Verbal and Emotional Abuse: What is it and when is it REALLY abuse?

I often hear people say that “verbal and emotional abuse is subjective and hard to define“.  But, I beg to differ.  And I want to offer some insight in how to determine if you may be experiencing verbal and emotional abuse in a relationship.

If you are having an argument or someone simply says something hurtful to you during a stressful time or a heated discussion, is that “abuse”?   Well, not necessarily.

When it’s probably NOT abuse:

One measure I use to help determine if it can be considered abuse is what I call  “The Three Rs”.  You’re likely NOT experiencing abuse if what is happening is:

Rare – happens rarely and without any repetitive constant or cyclical pattern or increasing frequency or intensity. It is NOT repeated in either a constant fashion, or in any repetitive cycle of phases.

Recognized – the person who said something hurtful in anger or a heated discussion, for instance, immediately (within 48 hours, say) recognizes it as being hurtful to the other person, apologizes and makes amends to repair the damage.

Resolved – Once amends have been made, BOTH people feel that the incident of hurtful behavior has been reconciled and put behind them. There is no residual hurt, anger, blame, or resentment surrounding it.

When wordshurt.jpgit IS abuse:

On the other hand, if you notice a repetitive pattern of behavior, which is either constant or cyclical (ie: cycle of abuse),  then you are likely dealing with abuse – whether it is verbal, emotional, or physical.

Emotional abuse is defined as an on-going process and differs from physical abuse in that one person psychologically, either consciously or unconsciously, attempts to destroy the will, needs, desires or perceptions of the other. Although emotional abuse has been inextricably linked to physical abuse, it is viewed as a separate entity. The most salient feature of emotional abuse is its insidious nature. Physical abuse is usually cyclical and intermittent, whereas emotional abuse is often continuous and omnipresent. Psychological abuse has been defined by as including verbal and behavioral means to undermine someone’s sense of self, resorting to such tactics as ridiculing, shaming, blaming, criticizing, threatening and neglecting the partner’s emotional needs.

— SOURCE: Joan Lachkar, PhD

So, although physical abuse is more cyclical, emotional and psychological abuse tends to be more constant, and both often increase in frequency and/or intensity as time goes on.  Both also often go unrecognized and unacknowledged by the abusive person, who may like to pretend it never happened or may “forget” about it until confronted. When confronted about their hurtful behavior, they may simply blame you for it and attempt to minimize it, claiming you “deserved it“, are “too sensitive“,  that you’re “blowing things out of proportion“, or “imagining things” for instance.

A mountain of accumulating hurt, and blame:

Once confronted, the first word out of the abuser’s mouth is likely to be “YOU”, no matter how kindly and calmly you mention it. I used to get 40+ minute lectures about how it was MY fault when he’d done or said something hurtful or humiliating to me. And I got them EVERY time.  During these lectures, I was rarely allowed to get a word in. If I tried, I’d be immediately interrupted so Dan could continue with his “YOU” lecture.

Abusive people will often blame the person they’re abusing for the abuse, and thus the problem remains unresolved causing accumulating hurt, anger, feelings of inferiority and worthlessness to remain and exponentially increase over time, tearing down the target’s self-esteem, and eating away at her spirit.

If this pattern exists in your relationship, you’ll not only be saddled with the hurt the other person caused you by doing or saying whatever hurtful things they did, but you are also left with the BLAME for their behavior and/or consequences of their behavior. To an abuser, the fact that they did or said it — AND the fact that it hurt you is YOUR fault.  Abusive people never accept any responsibility for their own behavior or the consequences of it. They blame the person they’re abusing and, due to the dynamics of these types of relationships, the target will often accept the blame, and may even begin blaming themselves for the abuser’s behavior, too.

One of the first things you can do in this situation (which was a turning point for me) is stop accepting the blame, and/or stop blaming yourself for the abuser’s behavior.  Know that you do not deserve to be hurt this way and you can and should protect yourself from it!  The way to do that is to try setting some boundaries with this person and/or start considering a way out of the relationship. Otherwise, you will end up being angry and depressed, doubting your own perceptions,  your own self-worth, you’ll be spiritually depleted and emotionally exhausted. To add to it all, the abusive person will blame you for THAT too. If you let it continue, it becomes a never-ending, exponentially increasing mountainous barrage of abuse, hurt, and blame – and it goes on until it buries you emotionally.

Contrary to the belief that physical abuse is most devastating, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse can also be at least as devastating and can take much longer to recover from.

The heavy weight of abuse crushes you a little bit more each time you travel around the cycle. Down, down, down you go… until you are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually annihilated.

Children who witness abuse:

If you have children, it is my assertion that it is CHILD ABUSE when they see their parent being abused – no matter what type of abuse it is.  This has very negative, lasting effects on children and they may end up spending the remainder of their lives living with the psychological consequences of having witnessed it, and trying to recover from its effects. It can affect all their interpersonal relationships for a lifetime. Children who witness abuse are more likely to be abused or become abusers themselves.

Confronting the abuser and setting boundaries:

When you notice these patterns of behavior – even if the abusive person claims they don’t understand that they are being hurtful towards you – it’s fine to tell them you simply dislike being spoken to a certain way or are uncomfortable with something they did or said (humiliated you, for instance) and that you would like them to stop behaving that way towards you.

When you do this, try to be as calm and clear as possible when confronting them and use a lot of “I” sentences instead of “YOU” sentences. “YOU’ implies blame and if they think you are blaming them, they’ll only become defensive.  By stating something like: “I felt humiliated when you raised your voice to me in front of our friends yesterday.”, you are owning your own feelings and not blaming them for what you feel – but simply asking them for respect and understanding in regards to your feelings.

It’s important that you lay out some consequences about what will happen if they hurt you in the same way again, once you’ve asked them to stop.  When you confront them with their behavior, also add a boundary, stating clearly and calmly (again with a lot of “I” words) what the consequence will be if they do it again.   Maybe you’ll take a week and spend it with a friend or relative to be away from them for a while, or take a vacation by yourself or otherwise find a way to spend less time around them.

MOST importantly, stick to enforcement of that consequence if they behave towards you that way again once you’ve confronted them with it. Do not let them sweet-talk you out of enforcing the consequences of their repeated hurtful behavior towards you. If you do, you’ll end up even further behind in regards to gaining recognition and respect for your feelings than you were in the first place.

The difference between “boundaries” and “threats”:

When you confront someone with abusive behavior and set up a boundary, you may get accused of “threatening” them. However boundaries are not threats. Here’s why:

Threats are a means to CONTROL the behavior of another person; boundaries are a means to PROTECT YOURSELF.   You are setting boundaries, not issuing threats.

Saying “I  feel like I need to protect myself” – in response to the accusation of issuing threats is enough.  If they try to sweet-talk you out of it or minimize their behavior OR your feelings, simply repeat again: “I understand what you’re saying, but I feel I need to protect myself.”  Stand your ground and employ the broken-record technique to assert that you will not tolerate being hurt by them and that you mean to stand up for yourself and your own feelings. Do not be drawn into a debate or argument about it.

You are not trying to control the other person. You are trying to protect yourself from his/her hurtful behavior and asking them to recognize and respect your feelings. That is to say, they are still free to choose to continue their hurtful behavior. But you have let them know that you are also free to choose to NOT tolerate it and that you will enforce boundaries to protect yourself from it.  You have every right to do that and in fact, it is your sole responsibility to do that.

So think in terms of not controlling the other person, but rather in terms of protecting yourself and having your feelings respected!  That should be your topmost priority.  Whatever they do – or do not do – it is your choice whether to tolerate it or not, and protecting yourself and requesting recognition and respect for your feelings is a valid response when someone has hurt you.

If you have been tolerating abuse from this person for a while, and if you feel at all in danger of physical retaliation or violence, do this with utmost care – maybe have a friend or relative present when you confront your abuser and/or ask a counselor or therapist (I am NOT one!) for help in how to begin the process of confronting the person who is hurting you.  Let someone know ahead of time that you intend to confront him/her and where you’ll be and have them check up on you at a certain time.

_ _ _ _ _

DEFINITIONS of Emotional Abuse by Kali Munro

(some emphasis mine and my own additions added in italics)

Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse – and yet least talked about. Part of the reason it is so easy for people to overlook is that so that much of what is considered normal and acceptable forms of communication is in fact abusive. Many people don’t know that they have been – or are being – emotionally abused. In addition, a lot of emotional abuse doesn’t appear to be severe or dramatic, although its effects can be.

Emotional Abuse is Characterized by a Climate of Abuse

Unlike physical or sexual abuse, where a single incident constitutes abuse, emotional abuse is made up of a series of incidents, or a pattern of behavior that occurs over time. Emotional abuse is more than just verbal insults, the most common definition of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a series of repeated incidents – whether intentional or not – that insults, threatens, isolates, degrades, humiliates, and/or controls another person.

It may include a pattern of one or more of the following abuses: insults, name-calling, criticisms, humiliation, aggressive or rigid demands or expectations, ridicule, derogatory jokes, threats, rejection, neglect, blame, emotional manipulation and control, isolation, punishment, terrorizing, ignoring, or teasing.

Harassment, physical and sexual abuse, and witnessing abuse of others are also forms of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse can take place anywhere: at home, at school, in relationships, and in the workplace. Contrary to popular beliefs that bullies are only found in the school yard, many bullies also exist in the workplace.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is not only under-reported, but it’s effects are minimized. The famous childhood verse, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is simply not true. In fact, many physical and sexual abuse survivors have said that the emotional abuse was often more devastating and had longer-term effects.

Survivors of emotional abuse often have a hard time understanding why they feel so bad. The abuse may not sound like much, and often people around them will minimize the experience, telling them it’s not so bad. But a climate of disregard for a person’s feelings, where one is subjected to constant or frequent criticisms, being yelled at, or being ignored – has a deep and profound effect, attacking the very self-image and confidence of a person.

Identifying Emotional Abuse

How do you recognize emotional abuse? One thing that can help is to step back from your situation and examine the overall climate in your home or your workplace. Trust your instincts and feelings about people. Sometimes, a person can just look at you and you know that they are looking down at you. Other times, their words are okay but their tone is mean. Emotional abuse is insidious and can be very subtle, so trust your gut; it’s telling you something.

Naming It

Because it is harder to name emotional abuse as abuse, it can be harder to heal from as well. The first step is to name your experience as abuse. Trust how you feel. Many people can identify the abuse once they know what to look for because they change from being outgoing, self-confident, and care-free to feeling nervous, anxious, and fearful in the company of an emotionally abusive person. Just because you’re feeling those feelings doesn’t mean that you’re being emotionally abused; there could be something else going on. But, those feelings combined with abusive behavior is convincing evidence that you are being abused.

Try describing to other people how this person behaves. Be honest, and listen to the feedback you receive. If you don’t feel good about the feedback, try someone else. Remember that emotional abuse is frequently minimized.


2 thoughts on “Verbal and Emotional Abuse: What is it and when is it REALLY abuse?

  1. Can you be in a mutually abusive relationship? The person I’m with (a woman) has a LOT of the traits of an abuser and I know I’m being verbally and emotionally abused on some level…but it’s like, because I’m aware of this and hate myself for staying in the situation and feel beaten down and drained by the last 14 months, I passively agressively do things I know will infuriate her, especially when I get drunk…I get jealous and accuse her of unfounded behavior…because I feel like I’ve become isolated and she’s my whole existence – she’s isolated two of my best friends and my sister with her anger – I get resentful/ jealous when she does things with other people without me sometimes and she says she feels pressured and trapped…but I feel the same way when I attempt to go out without her and she says that’s only because she tries to give me a taste of my own medicine…

    I could go on and on forever with this story, but my main question is – does mutual abuse exist and if so, is there any possibility of changing it? Neither of us has had this dynamic to this extent in our other relationships (although she’s also somewhat emotionally and verbally abusive to her mother) and I’m wondering if we just trigger it in one another for some reason…? The problem is that she would never admit she’s being in any way abusive, except to say that her fits of rage are simply a normal reaction to my crazy behavior…despite everything above, I love her and we’re so close and I would love to keep her in my life…cutting myself off from her would mean giving up my friends (who don’t know about us and have no clue what she can be like) and being very lonely…I do everything with her, although we’re in a stage of trying to be more independent right now…but being independent only means that I stay at my place instead of hers and go to the gym or home after work – if I go out, it starts a fight because she claims I should be “working on myself”, not out getting drunk or hanging out with “losers”, if they’re people she doesn’t approve of.

    Anyway…would appreciate any response you might have…


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