Verbal abuse can be difficult to spot, especially since it often comes in the form of seemingly harmless comments. If your
partner is being verbally abusive, they might disguise a rude remark, or claim it was a joke. But since their goal is to manipulate you, break you down, or make you more reliant on them, there's really nothing funny about it.
"Verbal abuse seeks to gain power and control over another by diminishing the other's sense of confidence, competence, and even sense of self to create an atmosphere of 'need' within the relationship,"
Alison Sullivan, LCSW, tells Bustle. "It is disempowering and dangerous."
In fact, it's a
form of emotional abuse, and one that can lead to larger problems down the road. "It is something to watch out for because verbal abusers do not start out with daily, or hourly verbal assaults," licensed psychotherapist Christine Scott-Hudson, MA LMFT ATR, tells Bustle. "It is a pattern that escalates over time."
If you notice a pattern or unhealthy comments, you can approach your partner and
bring it to their attention. "You can start a conversation [...] explaining how those comments make you feel," Sullivan says. "If your partner responds defensively or even aggressively, then it's time to consider couples counseling to help sort it out." Or even leaving the relationship, if that's something you'd like to do, and it feels possible.
Verbal abuse is
all about manipulation, and can be tricky to identify. And experts say it sometimes even comes in the form of offhand comments and remarks, like the ones listed below.
If your partner says things like "you're so sensitive" or "you're making a big deal out of nothing," it might not seem that bad. But comments like these can really do a number on your self-esteem over time, and are therefore considered verbal abuse.
"These are examples of discounting,"
Liz Colizza, MA, LPC, licensed therapist and head of research at Lasting, tells Bustle. "Discounting happens when the abuser says things to deny their partner's experience and reality."
Instead of listening to what you have to say, or validating what you're worried about, they make it seem silly as a way to put you down. As a result, Colizza says, you might start to feel like something's wrong with you, or as if you aren't able to communicate properly — even though that's not actually the case.
This is an example of denial, Colizza says, where your partner literally denies your reality by claiming they never said something, even when you're 100 percent sure they did. If they do it often enough, you may start to feel like you're going crazy, or feel as if you're overreacting. It's another way to make you doubt yourself, so they can remain in control.
If you suspect this is happening, meeting with a therapist can be a big help. They can sort through these types of comments, and help you see them with more clarity.
"I Don't Know How You Survived Before I Came Alone"
David Prado Perucha/Shutterstock
While it might seem funny or sweet, the implication here is that you
need your partner, or are unable to function without them. And that's not OK.
"[It] can be a seemingly joking comment about everyday forgetfulness or clumsiness that has undertones of controlling [your] sense of competence and confidence," Sullivan says. "This is potentially abusive because it erodes a healthy sense of self and pathologizes being human."
There's nothing wrong with forgetting what you were doing, or accidentally breaking something. But being made to feel that you're somehow flawed for doing so is is a form of verbal abuse.
"I'm The Smart One In The Relationship"
Similarly, making jokes about how they're the "smart one" might not seem abusive, but it really can be. "[This] can be couched as a lighthearted comment about distractedness that can also be demeaning," Sullivan says. "This is potentially abusive because it attaches a behavior that is commonplace and can at times be a sign of stress or even a medical condition and places the partner in a 'superior' position." Which is, of course, an abuser's main goal.
"There's Nothing Else To Talk About"
If you approach your partner with a question or concern, and they brush it off, it may be a sign of abuse. And the same is true if they refuse to open up in general.
"Withholding is a subtle form of verbal abuse where the abuser purposefully uses the silent treatment," Colizza says. If your partner does this regularly, it could be their way of blocking a connection and limiting intimacy with you, she says, by refusing to share their thoughts and feelings.
"They may share facts and exchange information with [you], but they do not allow [you] access to their inner world," Colizza says. "Other forms of withholding include pretending not to hear or watching television while [you are] talking."
"You Should Have Done It This Way"
Claiming that you should have done something a certain way, or that your way of doing things is wrong, can also be quite verbally abusive. "These are examples of criticism disguised as help or advice," Colizza says. "These criticisms are not direct, but still communicate a sense of power or superiority from the abuser to their partner."
If your partner claims that you "never" do this or "always" do that, it can have a profound effect on the way you feel about yourself.
As Sullivan says, "These can be abusive because it exaggerates complaints and can seek to undermine a healthy sense of self by attaching behavior to identity."
Basically, statements that overgeneralize who you are as a person aren't healthy, fair,
or accurate. And that's what makes them verbally abusive.
"If You Really Loved Me..."
This one can seem sweet, and sometimes it can be. But if your partner tries to get you to do something by saying it'll show how much you love them, consider it a red flag.
In doing do, they're manipulating your feelings in a way that can quickly turn toxic. Comments like this are a form of control, dating and relationship coach
Carla Romo, tells Bustle. And shouldn't be present in a healthy relationship.
"Are They Really Your Friend?"
While it might seem like your partner has your best interests at heart when they point out a friend's flaws, it's important to consider what their underlying motivation might be, especially if they do it all the time.
Saying things like, "Don’t you think your friend just calls when she wants something?" is a clear criticism and potentially an attempt to isolate you,
licensed psychologist Kim Chronister, PsyD tells Bustle.
If your friendships feel healthy and supportive, trust your gut. An abusive partner may try to keep you away from others by pointing out their flaws, or making you doubt your connection, so that you'll be more reliant on them. If you feel this to be the case, asking the help of loved ones or a therapist to get out of the situation may be a good idea.
If your partner makes a joke about a sensitive topic, it's important to let them know it bothers you so they don't do it again in the future. But if they know about a vulnerability, and pick on it anyway, take note.
This includes "repeated criticisms about personal vulnerabilities you've shared with them in the past, such as abuse histories, phobias, fears, or sensitive information about your past," Scott-Hudson says. "These insults could lead to your shut-down and future fears about trusting another person, or opening up to another person."
Anything That Makes You Feel Bad
"The way we know if a ‘harmless comment’ is actually verbal abuse is how we feel,"
relationship expert Margaret Paul, PhD, tells Bustle. If you get a tightness in your chest, or feel bad afterward, Dr. Paul says that can be a sign.
It's important to let your partner know if a comment felt hurtful. If they didn't realize, they will do better going forward. But if they react by denying or minimizing what matters to you, it may be time for bigger changes, such as couples counseling, or even
calling off the relationship, if possible.
Verbal abuse isn't always easy to spot, but knowing what it can look like — and trusting your gut — can be a big help.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org .