VERBAL ABUSE
CHARACTERISTICS & PATTERNS


WHEN WORDS ARE USED AS WEAPONS

In healthy relationships, one person doesn’t yell at, put down, or hurt the other, and if any infringement upon personal dignity does occur, it is an unusual and usually unprecedented event for which the perpetrator takes great pains to make amends. 

Patricia Evans – The Verbally Abusive Relationship.


The following article describes the patterns and characteristics of verbal abuse, to help you to recognise if they are happening in your relationship.  Many examples and the catagories have been taken from Patricia Evans excellent book: The Verbally Abusive Relationship - How to recognize it and how to respond.  I recommend this book if you identify any of the patterns below.

I offer counselling for those who are being or have been verbally abused at any time in their lives.  Please contact me if you would like to discuss how I can be of assistance.

 

  • INTRODUCTION
  • CHARACTERISTICS OF VERBAL ABUSE
  • PATTERNS OF VERBAL ABUSE

 Verbal abuse is one of the most damaging and yet frequently misunderstood and ignored forms of metal and emotional abuse.  A victim is often the target of anger, sarcasm or cool indifference, and when trying to make sense of, or question, the abusers actions, is frequently met with a ‘what’s wrong with you’ attitude.  Frequent accusations are that the victim is crazy, making a mountain out of a molehill, damaging the relationship by keeping on about an issue, emotionally unstable, unreasonable etc.  Often the abuser creates an environment of frustration as the victim can’t seem to ever get their point across, when the victim becomes naturally and validly annoyed or appropriately angry at the abuser however, they will be met with a knowing smile of superiority, and a ‘see I told you, you were unstable’ attitude.  

Abusers are master projectors, constantly accusing their victim of committing the very wrongs they themselves are committing.  The abuser is generally unable to take responsibility for their negative behaviour and so demonstrates a victim persona, where everyone else including their partner, is to blame for their mistakes.  The true victim of the abuse can often find themselves feeling sorry for their partner even though they are the ones who have been wronged. Over time a victim begins to lose their mental balance, often wondering if they themselves are in the wrong or crazy.


CHARACTERISTICS OF VERBAL ABUSE

  • Verbal abuse is hurtful and usually attacks the nature and abilities of the partner, until the partner questions their own nature, abilities and sanity, as they begin to believe they might be the problem.
  • Verbal abuse may be overt (angry outbursts and name-calling) or covert (subtle comments that aim at controlling, and upset the partner without them being able to necessarily pinpoint why).
  • Verbal abuse leaves the victim confused as the abuser will deny his intentions even in the face of factual evidence.
  • Verbal abuse is manipulative and controlling, even when the comments are voiced in an extremely sincere and concerned way with an ‘I’m only trying to help you’ attitude.
  • Verbal abuse is insidious.  Self-esteem is gradually eroded, usually the victim is unaware of what is happening until they are firmly under the control of a partner.
  • Victims often try to give into demands and change their behaviour so that they do not upset the abuser.
  • Verbal abuse IS the ISSUE in the relationship.  In a healthy relationship a real argument can be resolved and closure gained for both parties the majority of the time.  If you have frequent arguments and the majority or all of them are never resolved so that you feel you have closure, verbal abuse is probably involved.
  • Verbal abuse expresses a double message, so there is little congruence between what the abuser says and their true feelings.  The intention is to control and manipulate rather than to resolve and work in partnership.
  • Intimacy becomes impossible in a verbally abusive relationship.  Exploring each other’s thoughts and feelings, with respectful, supportive, considerate and caring communication are the hallmarks of a healthy relationship.

 

PATTERNS OF VERBAL ABUSE

WITHOLDING

The primary agreement of a relationship is to relate, to share who you are with another person.  The essential ingredient in a healthy relationship is clear and honest communication.  A withholding partner withholds information about themselves, believing this gives them control.  With an unwillingness to share their innermost world they choose to keep virtually all their thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams to themselves.  The goal is to reveal as little as possible rather than to share their experience.  They also withhold empathic comprehension for their partner, demonstrating little or no desire to listen and understand their partner’s thoughts and feelings.

An intimate relationship requires the sharing of all aspects mentioned above.  One person cannot create intimacy in a relationship; it requires both parties to have a desire to share their innermost experience with each other.  For intimacy to grow each party requires empathy from the other.  Empathetic comprehension involves a desire to support the partner by hearing and understanding their feelings and experience.  People may have difficulty in expressing their feelings and may not always understand each other, but the intention to understand is crucial.  If a partner has an intention to understand they will ask questions like; ‘is this how you feel?’, ‘is this what you mean?’  Sharing language includes phrases such as ‘I think .......’ or ‘I feel ........’

A withholding partner might want or even demand that their partner share information with them.  The intention though is only to satisfy their own need for information, as knowing what their partner is thinking allows them to feel in control.  There is no desire to actually learn about how their partner experiences the world.  When the sharing partner provides information, the withholding partner often refuses to listens to the parts they do not need to hear by switching off, focussing their attention elsewhere whilst insisting they are listening, or by blatantly telling their partner that is enough or to shut-up.

 

CHARACTERISTICS OF A WITHHOLDER

Has little desire to share their self
Refuses or only pretends to listen to their partner
Refuses to share innermost thoughts and feelings
Demonstrates little or no desire to understand the other's feelings or experience
Denies the others experience

 

COMMUNICATION

Patricia Evans highlights three different ways of communicating, functional, engaging and responsive.  All three need to be present for a healthy relationship.  Some examples, adapted from Patricia’s book are below.

Functional Information:

  • We need to talk.
  • I’ll be late tonight.
  • Do you need some help with that?
  • The keys are on the sideboard.
  • Where is my book?
  • Please leave my mail here.
  • The show is now on.
  • The light is broken.
  • The car is almost out of gas.
  • Who left that out?
  • What is for dinner?
  • This needs to be fixed.

Engaging Communication:

  • When you are free, would you mind talking this over with me?
  • I was thinking...
  • Guess what happened today..?
  • Did you ever wonder...?
  • What is your favourite...?
  • How did you like...?
  • What I like best about... is...
  • I feel ...
  • What do you think about...?
  • What would you like to be doing a year from now?
  • How did you feel about...?

Responsive Communication:

  • Oh, I see what you mean.
  • Yes I understand.
  • That’s interesting.
  • I hadn’t thought of that.
  • Un huh.
  • Oh! I’ve always looked at it this way.
  • It sounds like you’re saying...
  • I’ll think it over and let you know.
  • What did you have in mind?
  • Are you saying...?
  • Oh! Do you mean...?

COUNTERING

A countering partner sees their partner as an adversary, someone they need to challenge and beat at all costs.  The goal of the counterer is to be seen to be right and to win.   If a partner says one thing the counterer will say the opposite whether they believe it to be true or not:

 

Counterer: The food at the restaurant was wonderful.
Partner: I’m not so sure.
Counterer: You are wrong.
Partner: Just for me I guess then, I didn’t think my steak was cooked very well.
Counterer: The steaks were cooked to perfection.  You just don’t appreciate good food.

 

Here the counterer refuses to allow their partner to have their own perception of the food they were eating.  Because the partner has challenged the counterer’s opinion by simply stating their own, the counterer feels the need to bring the partner down, by criticising their knowledge and appreciation of food.

 In fact, the denial of a partners experience is very common.  Verbal abusers do not like their partners to think differently from them, and will argue against thoughts, perceptions or experience of life itself, rather than feel a loss of their dominance and control.  Partners who express their own views or opinions, even about their most personal experience of something, will be shot down very quickly:

Partner: I don’t think your Mum likes me very much, she was very rude to me today.
Counterer: You are wrong.  I know her better than you, the issue of dislike does not exist.

Notice here that the counterer also takes their partner’s thoughts about a situation as a statement to be argued.  The partner said she didn’t think rather than ‘Your mum dislikes me’.

Countering is extremely destructive to a relationship as it prevents all possibility of discussion.  It prevents you from knowing what your partner truly thinks about anything, and so intimacy and relating become impossible.

 

DISCOUNTING

A discounting partner devalues their partner’s feelings and experience as if they were worth nothing.   When a partner attempts to assert themselves against the abuse, they are told their feelings and experience are wrong.  Discounting is extremely destructive as it denies and distorts the partner’s actual experience of the abuse.  A discounted partner may start to doubt their own perceptions and start to believe the communication problems are theirs.  Hours may be spent trying to figure out how they come across the way their partner says they do.  The truth is that discounting statements are used so that the partner does not have to take responsibility for their behaviour.  Patricia Evans gives the example, if a partner says ‘I felt hurt when I heard you say.......’, ‘I feel bad when you yell at me like that’ or ‘I don’t think that is funny, it feels like a putdown’, the abuser may use one of the discounting statements below, which gives the message ‘your feelings and experience are wrong, they are worth nothing’.


You’re too sensitive.
You’re jumping to conclusions.
You can’t take a joke.
You blow everything out of proportion.
You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
You don’t have a sense of humour.
You see everything in the worst possible light.
You take things too seriously.
Are you on your period?
You feel too much.
Your imagination is working overtime.
You don’t know what you’re talking about.
You think you know it all.
You always have to have something to complain about.
You’re trying to start something.
You’re not happy unless you’re complaining.
You take everything wrong.
You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
You read things into my words.
You twist everything around.
You’re looking for a fight.
You are being unreasonable

 

VERBAL ABUSE DISGUISED AS JOKES

This type of abuse is not done in jest, it cuts to the quick, touches the most sensitive areas and is meant to be cruel.  It leaves the abuser with a feeling or look of triumph.  This type of abuse never seems funny, because it isn’t funny.  Although teasing is a favourite pastime in family and love relationships, it can be a strong tactic of control.   Even at its most innocent, teasing is designed to trigger people’s shame, to cause them to feel foolish or incompetent.


Examples:
You would lose your head if it wasn’t attached.
You need a babysitter.
Did you ever go to school?
What else can you expect from a woman?

 

Further damage may be caused if the victim questions the ‘joke’ and says they did not find it funny.  An abuser will usually then discount the victims experience, by saying something like, ‘you can’t take a joke’, you are too sensitive’, or ‘you don’t have a sense of humour’.  If the abuser reacts with anger, the victim may then be accused of trying to start an argument, as if they had caused the abuser to get angry.  These responses are abusive in themselves.

 

BLOCKING AND DIVERTING

 Blocking and diverting are used to prevent healthy communication.  The primary purpose of these techniques are to end communication, control what can be discussed and/or withhold information.

Blocking Examples:

 You’re just trying to have the last word!
You know what I meant!
You think you know it all!
You heard me.  I shouldn’t have to repeat myself!
You’re talking out of turn!
I don’t see where this is going!  The discussion is endless.
That’s a lot of crap!
Quit giving me all that flack!
Will you get off my back!
Just drop it!
You always have to be right!
Quit yakking!
Did anybody ask you?
Where did you get a crazy/stupid/dumb idea like that?
Who asked for your opinion?
Quit your bitching!
I can't stand all this repeating

 Diverting can be used to block communication.  By changing topic the original point of the discussion can be quickly lost.  Accusations and irrelevant comments are common diverting tactics.

 When a partner has spent £20,000 from a joint bank account the other partner asks what has happened to it, these are examples of diverting responses that enable the spender to avoid responsibility, by not answering the original question:


What are you worried about!  You have plenty to spend!
There’s no way I’m going to go through all those receipts!
It costs money to stay in business so quit harassing me!
I’m not going to try to explain to you how the corporate retirement programs are set up!
Don’t complain to me till you’re earning two hundred thousand a year!
I’ve explained it all to you before, and I’m not going to go through it again!
All you married me for is my money!
Do I have to account for every penny!
How about you accounting for every penny you spend!
I’m sick of your complaints!
If you think it’s so simple, then you can do the taxes and I’ll quit work!
Just drop it.  I don’t need that kind of hassle!
It’s too complicated for you to understand!

 

ACCUSING AND BLAMING

 Relationships are built on give and take, where each partner tells the other how they feel, and both work together to compromise and create mutual happiness.  The verbal abuser however, feels attacked and becomes defensive when their partner points something out that upsets or concerns them about their partner’s behaviour.  If the partners concerns anger, irritate or lead to the verbal abuser feeling insecure, they will often blame their partner for their feelings and accuse them of some wrongdoing.   Some examples follow:


Partner:  I feel you have been a bit distant lately, is there anything wrong?
Abuser: For goodness sake why do you always think something is wrong!
Partner: It’s just how I’ve felt, if nothing is wrong maybe we can spend some time together today?
Abuser: Why would I want to spend time with you when you keep on at me all the time!


Further abusive, accusing and blaming statements:
You always have to have the last word.
You’re just trying to pick a fight.
You’re looking for trouble.
You’re attacking me.
You can’t leave well enough alone.
I’ve had it with your attacks/bitching/complaining.

 

JUDGING AND CRITICIZING

 We all make judgements about others and have opinions that may differ.  Constructive criticism that is delivered in a kind, considerate and supportive way, whilst allowing the receiver the freedom to challenge the criticism and to be the ultimate judge of what is best for them, is healthy and necessary for us all.   Verbal abusers however, believe that they alone know what is best for others, and that they are entitled to make harsh and derogatory judgements and voice them in a critical way. 

 Some judgemental and critical statements are:


 The trouble with you is ...
Your problem is ...
You cheat.
You’re never satisfied.
You’re a lousy winner.
You’re stupid.
You can’t take a joke.
You’re crazy.
You can’t let well enough alone.
How dumb (you are).
How stupid (you are).
You are unreasonable.

 

Critical statements can also be made about you to others:


 She’s afraid of her shadow.
He can’t keep anything straight.
She never sticks to anything.
He never stops nagging.
She doesn’t know if she’s coming or going.

 Critical stories about your mistakes or blatant lies about you that embarrass you in front of others are also abusive.  For example:

 Every time she goes out she forgets her keys.
I can’t let him drive the car anymore, I doubt it would come back in one piece.

Help and advice can also be disguised criticism.

 Next time you should ...
You should have used ...
Look what you missed ...
If you had done it the way I would have done it, it would have turned out better...

 A note here on projection, abusers are very adept at accusing their partners of the abusive behaviours they are exhibiting.  Help and advice can be critical and play on the partners competence:

 

Partner (accomplished artist) – I have just finished my painting, do you like it?
Abuser – You should have used red instead of blue.
Partner (accomplished artist) – oh, I like the blue, why do you think I should have used red?
Abuser – The blue looks ridiculous, next time you should ask my advice.
 
Partner – I have parked the car in the driveway.
Abuser – next time ask me to do it, I don’t want you having an accident.
 
Or help and advice can be just that:

Healthy partner – Are you having difficulty with ...?
Partner – Yes, I’m just not sure what to do here.
Healthy partner – I have some suggestions, can I offer you some advice/help?

 

If you accuse your partner of offering abusive help and advice they are likely to accuse you of doing the same, even if the way you offer help is completely different.  Questioning your partners behaviour, or offering advice on something you are informed about at your partner’s request, is very different to criticising your partner directly by enforcing your opinion on them.  A partner may accuse you of abusive criticism even if it is constructive, because they believe incorrectly that you are at war with them and trying to win or gain power over them.

 Confusion may also arise here when the partner questions the behaviours of the verbal abuser.  The victim might be accused of being critical or judgemental by the abuser who does not want to take responsibility for their own behaviour.  The victim might end up feeling as if they are judgemental when the abuser says ‘you should accept others as they are’ and so will continue to try and accept and understand their partners behaviour.  Beware of this statement, an awareness that people have the right to be who they are requires an understanding that other people have the right to be who they are, and to live free from abuse of any form.  If I imply that I can continue to treat you poorly, take you for granted or abuse you in any way because I should be allowed to be myself, I am being abusive rather than non-judgemental.  Remember nobody has the right to abuse you and the abuser is apt at using words and techniques to enable them to continue abusing.

 TRIVIALIZING

 Trivializing is an attempt to take something said or done and make it insignificant.  Trivializing leaves the receiver feeling that that mate does not understand them, their work or their interests.  Often the receiver also feels that they can’t have effectively explained to their mate how important certain things are to them.  A trivializer tells you that what is meaningful to you has little meaning, and that what is valuable to you has little value, an attempt to dilute meaning and value in your life is trivializing.

 Jane describes how her mate trivialized her experience by minimising her accomplishments:

 I mentioned to Luke how excited I was to have got a job in my area of expertise.  I didn’t have the expected degree but my practical application had impressed my employers so much that they offered me a fiercely competed job that I had wanted for over two years.  Luke said well done, and I was so happy to share my news with him.  I started to tell him about how much I would be responsible for.  He turned to me and said ‘don’t worry your little head about that, If they had wanted someone who already knew what they were doing, they would have chosen someone with a degree.  I felt deflated and confused, Luke had seemed so happy for me, but in a few words had diminished my achievement to an insignificance.

 Tina explains how her husband trivialised a very upsetting event in her life:

 I’m an artist and my work is very important to me.  My bag is my whole world in regard to work, I carry lots of equipment but most importantly I carry a sketch pad that I fill with art concepts and ideas over the months.  I went to meet my husband Jack for lunch recently and placed my bag down on a chair, after chatting to Jack I turned around to get something out of my bag and realised it was gone.  I looked around frantically and then turned to Jack and exclaimed ‘it’s gone, everything, all my work!’  Jack responded to my fear by relaxing back in his chair and said ‘Oh, just sit down and relax.  Nothing you can do now, no point worrying about that silly stuff’.


UNDERMINING

 Undermining withholds emotional support and also erodes confidence and determination.  Victims of undermining have their interest and enthusiasm dampened so much that they often loose motivation to do the things they love and that make them happy.


 Examples of undermining:

 Partner: What a beautiful tree!
Abuser: A tree is a tree.
 Partner: I’d like to find out if there are any...
Abuser: Responses including - What’s the point? Why bother?  I don’t see that that’ll
get you anywhere. 

Who cares?

 Direct squelches are also undermining including:

 
Who asked you?

Nobody asked your opinion.
You always have to put in your two cents!
You wouldn’t understand.
It’s over your head.
You’ll never make it.
You couldn’t talk if your hands were tied.
What makes you think you’re so smart?
Whom are you trying to impress!
It seems simple to me, give it here and I will do it.

 Sabotaging is also a way of undermining:

 Partner: I have a great idea for an article I want to write.
After listening intently and nodding head to encourage the partner to tell them - Abuser: I don’t think anyone would be interested in that.
 Abusers may also seek out articles and pieces of information from so called ‘experts’ that oppose their partners opinion or new idea.
 An abuser who constantly asks their partner if they are okay when doing a normal task such as driving, studying or a hobby they enjoy, can also undermine the partner’s determination and sense of well-being.

 THREATENING

Threatening manipulates the partner by bringing up their greatest fears of loss and pain.  Threats are based around something the abuser wants the partner to do, that the partner does not want to and can involve sexual demands.  We are all entitled to inform our partners we will leave if they keep treating us with a lack of concern or disrespect.  Abusers though, threaten to leave because they feel they own their partners and so they must do anything they want them to do.


 Do what I want or I will leave.
Do what I what or I’ll take on a mistress.
Do what I want or I’ll be really angry.
Do what I want or I’ll hit you.

 

NAME CALLING

 All name calling is verbally abusive.  Forms of endearment such as ‘sweetheart’ are of course exceptions, but even these can be abusive if they are said with real sarcasm.

 

FORGETTING

Verbal abusers frequently avoid taking responsibility for their actions by regularly claiming to have forgotten important conversations, agreements or incidents.  We all forget what has happened now and again, but it is the consistency of forgetting interactions which have a great impact on their partner that marks the abuser out as being in denial or covertly manipulating their partner by blatantly lying.

 
When a partner questions their abusive mate about the abuse or an important agreement they receive responses like:

 I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I’m not going to listen to this.
I don’t know where you got that.
I never agreed to anything.

ORDERING

 Abusers frequently give orders rather than asking their partner respectfully to do something.  The abuser treats their partner as an object who should be automatically available to fulfil his wishes, denying all equality and autonomy of the partner.


Get rid of this.
Get in here and clean this up.
You’re not going out now.
Get this off of here.
You’re not wearing that.
We won’t discuss it.
Shut that off.
We’re doing this now.

When an abuser does want or has to have their partners input into a decision, they  may also pressurise, demand and order their partner to make big decisions very quickly, without giving them time to think or consider.

DENIAL

 Denial denies the reality of the partner.  An abuser may use every category of verbal abuse above on a regular basis, but on reading this article will say that they have never been abusive, as they love and would never hurt their partner.  Often abusers have an ideal image of themselves and will do anything to maintain the idea that they are open, kind, considerate, empathic and loving people.  It is denial when a partner says:


I never said that.

You’re making that all up.
We never had that conversation.
You’re getting upset about nothing.
I don’t know where you got that.
You’ve got to be crazy.
 
When the partner clearly realizes that:
 You did say that.
I have made nothing up.
We did have that conversation.
I am upset about something.
My experience is real.
I am not crazy.

All rights reserved - © SASHA PHILLIPS - 2011