Note: Issues of verbal control can exist in any relationship, heterosexual, gay or lesbian, male towards a female partner or the other way around. Since more is known about verbal abuse in relationships where a guy is controlling his female partner, this article will address those relationships. However, a simple change of gender in any of the names is all it takes to apply the principles to other pairs.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Verbal abuse takes many forms: from loud rants to quiet comments; from obvious put-downs to not-so-obvious remarks that undermine the partner. What all the methods have in common is the need to control, to be superior, to avoid taking personal responsibility, and to mask or deny failures.
The myth in Hank’s and Mary’s relationship is that he is much, much smarter than she is. She does admire him, but not as much as he admires himself. He trumps anything she says with a stronger, maybe louder opinion. He calls her ideas naïve or ill-informed or even idiotic. Mary thinks he may be right. Since marrying Hank 3 years ago, her self-confidence has plummeted.
Jake, on the other hand, hides his need for control in his relationship with Marilyn under sarcasm, jokes and puns. “Why,” he says, “doesn’t Marilyn understand I’m just joking?” Why? Because she is the object of those sarcastic remarks, “jokes” and puns. He both publicly and privately keeps her off-balance by joking about her insights, her goals, and the things she cares most about. She has come to question her judgment about her ideas and about him. Lots of people think he’s funny. Maybe, she thinks, he doesn’t mean it. Maybe, she tells herself, she needs to have a better sense of humor.
Frank can’t stand to be seen as responsible for any failure. When he makes a mistake, his mantra is “I may be wrong but you are wrong-er.” If his wife says he has hurt her feelings, he claims not to remember having said what he said or having done what he did. He tells her she is “too sensitive.” He whines about being a scapegoat for other people’s problems. He doesn’t seem to get that he is the perpetrator, not the victim.
Al isn’t subtle. His wife and kids never know what to expect when he comes home. Will loving, caring Al be at the door with treats for the kids and something nice for his wife? Or will the Al who flies into rages, who threatens them with physical abuse and swears and calls them names show up? The whole household walks on eggshells. Even when loving-Al is around, things can change in an instant if he is the least bit frustrated. Last week when his 5-year-old spilled milk at the dinner table, he yelled at her for an hour. When his wife tried to intervene, he backhanded her. Everyone got real quiet. Then – the storm blew over and Al left for the rest of the evening.
If you recognize yourself in any of the above scenarios, you are being verbally abused. Make no mistake: Although verbal abuse doesn’t leave visible scars, it does do damage. The victims’ self-esteem is eroded. Children who watch one parent being put down and diminished by the other develop a skewed and sad view of how relationships are supposed to be.
6 Signs You Are Being Verbally Abused
- Like Mary, you feel you just can’t win. No matter how carefully or kindly you try to work out a problem, your partner says things that make you feel like you’re in the wrong.
- Your self-esteem and self-confidence are shot. Your partner isn’t your greatest fan but your greatest critic. He often tells you that his comments are “for your own good.”
- When you say he has hurt your feelings your partner, like Frank in the scene above, tells you that you are too sensitive. When you point out that he has said something inappropriate or hurtful, he accuses you of trying to make him look bad. You notice that he rarely takes responsibility for his part of a problem. Somehow he manages to convince himself and even you that anything that goes wrong is your fault.
- You often are the brunt of jokes that make you feel bad. The guy who is fun and fun-loving outside the family unleashes a more vicious or undermining humor inside. Other people don’t believe you that the guy they know is so different from what you experience. Like Marilyn, you find yourself constantly questioning yourself.
- You have to walk on eggshells at home. Your home isn’t a sanctuary for you and your kids. It is the place where you are most afraid and embarrassed. You and the kids stay away as much as you can. When you are there with your partner, you all do everything you can to make sure nothing happens that could set him off.
- If you’re not very careful, the verbal abuse escalates to physical altercations. Even if you are very careful, what starts with words can end up with physical aggression toward you or destroying things, especially things you value.
Whoever made up that rhyme about “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me” was just plain wrong! Words do hurt. They can break a person on the inside just as surely as a whack with a stick bruises the outside. People who are subjected to verbal abuse suffer. People who are subjected to it over time can get so used to it that they lose their sense of themselves as people worth loving. If you see yourself in any of these stories, know you are not alone. There are things you can do. Part II of this article will discuss them.