Have you ever heard any of the following from your SO?
- “You’re trying to start a fight.”
- “You just want to be right.”
- You don’t feel that way.”
- You’re too sensitive.”
- You’re making it a bigger deal than it is.”
Someone who is verbally or emotionally abusive will often use statements like these in a conscious or subconscious attempt to control their partner. They make these statements definitively as if they lived within their partner’s body/mind/soul and actually knew these things to be true!
Verbal and emotional abuse is a kind of battering which doesn’t leave evidence comparable to physical abuse, and so many do not see it as abuse at all. In fact, many see it as just a difference of opinions or personalities. Nothing could be further from the truth. This subtle abuse can be just as painful and the recovery from it can be longer than for victims of physical abuse. The victim of abuse lives in a gradually more confusing realm. In public, she/he is with one person, but in private it’s a different story. Diminishing or angry outbursts, cool indifference or one-upmanship, witty sarcasm or silent withholding, manipulative coercion or unreasonable demands are common occurrences. They all have one thing in common: the “what’s wrong with you?” attitude. Victims of this abuse often start to feel crazy. No one usually sees the abuse, and so the victim is left doubting it is even real.
If you have been verbally abused, you have been told in subtle and explicit ways that your perception of reality is wrong and that your feelings are wrong. As a result, you may doubt your own experiences and very gradually start to lose your voice and yourself. The most shocking part about verbal and emotional abuse is so few people realize it when it’s happening to them. Most people just have a feeling that something is wrong in their relationship. They figure it is something they are doing or not doing, but they truly don’t know how to fix it. They may read books, blogs, or seek out counseling, but until they recognize the signs for what they are, nothing constructive can happen.
The following evaluation comes from the book The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans (3rd Edition). Take a few moments to reflect on your relationship and see if any of these ring true for you.
- He seems irritate or angry with you several times a week or more although you hadn’t meant to upset him. You are surprised each time. (He says he’s not mad when you ask him what he’s mad about, or he tells you in some way that it’s your fault.)
- When you feel hurt and try to discuss your upset feelings with her, you don’t feel as if the issue has been fully resolved, so you don’t feel happy and relieved, nor do you have a feeling that you’ve “kissed and made up.”
- You frequently feel perplexed and frustrated by his responses because you can’t get him to understand your intentions.
- You are upset not so much about concrete issues—how much time to spend with each other, where to go on vacation, etc.—as about the communication in the relationship: what she thinks you said and what you heard her say.
- You sometimes wonder, “What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t feel so bad.”
- He rarely, if ever, seems to want to share his thoughts or plans with you.
- She seems to take the opposite view from you on almost everything you mention, and her view is not qualified by “I think” or “I believe” or “I feel”—as if your view were wrong and hers was right.
- You sometimes wonder if he perceives you as a separate person.
- You can’t recall saying to her, “Cut it out!” or, “Stop it!”
- He is either angry or “has no idea what you’re talking about” when you try to discuss an issue with him.
- She often denies certain conversations even happened. When you attempt to summarize the conversation in an attempt to remind her, she becomes even more enraged.
- He often threatens you when he’s angry. (“Pack your crap and leave.” Or, “I’ll file divorce papers tomorrow.”)
- She gives you the silent treatment when she is angry and refuses to work through an issue. While it is often healthy to take a break and let emotions settle during an argument, a prolonged silent treatment is emotional abuse.
- He withholds affection from you as a form of punishment (intentionally or unintentionally.)
- You feel like if you could only find the “right” way to speak, act, or be then things would get better.
If you have agreed with two or more of these statements, there is a very good chance that your SO is verbally and emotionally abusive. It’s important to remember, that the vast majority of individuals who abuse their loved one verbally or emotionally are completely unaware they are doing it. They may have learned these destructive patterns in their childhood. The good news is that a person can learn to recognize these destructive behaviors within themselves and change them.
Victims of verbal and emotional abuse live in different realities than their partners. In healthy relationships, when a person expresses their feelings, their partner listens carefully and then validates them. In an abusive relationship, the person dismisses or diminishes their partner’s feelings. The general guideline is if the words or attitude displayed by your partner disempower, disrespect, or devalue you, then they are abusive.
So, what should you do if you identify yourself in any of this? First, if you have discovered that you are the abuser—congratulations! Now you can seek out professional help and learn healthy ways to foster a relationship. You CAN overcome this. Second, if you are the victim you need to be proactive about stopping the abuse. Seeking out a trained professional would be helpful for you as well. In part two of this article, I will share with you some ideas of what you can begin to do today to start taking control of your life back. But know this—you must do something to change the pattern! Hoping that if you are nice enough and given enough they will change is not the right strategy. They won’t! You need to use this information to empower yourself to demand the respect you deserve from your relationship.