12 Surprising Forms Of Verbal Abuse

Verbal Abuse


What is a word?

According to Dictionary.com, a word is “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.”

Words have enormous power. As the “principle carriers of meaning,” words can lift us up or crush us. They may be no more than sounds uttered from our mouths, but the intention behind the sounds can pack more joy or pain than the most loving touch or the cruelest physical blow.

Some people use words as subtle weapons to hurt, shame, or manipulate others. These people are verbal abusers and tend to attract people in their lives who are susceptible to their insidious and hurtful use of language.

Verbal abuse can be overtly threatening, frightening, and openly cruel. This kind of verbal abuse involves yelling, cursing, name-calling, bullying, and suggestions of future physical violence. In fact, this verbal battery is often the precursor to physical abuse.

However, many verbal abusers aren’t as direct or threatening. Instead, they twist language and words so the recipient isn’t really sure what’s hit them. They use a subtle form of verbal abuse that infects people over time and slowly erodes their self-esteem, confidence, and trust. This kind of verbal abuse is so convoluted and disconcerting that it’s difficult to call it out and take action. Because it can’t be clearly defined, the recipient may believe she’s imagining it, or even worse, the cause of it.

All of us have “abused” others with our words from time to time, especially in the heat of conflict or when we feel hurt or insecure. But when someone chronically uses their words to put you down, control, or manipulate you — and then they deny it — they become true verbal abusers.  The goal, whether or not the abuser recognizes it, is to gain dominance over the other person.

This occurs most often in intimate relationships, but you can also experience verbal abuse at work, with family members, and even with someone who claims to be a friend. Do you think there’s a person in your life who may be a verbal abuser?

Here are 12 surprising forms of verbal abuse you might recognize:

1. Judging or Criticizing

The verbal abuser is constantly correcting you, telling you what you’re doing wrong or how it could be done better, or subtly suggesting you don’t quite measure up in some way. Sometimes they disguise their critiques or judgement in the form of “helpful” suggestions or sharing their “expert” knowledge when you don’t ask for it.

Then if you call them out, they act hurt that you misunderstood their intentions. “I was only trying to help.” But your intuition tells you clearly they were putting you down.

The abuser might also communicate their disapproval or judgement through their facial expressions, such as eye-rolling, pursed lips, or annoyed looks.

2. Holding Back

The abuser uses words to keep you at arm’s length or prevent closeness and intimacy in order to punish or control you. There may be times of closeness and connection, but if the abuser doesn’t get her way, she might withhold emotional intimacy, making you wonder what’s going on and why the mood has suddenly shifted.

When you ask, “What’s wrong, why are you closing me out?” the abuser pretends she doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

Are you living with an emotional abuser? Click here to get your free Emotional Abuse Test. Find out your personal score.

3. Joking

Have you ever had someone make a subtle but unkind joke at your expense? It stings and makes you feel disrespected or embarrassed. A verbal abuser regularly uses “humor” to disguise hurtful comments.

The abuser often makes these jokes in front of other people, getting in a laugh (as well as a dig) at your expense. If you complain, you’ll often hear, “Can’t you take a joke? Don’t be so sensitive — I was just kidding.”  These so-called jokes occur often, and rarely do you hear an apology if you express your hurt.

4. Countering

No matter what you say or what ideas you express, the abuser contradicts or undermines you. You simply can’t be right or have a unique point of view. The abuser will argue with you and force the last word to protect his or her dominance over the conversation.

You feel your ideas, feelings, or thoughts are never respected or valued.

5. Trivializing

The abuser takes countering a step further by letting you know that what you think or say is unimportant or stupid. They may interrupt you, neglect to respond, or talk down to you. They might try to disguise their disrespect by patronizing you and attempting to make you feel like a child.

6. Discounting

No matter what you’ve accomplished or how well you’ve done something, the abuser can’t offer a compliment or positive word of praise. In fact, they diminish your achievements and act as though they are unimportant or much less important than anything the abuser has achieved in the past.

The abuser often finds ways to undermine the praise others might give you or point out a flaw to dilute the praise. They don’t want you to shine and overshadow them in any way.

7. Undermining

When you do express a goal or dream, the abuser tries to get under your skin and make you feel incapable. He might suggest you’re “in over your head” or maybe “you need more experience to tackle that.” He erodes your self-confidence, as he helpfully suggests you don’t have what it takes.

He might remind you of your lack of education or a past failure, or he simply gives you a doubtful look and refuses to discuss your ideas. The abuser doesn’t have to say the words, “You’re not good enough to succeed.” But you feel your confidence and self-esteem slipping away, as you receive little reinforcement or support.

8. Diverting

Another way a verbal abuser manipulates is by diverting a conversation to something she wants to talk about rather than responding to you.

If she feels uncomfortable about an issue you want to address, she simply steers the conversation in a different direction, or she refuses to talk altogether. She stonewalls you by saying it’s the wrong time to talk, or she doesn’t feel like discussing the matter.

Conversations of importance to you rarely occur, and if they do, it’s always on the abuser’s terms.

9. Accusing

The abuser suggests that any verbal abuse is a result of your behavior. You are to blame for whatever negative, hurtful comments might be hurled your way. “If you weren’t so whiny, I might be able to listen to you.” “You need praise all the time. Someone’s got to take you down a rung.”

This is the most bewildering part of verbal abuse, as you begin to feel at fault for what’s happening.

10. Forgetting

There are regular situations in which the abuser conveniently “forgets” to do something you requested or to show up on time for something important to you. He always has a great reason for not following through or acts as though forgetting is “no big deal.”

He makes you feel bad for suggesting his chronic forgetfulness is a problem. You are too demanding, not understanding enough, or over-blow situations.

11. Commanding

Everything has to be done the abuser’s way, and she makes sure she tells you exactly how and when it must be done. She uses words and tone to communicate in no uncertain terms what her expectations are, and you know from experience that it won’t be pleasant if you argue or disagree.

12. Denying

You might try to express your pain and frustration with the verbal abuser’s behavior, but he or she pretends to have no idea what you’re talking about. You must be crazy or overly sensitive because the abuser’s behavior is perfectly normal. If you’d just stop blaming them, everything would be fine.

This denial makes you feel crazy and question yourself. If this person you care about has no idea what you’re talking about, maybe you ARE the one who has the problem.


So often in situations of verbal abuse, you know something feels off, but you just can’t put your finger on it. The abuser does such a good job of masking his or her true intentions that it takes a long time to figure out what’s happening. Once you do, your self-esteem is so low you don’t have the energy to take action or leave the relationship.

Recovering from this kind of verbal abuse begins with awareness and recognition that you are a victim of it. In some ways it is more difficult to recognize verbal abuse than it is physical abuse, as you don’t have bruises to show for it.

You aren’t crazy or overly sensitive if you feel verbally abused. Don’t allow it to continue. If you want to save the relationship, seek out professional counseling — but remember an abuser must be willing to acknowledge their abusive behaviors if there’s a chance of real change.

Have you dealt with a verbally abusive person, or do you recognize these behaviors in yourself? If you found value in this post please share this on Facebook.

Comments

  1. My husband is bi-polar. I deal with verbal abuse a lot. I am thankful for this article. I am going to seek professional assistance soon. Recently, his 42 year old adopted daughter, my step daughter, texted her Dad to ask to borrow money for a vacation she wanted to take, but couldn’t afford.
    After refusing to do so, she went into a rage, calling me a f…… Bitch. My husband also told her no. She proceeded to text about 20 times, and finally called her Dad, name calling me again..and my husband chimed in with her and agreed to loan her the money. It was awful. Caused discourse between me and my husband. She is just like her Dad..bi-polar. I am just having a real challenge dealing with the bi-polar personality. Thanks for listening.

    • Hi Cher,
      I’m glad you are seeking professional help with this situation. It isn’t healthy or sustainable. I’m so sorry you are dealing with verbally abusive family members.

  2. After 8 long years I’m just coming to terms with the abuse that exists in my relationship. It became impossible to deny when a friend finally commented that she felt like she was witnessing me being constantly slapped with hurtful words. And I feel beat down, exhausted and confused. I really relate to feeling like I’m either the constant cause for anger and disappointment or I’m crazy. There is no right response, my words get twisted and turned against me, and I feel painted into a corner of which there is no escape. I have experienced severe depression for so long and I feel pretty hopeless that it will ever end. Thank you for reminding me that my only fault is staying and justifying his abuse.

    • Hi Kate,
      Please seek support from a therapist to help you navigate leaving this relationship. Your feelings of depression and hopelessness are sure signs it’s time to move on.

    • Hi Kate
      i hope you found some help and strength to leave. I just wanted to let you know that it is so free and wonderful to have your own life back again and realise that people do like you for being you and that you are not crazy. I finished an 11yr partnership with two children a year ago… and i’ve sold house moved town, and am settled and feeling great. I’m still in healing mode, but i’m not depressed anymore and am a much kinder patient parent. There is soo much help available. Reach out and you will be amazed. Friends can support but not really help. Emotional manipulation is insidiously horrible. Good luck. Hope you don’t mind my comment i just felt like responding for some reason. 🙂

  3. I see the same traits of my brother who verbally and physically abuses ny whole family surfacing in my relationship with my boy friend of three years..he is everything i wanted and scares me everytime he grows passive when i become abusive.he comes from an abusive background . ..his dad use ro abuse his mum.
    And he fears anger..he is the most patient person i know..but as life threw challengea at me i find myself lashing out at him in the same patterns my brother use.how do we break this cycle of abuse and what could my bf do to protect himself from me.

    • Rebecca,
      Your boyfriend should’t have to protect himself from you. It’s a great first step that you see your abusive behaviors and that you want to change. I suggest you get into counseling and work through your issues with a professional so you don’t lose the man you care about. Your boyfriend probably attracted you because of his passive personality, so he probably needs some counseling as well. You can’t do this by yourself — you need a good counselor.

  4. Seen so many professionals. No one has been able nto help me with my father. I’m going to have breakdown soon. I’m out of options. : (

    • Hi Jo,
      As painful as it may be, you may need to sever ties with your father. If he is verbally abusing you, then he’s really not being a loving father. You can leave the relationship. You aren’t obligated to be around someone who abuses you, even if they are family.

  5. Hi Barrie,

    I have dealt with verbal abuse from a former boyfriend and I’m so glad I found the courage to get out of the situation. But it took me a long time before I was able to find my voice. It was a very painful situation and I’m so sad for the previous people who spoke about their experiences. I pray for healing.

    Luna

    • Hi Luna,
      I’m so glad you found the courage to get out. That’s amazing, as I’m sure when you’re in the relationship you feel so confused. Maybe your courage will inspire others here.

  6. This is so insightful, Barrie. Having once been in an abusive relationship, I can vouch that the emotional and verbal abuse is so, so much more devastating. When someone hits you, you can point to the bruises. But with the subtler form, you wind up doubting yourself–or that it even happened. And those who practice it are oh-so good at denying it ever happened. But as you say, “they twist language and words so the recipient isn’t really sure what’s hit them. They use a subtle form of verbal abuse that infects people over time and slowly erodes their self-esteem, confidence, and trust. ”
    That’s it in a nutshell.
    Thank you for this!

    • Hi Susan,
      I’m so sorry you had to go through an abusive relationship, but I’m so glad you found your way out of it. Now that you know what it is,it will be so much easier to spot (and avoid) verbal abusers in the future. You deserve someone who treats you with kindness and respect.

  7. The list characters of verbal abuse are real and true situation of my relationship. I feel flaggabasted and a times run down. It‘s really bad to swallow i‘m also seeking professional counsel.

  8. I am a complete advocate for receiving counseling. I have been verbally abused by my father my whole life (I’m 38) & watch my mother to this day go through it. I’ve been seeing a therapist for the past year & I have made some important changes in my life. I know I still have a ways to go, but I am determined to heal from this! My negative upbringing effected my marriage, but through counseling together it is more of a real marriage now than it ever has been. I do both individual & marriage counseling. Meditation has also helped center myself, reduce anxiety & become more aware of my surrounding environment. I never thought in my life I would meditate, but I wanted a healthy way to deal with my emotions & it works!

    • Kathie, that is so courageous and inspiring. I’m so glad you sought counseling and that it’s helping you grow past the abuse. Maybe your mom will learn something from you.

  9. Hi All,

    This is a first post from me – so I will try and give a short view.

    I met my husband @ 18 and have been with him for almost 40 years. He is abusive.
    I chose to stay in the relationship and raise my children. Because he worked out of town a lot it worked out OK…in fact it gave my children a view of the difference – when he was home and when he was not.
    Did it do them harm? I think mostly when I did not handle myself well around him and “bit” to his arguing.
    He does have a pattern:
    1. Emotionally manipulate to get what he wants.
    2. Either takes what he wants anyway because he has convinced you, or wait for the adoring sure honey. NO negotiation required (his request is not really optional – it just sounds like it is).
    3. Say no to him and watch the hissy fit. (emotional abuse) tantrum.
    4. Revenge – you will pay for saying no. Often “I am pissed and out of here”.

    He doesn’t have a clue how to get what he wants appropriately.
    Try to laugh it off – like you would with a demanding child. DO NOT RESCUE HIM FROM HIS ANGER! Trying to calm them down becomes a full time chore for you. When you want him to listen and calm you down with assurance he understood…well he can’t even calm himself down…how is he going to help you? If he is physically dangerous…give him the consequences and call the police. Probably get out.

    One of the larges understandings I have received is:
    Abusers internally have an affair with a figmental partner. “If” you act this way (the figment) “then” I will respond this way. It is a written script in their minds. They cannot figure out why you are not playing your part. I believe it is a part of “black and white” thinking.

    The “skill set” of an abuser is terrible. Somewhere in their family of origin they developed these skills (either through fear of retaliation or possibly being spoiled, neglected) I believe it to be a combination. Inconsistent “guilt” parenting. ie: do you ever remember throwing an emotional fit as a child to escape being reprimanded? You know the “Oh my arm hurts, my arm hurts, to deflect being blamed or the consequences of something? Often harshly reprimanded instead of taught and explained. Neglect.

    Hence from a very young age they start to “make up” the perfect family, one they can survive in. They are manipulating their world to fit this picture in their head and do not see the real you.

    Is this on purpose…not really. Do they know what they are doing…yes…do they know the consequences…no. Have you noticed they never think before “reacting”…thinking and responding are out of the question.

    Is this “fear” based, I believe it is. Are they selfish…yes.

    Here is the upside people. I have grown to love our creator more than I believe I ever would have without the experience.
    There is consequences for their behavior…they live in an interior desert. Who WANTS to feel as little of the good things as they do? You can’t make them happy and they won’t make themselves happy.

    I can pick out toxic individuals quickly and save myself from further hurt and bad decisions. Yes you can “let go and let God”.

    I am very courageous and well loved by my children. I am their stability and consistency.

    I have grown to understand and deal with life…with a good attitude.

    Do abusers have a good attitude…NO. Do they have a good sense of humor…NO. Biting sarcasm…yes. Humble attitude…heck NO.

    I have recently read a book called “Lord change my attitude before it’s too late”.
    If you really want some good insight … read it.

    When I finally let go of “the dream” myself and decided to quit giving to an endless pit and let God deal with him, I became all the lessons I have learned not to be and am very grateful.

    When I stopped feeling sorry for myself and saw the background work being done in my life…I am amazed.

    I let myself go until I no longer took care of my own walk (humility, kindness, love…you know all the good things). I look to God now for the good things and I have developed a real relationship with Him.

    I am not physically well at the moment due to the stress of living with an overgrown child but I appreciate every moment.

    Look for all the wonderful little graces life throws your way and take a lot of the crazy making with a grain of salt and a sense of humor.

    Again…you have no idea how strong you are getting … how much you are learning to be a strong and loving individual. Learn what not to be and carry on…you will find it in you. They won’t.

    Hope this helps!

    P.S. Putting FIRM boundaries and LOVINGLY sticking to them really is the key. No amount of arguing for them to see your point of view will work.

    At first you will see an increase in bad behavior…them trying to “level the playing field” back to their side.

    Don’t bite. Stick to your guns lovingly. This drives them crazy because they cannot get a fight going. (their release valve). If a “fit” starts … you exit or lovingly repeat your boundary. ie: I will not tolerate you calling me names. I in turn I will not call you names.

    or I am trying to “explain” something to you. You are not listening and are “complaining” back to me. NO complaining allowed. (they are constant complainers as well I’ve noticed…and they think that is all you are doing too. No need to take it seriously – YOU are over reacting because they do).

    They really do think the whole world has the same intentions they do. It’s them against the world. (Ever notice a hint of paranoia)?

    Take time for you or they will wear you out. (I look at it like having to deal with a disabled person sometimes…I need a rest).

    Do NOT however give them extra special graces because they will try and snow you that they ARE disabled. Whatever they can do or say to get their way.

    Narcissism is the new age word for good old selfish.

    Hope this helps..xo.

  10. Yes, yes,yes! I do recognize one such person…in all the 12 situations!!