Verbal abuse is subtle, insidious, and extremely painful, but there are easy ways to respond if you can properly identify when it is happening.
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I’ve been birthed by, worked for, befriended, and dated my fair share of abusers. Verbal abusers are the ones I have engaged the most with, sadly.
Verbal abuse is often subtle and insidious. The abuser, consciously or unconsciously, works to put down the victim in a way that makes themselves feel more powerful. If you are the victim, you may have no idea it’s happening, but you may know you suffer from low self-esteem and self-confidence. You often don’t feel understood, and you are racked with doubt.
The different kinds of verbal abuse are listed in detail here.
My now ex-husband was a master at blocking and diverting, which is one type in which the abuser actively withholds information.
A perfect example of this was when I was working on getting our home refinanced. The lender asked that we provide copies of the statements of all of our credit cards. I did so, but then the lender came back and asked for the statement of a credit card that was just in my ex-husband’s name. He had gotten it years before, but I’d forgotten he’d even had it. “I need the statement for your credit card,” I told him.
“That’s my credit card,” he said.
“They need it to finish refinancing our home.”
“I don’t have time to bother with getting it. I have an actual job to do, unlike you right now [I was off for winter break as I’m a teacher]. Why are you always bothering me when I’m busy?” “I didn’t know you were busy, and I’m trying to get this done by next week. Can you tell me where I can go online so I can just print it out for us?”
“Leave me alone! I’m busy.”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know!”
Later, I chose a moment when he was obviously not busy. He was watching TV and playing on his phone, so I asked again. His response now was, “I’m relaxing. Why are you bothering me when I’m relaxing?” For another day, he was able to put me off because I felt guilty for bothering him.
What I found out later was that my ex-husband didn’t want me to see his statement because that was the credit card where he’d not only run up a lot of debt, but he had also credited himself money from his place of employment, as in he’d embezzled from his job.
The ways to respond to verbal abuse are surprisingly simple, but they require the victim to know when they are being abused, which is always the first step.
Patricia Evans in her book The Verbally Abusive Relationship outlines in detail how to identify, respond, and recover. I highly recommend reading her book if you feel that you might have or are currently being verbally abused in any of your relationships.
The hardest thing for me has always been how deeply I have felt misunderstood by my verbal abusers.
I have always felt that if I could just get them to understand that I meant ________ instead of ________, then they wouldn’t be so mad and we wouldn’t be fighting! That’s what I did. Over and over and over again.
I explained myself to death to someone who was never going to understand me because their main goal was to have power over me.
Evans argues that the victims are trying to build a mutually cooperative environment, while the abusers are just trying to have dominance. It is like the victim and the abuser live in two different realities.
A victim of verbal abuse needs to get over their desire to explain or defend themselves. You simply can’t rationalize or reason with someone who is operating on a different plane of reality.
"If someone started throwing rocks through your windows, you would be more inclined to tell him to stop than you would be to explain to him why he shouldn’t throw rocks. Verbal abuse is like a rock thrown through your window."
Thus, the best way to respond to verbal abuse is to say, “stop.”
Sometimes that stop needs to be followed by walking away.
Just like “no” is a complete sentence, “stop” is as well. It doesn’t require justification or explanation because if the other person truly wants to understand, they will come to you and work that out.
The important thing is that you, the victim, recognize when you are being abused and confront it in the moment.
Simply saying “stop” isn’t the way to respond to every form of verbal abuse, but it is the way to respond to most kinds.
You should say "stop" whenever someone says something like the following to you:
“You’re jumping to conclusions/being dramatic!”
“You’re making me mad/starting a fight/pushing my buttons.”
“You don’t love me/need to go to therapy/need to chill out.”
“You’re lazy/fat/stupid/any other mean statement.”
if they call you any names: “bitch,” etc.
if they order you around: “Clean the house/Bring me some food.”
if they disguise abuse as questions or jokes: “Are you on your period? Just kidding!”
"Stop" doesn't work in EVERY instance though.
Saying “stop” to my ex-husband, for example, when he was blocking me from getting the information I needed wouldn’t have worked. Situations like that require not getting distracted by the abuser’s attempts at diversion and repeating the question, statement, or need.
Here’s an example of how that conversation with my ex-husband could have gone differently:
Me: “I need the statement for your credit card."
Him: “That’s my credit card.”
Me: (repeating the request) “I need the statement for your credit card.”
Him: “I don’t have time to bother with getting it. Why are you always bothering me when I’m busy?”
Me: (repeating the request again) “I need the statement for your credit card.”
Him: “I can’t get it now.”
Me: (repeating the request a third time) “I need the statement for your credit card.”
Him: “I can get it later.”
Then once later came, I would need to follow the same tactic until I got the information I needed.
Verbal abuse, like any kind of abuse, is not okay, and we often need to leave relationships with abusers to end the abuse completely.
In situations where you must retain the relationship for some length of time, like if it was your boss and you couldn’t quit the job until you'd secured another one, you can practice ways to confront the inappropriate behavior in the moment and show the abuser that you will not stand for that kind of conduct anytime it occurs.
If your abuser is someone you love, like a spouse, Patricia Evans also includes an agreement to help change verbal abuse long-term in her book, The Verbally Abusive Man — Can He Change?: A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (though the book is gender/relationship-specific, the agreement could work with any verbal abuser).
There is hope, and the hope starts with getting help: whether it’s reading articles like this one, reading books like the two I mentioned, seeing a therapist, or reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Including you. Including me.
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