wiseGEEK is an excellent site with short, well-written pages on verbal abuse, other types of abuse, controlling partners, setting boundaries in personal relationships, why women often return to abusive relationships, and many other related subjects. Below is one of their write-ups describing verbal abuse. Having experienced VA myself in a fairly recent long-term relationship, I can attest to the fact that their definition is quite accurate. If you are in a relationship where you are experiencing such treatment from a partner, you are being verbally abused. Bold/underline emphasis is mine and my own comments are in italics.
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Verbal abuse is a form of battery that involves the use of words, rather than blows and punches. In a verbally abusive situation, words are used to attack, control, and inflict harm on another person. Verbally abusive behavior goes far beyond mean behavior; it involves inflicting psychological violence on another person, attacking the very nature of an individual’s being and attempting to destroy his or her spirit. Verbal abuse can affect people of all ages and in all types of relationships. However, it is especially prevalent in marital (or any intimate) relationships.
A number of behaviors are considered verbally abusive, including (sudden, inexplicable) angry outbursts, screaming rages, and name-calling. Verbal abuse often includes blaming, brainwashing, and intimidation. Hidden aggression is a part of verbal abuse, as well. Verbal abuse is extremely manipulative, as insults are often disguised as caring comments. Verbal abuse can be overt or covert, but it is always about controlling and manipulating the victim.
Often, verbally abusive comments are offered as jokes. When the target of the joke is hurt or insulted, the verbal abuser laughs it off and says that the victim is overly sensitive. However, the intent of the verbal abuser is to cause this hurt. After a time, verbal abuse often escalates into physical abuse.
Arguments in verbally abusive relationships are far different from those in healthy relationships. Normally, people argue over real issues that have the potential to be resolved. In verbally abusive arguments, real conflicts are not the issue and problems are not resolved. The abuse becomes the issue, and often the victim is told that everything is always his or her fault.
Often, verbal abusers tell their victims what to think and how to feel. They typically refuse to see or understand the victim’s point of view. In fact, they often object, in a violently verbal way, to the victim’s opinions and desires. Verbal abusers often deny reality and attempt to keep their victims confused by constantly changing or distorting the issue.
Withholding is often a major part of verbal abuse. In a verbally abusive relationship, the abuser may withhold information, affection, support, or money. When the abuse victim attempts to speak up about such issues, the verbal abuser denies the issue altogether.
Verbal abusers often seek to isolate their partners, cutting off or blocking their relationships with friends and family. Sometimes, the verbal abuser works to convince the victim that the abuser is the only person who really cares about or likes the victim. (IE: “You’re lucky I put up with you! LOOK what I have to put up with!”) In some cases, the verbal abuser may admit to his or her behavior and agree to stop. Typically, however, the behavior begins again within a short period of time.
Verbal abuse can be described as stealthy; it leaves wounds that are not visible to the naked eye. As it harms the mind and spirit, it can be more difficult to recognize than physical abuse. Also, its victims become so torn down by it that they are often unable to notice the abuse themselves.
Low self-esteem and confusion are ever-present in the minds of the verbally abused. The abuser is often able to convince the victim that he or she is the problem. In fact, verbal abusers often accuse the abused of playing the victim. (from my own abuser, I often got comments like: “Oh, you’re such a victim, aren’t you? You’re always playing the victim!”)
Eventually, the verbal abuse victim becomes so worn down by the abuse that he or she becomes unable to put up a defense against it. Often, the victim begins to try to change or placate the abuser, thinking that such change will improve the relationship. Sadly, verbal abusers typically do not change on their own. For real change to occur, professional psychiatric help is usually required.
(I will add to the above that Verbal Abusers are often very narcissistic. This means that they are VERY unlikely to ever admit a flaw or fault in themselves or in their behavior in any relationship. They deem themselves above that. Therefore, it’s unlikely that they will ever seek help for their verbal abusiveness. Once a relationship with them ends, they will easily move on to the next partner, charming them and being very caring and attentive at first — but then starting and gradually increasing the verbal and emotional abuse. After having become gradually accustomed to it, attempting to placate the abuser, and tolerating increasing abuse to a certain point, the partner can become very emotionally battered before (s)he is able to properly identify what is wrong.)