8 Ways You May Be Verbally Abusing Your Partner Without Realizing

by Eva Taylor Grant
BDG Media, Inc.

Verbal abuse can be hidden in plain sight. And while not every couple who shouts in arguments every once and a while is engaging in verbally abusive behavior, there are definitely signs of verbal abuse that go unnoticed in relationships. Sometimes, even, these signs may show up in your own behavior.

If you have trouble with temper, have a volatile relationship, or simply tend to write off communication as not-that-important, you may be at risk for letting verbally abusive behavior go unnoticed. "Most people who verbally abuse others often don't consider the things they are saying to be verbal abuse," David Bennet, counselor and relationship expert at Double Trust Dating, tells Bustle. "They considered it justified behavior or simply 'not a big deal.'" Relationship violence, however, is a big deal in all of its forms: including verbal abuse.

Intimate partners are vulnerable around one another. You may, amidst this vulnerability, fall prey to escalating behavior to the point that it becomes dangerous. "Verbal abuse lands on a spectrum of intensity in behaviors, and the average person who becomes verbally abusive does not recognize they have crossed the line until they become educated on the specific ways verbal abuse can infiltrate an otherwise healthy relationship," trauma therapist Shannon Thomas, LCSW, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse, tells Bustle. Healing from intimate partner violence (whether it's emotional, verbal, or physical abuse) is a long process, so it's important to identify and try to change your behaviors as soon as possible.

Here are eight ways you may be verbally abusing your partner without realizing it, according to experts.


You Give Unprompted "Constructive Criticism"

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Sometimes couples need to point out issues in the relationship. But if you're providing your partner with what you consider to be constructive criticism both unprompted and often, then that can be verbal abuse.

"It’s OK to provide constructive criticism when requested on occasion; being honest with your partner is healthy," licensed marriage and family therapist Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, tells Bustle. However, constant criticism and belittling of a significant other are not healthy, and over time can lead to a significant loss of self-esteem." Even if you think you're being helpful, being overly-critical of your partner can be quite harmful.


You Use Anger To Get Your Way

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If anger is the only tool in your toolkit you have to get what you want in your relationship, then that might be a red flag.

Try thinking about your anger tactics in reverse. "Any time someone yells or curses at you, this is a display of power and the goal is to control and intimidate you into submission," Dr. Bash says. If you realize that you're trying to scare your partner into agreeing with you or giving you what you want, then that's a major sign you should change your communication style.


You're Condescending

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Being condescending to your partner may feel like an easy defense mechanism, but it can be a really destructive behavior in your relationship.

"One example [of verbal abuse] is condescension, or an attempt to belittle their partner," Dr. Bash says. "The abuser’s comments can be sarcastic, disdainful, and patronizing." You may not realize how hurtful this habit may be, but it's worth identifying and finding ways to stop if you have been doing it.


You Threaten To End Things


Threatening a break or ending the relationship completely is not something to be taken lightly. If this is something you've done in the heat of an argument, or do repeatedly, you may want to think about what that means in a larger sense.

"If you constantly use the threat of break up or taking a break, you're verbally abusing your partner," Bennett says. "I have known people who get threatened with this almost monthly." If you have said this to your partner, you may want to consider why you've been behaving this way.


You Give Backhanded Compliments

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If you've ever been on the receiving end of a backhanded compliment, you know just how hurtful they can be. If you talk down on your partner by using backhanded compliments, then, it may be a sign you're being verbally abusive.

"These are compliments that may also be seen as insults," Bennett says. "[They can be things like saying...] 'That dish tastes really good this time. Not as dry as last time you made it.'" If you catch yourself about to say something like this, it's probably best to find a more positive way to compliment your partner.


You Call Them Names


Name calling is one of the more serious communication mistakes in a relationship. And if you call your partner names regularly, you may be being verbally abusive.

A lot of the time, this behavior comes from frustration. "When a person is angry, they may react by calling their partner names," licensed marriage and family therapist Sarah Hewitt, tells Bustle. "This may come out of frustration, or, in an effort to make their partner feel worse about something they did. Rather than expressing a feeling or how their partner 'made them feel,' some people will name call because they do not have experience in productive communication and arguing." Learning to stop name-calling, and instead talking about how you're feeling more specifically, can help you end this hurtful behavior.


You Speak Really Differently To Them In Private Compared To In Public


If your relationship looks completely different behind closed doors than it does in public, then that could be a red flag. Talking to your partner one way at home, and switching your approach in pubic, could be a sign you may be being verbally abusive in private.

"Look for discrepancies between how [you speak] to them in public and in private," licensed psychotherapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and registered art therapist, Christine Scott-Hudson, tells Bustle. If there's a big change in your behavior, you may want to consider why this is, and search for ways to change things.


You Try To Shame Your Partner In Order To Motivate Them

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Of course, most people want what's best for their partner. But if you try to show your partner what you think is best for them by using negative reinforcement — or shame — then that could be considered verbal abuse.

"A person can easily become verbally abusive when they attempt to 'motivate' their loved one to make changes in their life, but instead they use shame inducing words about their partner's lack of motivation, follow through, or ability to reach life goals," Thomas says. If you only communicate your needs through shaming your partner, then you may want to reassess both your communication style, and the compatibility of your relationship.

If you have an inkling that your behavior may be becoming abusive, then the first thing to do is stop that behavior. Couples therapy, individual therapy, or both, can help. It may also be worthwhile to consider whether you're in the right relationship. Verbal abuse may be hard to pinpoint, but it is quite serious.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.