This kind of abuse may not get as much attention, but it's often the most difficult to address.
The other day I was reading an article that reminded me of what I’ve heard clients tell me in my therapist’s office many times over the years. The title of the article was “I Am Living with a Verbally Abusive Spouse, and It Is Soul Sucking.” It is a raw piece, full of insights and admissions about the life of a partner who experiences verbal abuse on a regular basis. What makes it particularly heart-wrenching is that not only do you get a real sense of the tension and uncertainty this person feels, but also how patterns of abuse open “old scars” of maltreatment from childhood and leave the partner with the difficult choice: Do I leave among various uncertainties and dashed dreams so that my child and I don’t have to experience what I did when younger? Or do I stay and try to make the best of an unhealthy situation?
Can a relationship survive psychological abuse?
Millions of people face the same circumstances and choices detailed by this author. Although much attention is understandably paid to physical and sexual abuse, the reality is that chronic verbal abuse often has the longest lasting effect, and is also the most difficult to address. As a colleague with significant experience in the child protective world once told me, many cases of verbal abuse are reported to authorities every year. She just never saw one that was substantiated.
What constitutes verbal abuse, and what does not?
In general, verbal abuse is defined by “excessive use of language to undermine someone’s dignity and security through insults or humiliation, in a sudden or repeated manner.” It can occur in many forms whether by direct insult, crude comments, mockery, swearing, repeated negative insinuations, or the like. Admittedly, categorizing something as verbal abuse can be more difficult than with other types of abuse. But the key to recognizing verbal abuse lies in the concepts of “undermining dignity” and “repeated manner.” Appropriate expressions of anger or frustration, especially those that begin with I, would not typically meet this criteria. But if my complaint went from “I am frustrated because you agreed to pick up the kitchen” to “You are such a (expletive) slob!” then the statement is much more focused on undermining the individual than constructively working to improve the situation.
Furthermore, repeated comments such as these ultimately lead to circumstances that are both harsh and denigrating. As the author noted in the article, she lived on “pins and needles,” unsure of when the next barrage of undignified comments might occur. Having already experienced abuse and degradation in her childhood, this environment only reinforced a “poor sense of self” and left her feeling detached both from her fiancé and who she desired to be. Ultimately, verbal abuse comes from a false sense of privilege or authority that enables people to treat others in ways that they themselves would not sanction.
So, what happens if you find yourself in a verbally-abusive situation, or even as the abuser yourself?
Either situation is humbling and unwelcomed, but all hope is not lost. As I noted in a prior article, the first step is to understand that efforts taken to improve these circumstances are just as important, or or even more so, as efforts taken to have a nice house or give our kids all kinds of experiences. Said another way, if we as a people and society are interested in improving outcomes for us and our communities, we should be investing in ending this psychological poverty just as we invest in addressing poverty of other kinds. It is just as noble and important.
A promise to my broken, abused neighbor
Once we recognize the value of this undertaking, both the abused and abuser need to be better versed in understanding and articulating just how verbal abuse occurs. John Gottman offers great insight in his book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. In the book, he details what he calls the “4 Horsemen”: criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt. Although he considers contempt the worse, each of them done repeatedly carries sinister consequences for the relationship and the individual. The example I noted earlier is one of criticism because it demeans the person, not a complaint that addresses the situation. Yet what occurs in each of the four horsemen is that instead of approaching a situation at hand, the person either displaces or degrades another in a way that does little to actually resolve a problem at hand.
I am convinced that few people set out to embrace this role. But what seems to happen is that he or she either a) has poor communication skills b) struggles to manage stressful situations in or out of the home, c) lacks good inlets (not just outlets), d) has not adequately addressed prior trauma or abuse, and/or e) is generally unhealthy (physically, psychologically, or otherwise). Any true attempt at reducing or eliminating verbal abuse from the abuser side must consider and concentrate on each of these areas. Many people have good intent, but unless specific techniques/knowledge are combined with a solid lifestyle framework, gains are likely to be minimal.
If you are being abused, what is the solution?
There are no easy answers. The first suggestion is to consider that the most leverage anyone has is at the beginning of a relationship. I repeatedly emphasize to the teens I see that they will never have more ability to make the right decision (e.g., end the dating) than at the beginning of a relationship. If our teens, especially teen girls, demanded higher standards for dating, most guys would comply because, well, they really want to have a girlfriend. But for those who are married or in a long-term partnership, or are living with someone and may have a kid, a few basic steps are paramount.
First, since verbal abuse is in essence “futile, undermining communication,” the opposite must occur if steps will be made within the relationship. Fighting poor communication with poor communication (or none at all) will not alleviate a bad situation. Second, people must consider taking a gamble to reach out to others (e.g., counselors, case workers, friends, pastors) if a partner repeatedly ignores the bounds of dignity and decency. I know this feels risky, and can be, but it is much less risky than remaining quiet in a soul-sucking relationship. Keeping quiet, and preserving a false “happy image” is one of the most sure fire ways of enabling verbal abuse for the long-term.
Finally, consider what I mentioned about inlets and overall health in regards to the abuser. The same applies for the abused. Each of the steps noted above requires endurance, emotional regulation, and assertiveness, which must come from deeper sources. These sources can include a renewed commitment to faith, improved health practices, or interpersonal support (among others), but whatever mechanisms are used, it must help a person weather storms that may come with attempts to change for the better.
Some time ago, a mother presented to my office with one of her sons, who was having difficulty with peer and siblings relations. As I learned more about the situation, I discovered that mom herself had experienced physical and verbal abuse as a chiuld, and was taking proactive steps in her own life and with her kids to make sure that this wasn’t transmitted for generations to come. She placed great value, and backed it up with her time and money, in raising kids who understood what it meant to treat another individual with dignity and respect. I admired her for it, and it reminded me that the Golden Rule requires ongoing work and commitment, especially when the playing field is anything but level. But no doubt the effort in pursuing it remains the noblest earthly goal of all.