Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
What Is Verbal Abuse?
Verbal abuse is any abuse that is verbal. Verbal abuse in marriage includes yelling and screaming at you, though it doesn’t count when both partners are screaming at each other as part of an argument. Verbal abuse can take the form of making you feel guilty or bad if you don’t consent to sex or don’t agree to sexual acts they want performed. Withholding sex to punish someone is simply emotional abuse.
Verbal abuse includes things said to manipulate you and hurt you, such as threatening to harm you, harm pets, hurt your children or even self-harm. Note that a threat by someone to commit suicide if you leave is not only emotional abuse on the highest order but should result in a call to the police so that they make certain the person doesn’t actually harm themselves. And anyone who has made such threats repeatedly is a severe threat to your safety, because this person may kill you and then themselves if you leave without protection. Merely threatening to abandon you is emotional abuse but not as dangerous.
Emotional abuse occurs when someone blames you for their bad choices, such as blaming you for their alcohol or drug addiction. Emotional abuse happens when someone blames you for their cheating, saying it is your fault because you didn’t do enough to make them happy. Emotional abuse includes starting rumors about you to keep you in line, blaming you or others for events but never their own choices, and crossing boundaries you set but punishing you for crossing theirs.
Constant criticism is a form of emotional abuse, though bringing up actual problems such as your excessive drinking or self-harming behaviors are not emotional abuse. Two people fighting over money, for example, is not emotional abuse. One partner spending the savings account on a luxury while browbeating the other for prior spurious spending, though, is emotional abuse and manipulation to guilt trip them into subservience.
One form of emotional abuse is when the partner is constantly engaging in sarcasm and cruel jokes that put you down, always at your expense. You’re then accused of being too sensitive when you don’t see their so-called joke. You know it is emotional abuse when you face the threat of violence or outrage if you attempt to return the “joke”.
A partner who demeans your opinions or ignores them can be a type of verbal abuse. The caveat here is that people who disagree on things like politics aren’t verbally abusive if they can agree to disagree. Someone ignoring you because they are giving their attention to a phone call, another conversation or the children isn’t verbal abuse. Always demeaning your ideas is verbal abuse, as is taking credit for your ideas when they are with others. Conversely, people who couch their own suggestions among so many modifiers that others are pre-conditioned to disregard them aren’t verbally abused – they just shot themselves in the foot.
If you want to express an opinion or idea, ensure that you have your partner’s attention and tell them exactly what you want them to do. If they disagree with it but aren’t shouting you down or demeaning it the moment they hear it, this isn’t emotional abuse. If you hint at something but the other partner doesn’t get it, this is a failure of communication, not emotional abuse. A partner who ignores you when you clearly state you need to discuss disciplining a wayward child, deal with out of control spending or their own illegal or immoral behavior is engaging in emotional abuse and trying to avoid responsibility at the same time. When one person constantly controls the money in the relationship and treats you like a child by giving you an allowance or saying you can’t handle these affairs, this is emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse occurs when someone blackmails you, whether it is literal when they threaten to expose embarrassing information to friends and family or virtual by saying they’ll post secrets online if you don’t do what they want.
Verbal abuse includes the written and digital word. Someone sending you threatening or embarrassing text messages counts as verbal abuse as much as the words they scream at you in private.
Verbal abuse is abuse, even though it doesn’t cause physical damage. It causes emotional pain and conflict. It can also lead to physical violence, because the insecure person using words to control you now is prone to escalating to physical assault later. A warning sign of this is when you receive verbal abuse when you don’t adequately defer to the other person as the dominant one in the relationship.
How Does Emotional Abuse Relate to Verbal Abuse?
When a partner calls you names and constantly puts you down, that is clear verbal abuse and counts as emotional abuse as well. Constantly accusing you of cheating is verbal abuse, while attempts to control where you go and what you do are emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse does not have to be verbal. Intentionally embarrassing you in public to shame you into wanting to stay home, preventing you from seeing family or friends, damaging your property and trying to control what you wear are types of emotional abuse that may never involve words. Stalking you is a type of emotional abuse but not verbal abuse. While stalking is often portrayed as something a crazy stranger does, your spouse can stalk you, too, such as a partner who follows you to and from work or keeps running into you at the mall because they were actually spying on you.
Sometimes verbal abuse involves emotional and legal threats at once. Threats to accuse someone of something so they go to jail or Child Protective Services (so the children are taken away) are both verbal and emotional abuse.
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Why Do People Engage in Emotional Abuse?
When one partner is physically abusing the other, verbal abuse is used to make the victim think they are to blame for it or deserved it. Emotional abuse to shame someone into thinking they are bad, stupid, ugly, fat, unattractive or unloved has the intent of keeping the partner with the abuser because they think no one else will want them.
Threats of blackmail or violence are intended to scare the partner so that they don’t leave. In other cases, verbal abuse is their coping mechanism with situations to put themselves in the right or avoid dealing with problems.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is the silent treatment a form of emotional abuse?
Answer: Yes, it is. It is a deliberate passive-aggressive effort to frustrate the other person and hurt them. It is counter-productive if the effort is to work out the problem.
Question: My husband twists the truth. Is that mental abuse?
Answer: Not necessarily. I don't have enough information to tell if he's giving his perspective, if he is a chronic liar in general or "twisting the truth" is tied to emotional abuse or gaslighting.
Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on October 20, 2017:
dashingscorpio You're right that frequency matters. Yelling sessions once a month are frustrating. Every week, every day, is too much.
dashingscorpio from Chicago on October 13, 2016:
Another factor is frequency.
As you noted if both people are yelling at one another it's not often viewed as abuse. However sometimes one person is yelling back as a "defense mechanism" or it's their way of standing up for them self.
The same is true of physical abuse just because two people are hitting each other doesn't negate the fact it's physical abuse. If someone practices self defense by hitting back whenever they are hit doesn't mean they're not a victim of abuse.
Ultimately if someone is constantly putting you down, insulting you, or making you feel like you're in a "child/parent relationship" instead of an equal partner then you're in an abusive relationship.
If you're always walking on eggshells, nervous, and unable to relax and "be yourself" within the relationship you're with the wrong person!
One man's opinion! :)