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What Does Verbal Abuse Sound Like?

Hannah Hopper, LPC 

Most of us would like to think that if we were in a relationship that was abusive, we’d be able to notice it and get out. But verbal abuse is a bit more subtle, and some people experience regular verbal abuse without even knowing it. So what is verbal abuse? It’s a verbal interaction that causes the target emotional damage, usually causing the person to doubt and question who they are. After experiencing verbal abuse for a time, it’s common for someone to begin to feel that they’re worthless, stupid, or less than and the verbal abuse can cause them to question they’re sense of self. Even though there aren’t physical markers of what’s taking place, verbal abuse is incredibly damaging. 

Another reason that verbal abuse can be hard to identify is that it doesn’t always sound the same. It takes different forms, including: 

Blaming – Making the target feel/believe that the abusive behavior is their fault or that they have brought it on themselves. “I wouldn’t have to say this if you’d stop dressing like that.” 

Criticism – Deliberately hurtful remarks that are meant to make the target feel bad about themselves. These criticisms aren’t constructive and are meant to be cutting and harsh. “You should’ve booked the restaurant. You ruined my night by being so unorganized. What’s wrong with you?” 

Gaslighting – This term was taken from the name of a film in 1944 where a husband slowly manipulates his wife to make her think she’s losing her mind. The abuser makes the target question their own perception and judgment of reality, and it’s a psychological tactic used to gain and maintain control. “I’m just trying to help you. I don’t remember saying/doing that.” 

Name-calling – Insults and derogatory language that begin to tear down the target’s self-esteem and self-worth. These demeaning words are then used as labels to define the target. “You idiot, now you’ve made me angry.”   

Judging – Looking down on the target and holding them to unrealistic expectations; refusing to accept them as they are. “I can’t stand how much you talk…and you’re so loud too.” 

Threatening – Statements meant to scare, manipulate, and control the target so that they’ll be docile and compliant. The abuser may threaten to harm themselves or the target to get what they want. “I’m going to hit you if you do that again.” 

Withholding – Refusing to give attention or affection to the target in order to punish them. This can look like the silent treatment through refusing to talk to you, look at you, or be in the same room as you. Though it might not be expressly communicated, this silent treatment is a way of saying “You don’t exist.”

Multiple forms of abuse are usually present in abusive relationships. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline “Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. People of any race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, education level, or economic status can be a victim — or perpetrator — of domestic violence. That includes behaviors that physically harm, intimidate, manipulate or control a partner, or otherwise force them to behave in ways they don’t want to, including through physical violence, threats, emotional abuse, or financial control.” 

Getting out of an abusive relationship of any kind is difficult, and you may need an objective third party to provide support and perspective about who you are and what you want. Symmetry Counseling has several therapists that specialize in supporting people in abusive relationships, and if you’re ready to take that first step and schedule a session, you can browse our therapist bios to find someone that is the right fit for you. You can also contact Symmetry Counseling today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our Chicago therapists.

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