The Insidious Problem Of Verbal Abuse

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As Tolstoy’s opening lines to Anna Karenina attest, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Couples probably instinctively know this bit of wisdom more intimately than most. Happiness depends on a variety of factors — satisfy each one and happiness follows. When there’s an issue with any one factor, though, there’s trouble ahead.

A verbally abused woman

A specific example involves communication. In most any relationship, arguments may be inevitable. A problem arises, though, when disagreements cross the line into verbal abuse — especially when it’s hard to know if your experience is normal or atypical. Writing for, Emma-Marie Smith says “As anyone who has been in an abusive relationship will tell you, patterns of verbal abuse exist.” What are these patterns? Smith say they can be summed up as:

Short bursts. Exactly what it sounds like: unpredictable outbursts in an otherwise normal relationship.

Love bombing. A pattern of alternating between verbal abuse and romantic gestures.

Not seeking reconciliation. While it’s common to see (especially in books or movies) one partner beg for forgiveness after lashing out, it’s also common for one partner to ignore the other’s attempts at reconciliation.

Minimizing. This typically appears when one partner makes a joke about the argument or claims the other is overreacting.  

Withholding. A particularly complex behavior, marked by the abuser withholding conversation or physical contact.

Other researchers have studied verbal abuse and described an even wider variety of forms of verbal abuse. Berit Brogaard, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, mentions the patterns that Smith identifies, but adds many key types, including:

Discounting. Often coming across as criticism, it basically denies the partner’s true thoughts or feelings.

Accusing and blaming. A particularly insidious form of abuse, it can involve one partner making the outlandish claim, for example, that they missed a promotion because their partner was overweight.

Threatening. Completely unsubtle, a threatening partner can simply and explicitly state they’ll leave if they don’t get their way.

Anger. Akin to threatening, it can include anything from yelling and screaming to physical abuse.   

The danger of living with verbal abuse is real. In an article in HealthDay, Paige Bierma says that “Ongoing, repeated verbal attacks meted out by an intimate, or by someone in a position of authority, can drastically affect self-esteem, give rise to enormous anxiety and periods of confusion, and even lead to clinical depression in susceptible individuals.”

As we said, arguments are normal and probably inevitable. Verbal abuse is not. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the subject, see the articles referenced above here:

5 Common Patterns of Verbal Abuse

15 Disturbing Forms of Verbal Abuse in Relationships

Depression and Verbal Abuse