5 Signs You're Experiencing Verbal Abuse

Above view of upset adult woman (age 30-40)  lying in bed covering her face.
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Have you ever wondered if you're experiencing verbal abuse? It's a heavy, but important, topic. Studies show that more than one in four women report experiencing verbal abuse in a relationship — and even scarier is the fact that it starts young: 62 percent of young women ages 11 to 14 report experiencing verbal abuse in a romantic relationship. Now, of course one can also experience verbal abuse outside of romantic relationships: parents, siblings, and friends can be verbally abusive, too. However, verbal abuse is generally tied closely to instances of domestic violence, meaning that a verbally abusive person in your life likely has a close relationship to you, either because of a shared living space or a familial tie.

Studies show that experiencing verbal abuse can contribute to the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the same way surviving physical or sexual abuse can. Verbal abuse also has a high chance of contributing to depression, anxiety, and problems sleeping and eating. Verbal abuse and physical abuse often go hand-in-hand, meaning that abusers will often exert their efforts to harm, control, and manipulate their partners through multiple channels. Even on its own, verbal abuse is extremely serious and can have long-term effects. Although we often discuss abuse in terms of physical signs or evidence of the abuse, in fact, this mindset can be especially damaging when survivors of verbal or emotional abuse come forward.

If you think you're experiencing verbal abuse, please seek a safe space and support. Of course, the list below is not exhaustive, but if you find yourself dealing with any of the below from the people in your life, it's worth taking time to seriously evaluate your relationship and your safety.

1. They Insult You

Name-calling is never acceptable in a relationship. In instances of verbal abuse, name calling can be obvious (calling someone stupid, worthless, or a slur, for example) or subtle. Even when the name or slur in question is one that we might associate with a lighter meaning (like "dumb," for example, which is frequently a schoolyard favorite), that doesn't make the use of it any less abusive. And name-calling isn't the only form of insult employed by abusers; they may also insult your preferences, choices, goals, and feelings in an attempt to lower your self-esteem and make you question yourself and your decisions.

Playful teasing or sarcasm can be ways people show affection or humor, but if it's hurtful to you, then it needs to stop no matter what the intention behind it is — and it definitely needs to stop when the behavior is a deliberate attempt to hurt or degrade you. A starting place on distinguishing teasing from abuse, for example, is to address the behavior with the person displaying it and see how they react: Do they apologize and work on their behavior? Or do they blame you for it? If it's the latter, the "teasing" may be a facade for something more nefarious.

2. They Humiliate You In Front Of Others

Has your partner exploded on you while you're in public? Do they lose their cool in a stressful situation and turn it on you? Do they degrade you in front of your friends, family, or coworkers? Verbally abusive behavior is often used in an attempt to control the other person — that is, by degrading or humiliating you, the abuser hopes to gain power over you — and humiliating someone in front of other people is one way to accomplish this goal. Often, it's an attempt on the abuser's part to lower your self-esteem, so you're less likely to leave them.

3. They Flip The Script

Have you ever tried to confront a partner (or family member, etc) about their behavior towards you, only to have them flip the script and blame the situation on you? This can often be a sign of abusive behavior. For instance, if you confront your partner about them using certain words or language which makes you feel bad about yourself, and instead of apologizing or talking through the issue, they peg the issue as your own fault, that's a sign of a serious problem. Often, this is referred to as gaslighting, which hinges on the idea that abusers can make their partners question what's really happening.

4. Their Moods Are Unpredictable

People in verbally abusive relationships often report that it feels like their partner has two sides: There is the nice, helpful, supportive side; and then there's the abusive side, which belittles and frightens them. Experts suggest that when it comes to verbal abuse, abusers are often skilled manipulators who can use these two "versions" of themselves to intentionally break people down and rebuild them as they please.

5. They Threaten To Harm Themselves If You Leave

Threats of self-harm and suicide threats are no joke. However, experts say that a verbally abusive partner is likely to threaten to harm or kill themselves if their partner attempts to leave them. This is manipulative behavior which creates a sense of pressure and obligation on the partner who is trying to escape the unhealthily situation.

Remember, verbal abuse doesn't discriminate; it can affect all kinds of couples, including heterosexual and queer ones. It can also happen in the home, between parents and children, or between siblings. If you feel unsafe, always prioritize getting to the safest position possible. And most importantly, remember this: No matter how much an abuser may try to isolate you, you aren't alone.

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