Abuse can come in all shapes and forms, and it doesn't solely exist within the context of romantic relationships. In the case of verbal abuse, it can be particularly tricky to spot. So, we asked experts for their best advice on identifying verbal abuse, plus how to handle it.
What is verbal abuse?
Verbal abuse is violence in the form of words, according to psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D. It includes any sort of abuse that uses words in an attempt to control, manipulate, or harm another, and it may or may not be paired with physical abuse. Like all forms of abuse, it can come from romantic partners, friends, family members, or even bosses or co-workers.
One of the reasons verbal abuse can be hard to identify is that it can look like a lot of different things. Behaviors like threatening or screaming at someone might seem like more obvious examples, but psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, says it can also be discrete manipulation, gaslighting, or simply making someone feel less than.
"Verbal abuse is all about power," she explains. "So if it's insulting somebody, if it's making somebody feel less than, those are all examples of a mode of verbal abuse. It's about manipulating the vernacular, in order to keep somebody submissive."
Verbal abuse is also often unprovoked, as opposed to happening only in the heat of the moment in an argument, adds clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy. This behavior trains a victim of verbal abuse to associate certain things with danger, ultimately changing their behavior, she explains.
How to tell when the line is crossed.
We've all said things we're not necessarily proud of, so what exactly qualifies as verbal abuse? According to Nuñez, you'll want to take notice of repeating patterns, especially if you've expressed that you don't like the way you're being spoken to.
Additionally, she notes, there's a difference between things like constructive criticism or a general disagreement, and verbal abuse. If someone is repeatedly cutting you down and making you feel inferior, you're likely not dealing with a simple constructive critique.
But as Yusim notes, it's important to distinguish between those kinds of things. "If somebody is just honestly expressing how they're feeling, and their feelings are not positive toward that person, is that verbal abuse? No, that probably isn't," she explains. (Here's more on how to recognize when criticism is going too far.)
If you're still not sure whether you're dealing with verbal abuse, here are 11 common warning signs to watch out for.
11 warning signs to look out for:
Intense arguments and yelling
Frequent intense arguments that involve one person yelling, screaming, and/or cursing at the other are an example of verbal abuse, Neo says. Not only is it frightening, but this kind of behavior then instills fear, which can influence your behavior and your willingness to voice concerns in the future.
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Any sort of threat counts as verbal abuse, Neo adds. This could mean threats to your physical safety, the relationship, or even the abuser's safety. Saying things like, "If you leave me, I'll kill myself," for example, is a form of manipulation and thus can be considered a form of verbal abuse.
Gaslighting is a type of verbal abuse that involves questioning someone's reality to the point that they begin to doubt themselves. It often involves phrases like "That didn't happen" or "You're being dramatic." And according to Nuñez, "That's the way they keep control over you and keep you submissive and down, by making you think you're crazy and you're the awful one in the relationship."
Verbal abuse can also look like backhanded statements that serve to make you feel less than, not just explosive arguments. "There are even more insidious types of verbal abuse that are said calmly and framed as though they are helping you—with a problem you never knew you had," Neo explains.
Blatantly insulting someone or attacking their character is another example of verbal abuse. Nuñez notes this simply boils down to the nature of the language being used and whether it's "abrasive and disrespectful and cutting to the person."
A "wise savior" complex
Neo says that many abusers present themselves as the "wise savior," and they may say something like, "'Word of advice, I noticed you are [character deficit example], and I want to help you,'" she explains. Repeatedly over time, you might even start to believe them.
Neo adds that we all want to improve ourselves, so feedback is welcome. But people-pleasers and echoists "lap up feedback like dehydrated camels [...] so when this feedback is delivered by someone with ill intentions, it starts to make the receiver question themselves."
Reversing or deflecting blame
People who are verbally abusive are excellent at deflecting blame to anywhere but themselves, and especially back onto the person confronting them, Nuñez says. "They'll flip the scenario to where it's the other person who's selfish, for example. It's crazy-making," she notes. Deflecting blame is also a telltale sign of narcissism—just FYI.
Abusers often seek to isolate their victims from friends and family, and this can be done through words alone, Neo says. Saying things like, "I don't think your family has your best interests at heart," for example, can look like genuine concern when it's actually about creating distrust and establishing control. "Actually, what's going on even deeper," Neo says, "is that by making verbal abuse look like support, they are isolating the victim from their own discernment."
Abusers can also use passive aggression to manipulate their victims, Yusim says. Perhaps they're patronizing you, using negative body language but insisting everything is fine, or even in some cases, intentionally withholding in a conversation as a form of punishment, aka, "the silent treatment." Since there may not be words directly exchanged, it's up for debate whether this counts as "verbal abuse," but it's the manipulative intent behind the behavior that's the red flag.
Yusim also notes that repeated accusations are also a form of verbal abuse. "When you're actually accusing someone of something that they haven't done, when you're starting to shake up a person's sense of their own identity and their own sense of strength and power, all of those can be considered forms of verbal abuse," she explains.
You just feel like something is off
And lastly, if you have this gut feeling something is off but you can't quite put your finger on it, there's a fair chance you're dealing with abuse. "Sometimes [verbal abuse] is happening, and you don't even realize it's happening, though it feels wrong to you," Yusim notes.
As Nuñez adds, "If you're in a relationship where you're doubting yourself and you're starting to think, 'Am I crazy?' more than likely you're in some type of emotionally abusive, verbally abusive relationship."
How to deal with it & seek help.
If you're in a verbally abusive relationship:
If you're noticing a repeated pattern of verbal abuse in a relationship, that's not someone you want in your life. As Neo explains, being hurt by someone's behavior like this "is the signal your gut is sending you to get out."
Not only will a verbal abuser gaslight you, but you can begin to gaslight yourself, she adds. So it's important to get back in touch with your own inner voice. "I recommend journaling about it when it's fresh, so you have records. Because memory is malleable, and you may talk yourself out of it," Neo suggests. Ask yourself if you would let this happen to your best friend or child, she adds.
When you're clear on what you're willing (and not willing) to tolerate, you can set clear boundaries with phrases like "I do not want to be around [behavior]" or "If you continue to do/say XYZ, I will [consequence]," Neo says. Yusim adds you can also explain ways they can adjust their communication to be nonviolent. (Here's a list of go-to comebacks when someone is gaslighting you).
From there, if the person doesn't change, it's likely time to cut the cord. If this feels scary or impossible, here's our full guide to leaving an abusive relationship—and don't be afraid to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (TTY 1-800-787-3224) to get some advice. It's free and totally confidential.
In the aftermath of the relationship, Nuñez notes you'll also want to work on self-worth and trusting your own intuition, to ensure this doesn't happen again with another person.
If you see someone else in a verbally abusive relationship:
Seeing a loved one in a verbally abusive relationship is a delicate thing. Due to the nature of abuse, it can be difficult for them to even realize there's a problem, let alone that they should leave. And as Nuñez explains, "When people are in some sort of verbally abusive relationship, they have unrecognized trauma to where they start believing what the abuser was saying to them."
As such, one of the main things you can do is gently bring it to their attention and suggest they get a professional's take. Sometimes it takes someone outside the situation to make a victim realize what's happening, Nuñez adds.
Beyond that, it can take time for someone to be ready to leave an abusive relationship, and it's a decision they have to come to on their own. As a friend, be there for them, offer them resources, and remind them that they don't deserve someone who makes them feel less than.
The bottom line.
Verbal abuse can range from the most discreet forms of manipulation to threats of violence, and everything in between. The more you know what to look for, the better you'll be able to spot verbal abuse when it's happening and remove yourself from the situation. Abusive relationships are never worth the pain they cause, and if your gut is telling you something isn't right, trust that feeling.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.