty, but it is designed to cut to the quick. If confronted, the abuser switches to discounting, "Where's your sense of humor?" Another spin is to frighten or startle the partner and laugh as if it were a joke.

Blocking and Diverting. This category of abuse controls specifically what can be discussed, for example, "What happened to the checking account balance? " A blocking response might be, "Get off my back!" Blocking is accomplished by accusatory and irrelevant comments used to divert the partner from the issue at hand. The partner's questions never receive a considerate or thoughtful response.

Accusing and Blaming. The abuser blames the partner for his irritation, insecurity, or anger due to some wrongful act or betrayal of the relationship. "I've had it with your griping." "You're just looking for trouble." "You're always nagging." .

Judging and Criticizing. The abuser makes an evaluative statement expressed in a critical way in order to exercise power over the partner. "How stupid." "You're never satisfied." Judgments may be presented in the form of critical stories about mistakes or outright lies about the partner meant to embarrass in front of others. "She loses the car every time she parks at the mall." Criticism may be disguised as advice or help. "Next time you ought to…" "You'd come across better if…"

Trivializing. This one can be likened to "balloon popping"--- communicating that what the partner has done or stated is of little significance. The abuser may select this category when the partner is communicating excitement or enthusiasm about a topic or completed project.

Undermining. The abuser chips away at the partner's determination and confidence. "Who cares?" "And you're trying to impress…?" Disruptive behavior and verbal interruption may be used to sabotage the partner's conversations with others.

Threatening. The partner is manipulated by the threat of loss or pain, especially her greatest fear. "If you don't…I'm leaving." "Do it or I'm out of here."

Forgetting. Covert manipulation is combined with denial. The abuser consistently forgets promises and important agreements made with the partner. "I don't know where you got that idea. I never agreed to that." The abuser goes off on the partner and later denies the event ever took place.

Ordering. This category of abuse assumes the partner exists to carry out the abuser's wishes. "Get in here and clean up this mess." "You're not leaving here looking like that."

Some categories of verbal abuse are blatant and recipients find themselves trying to explain or justify their positions. Others are more subtle. Even after learning about these categories, clients will painfully recount the abusers' words but be unable to connect them with a category of abuse. When I hand them the book and ask them to select the category that fits, the lights go on. Awareness is process. It takes as long as it takes. Verbal abuse is like brainwashing, like living life in a painful fog. When the fog lifts, the partner realizes that explaining is pointless. The appropriate response is to confront the abuser's behavior. The appropriate phrase is efficient---STOP IT!!