What is verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse occurs when someone repeatedly uses negative or demeaning words to gain or maintain power and control over someone else.

Verbal abuse in itself may not involve physical contact, but it can still cause emotional or psychological harm and progress toward violence.

Keep reading to learn more about verbal abuse, including the different types, how to recognize it, the relationships and environments it can affect, and how to face it.

a woman looking sad in her kitchen as she is experiencing verbal abuse. Share on Pinterest
A person may experience emotional or psychological harm from verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse in which a person uses words or threats to gain or maintain power and control over someone. Being on the receiving end of verbal abuse can cause a person to question their own intelligence, value, or self-worth.

Verbal abuse normally occurs when two people are alone, or when others cannot see or stop the abuse. Verbal abuse can occur in any kind of relationship, and it is generally a calculating, insidious process that intensifies over time. Sometimes, there may be no warning signs.

Once it begins, it tends to become a common form of communication in the relationship. Verbal abuse may also accompany or progress toward other kinds of emotional or psychical abuse.

Verbal abuse exists in several forms. However, it can be harder to spot than other types of abuse because it leaves no visible signs of damage and can be very subtle.

In many cases, perpetrators of verbal abuse will raise or recondition the other person. This may lead to the person on the receiving end believing that these behaviors are normal, which may also make it difficult to recognize.

Some common types of verbal abuse include:

Discounting and gaslighting

“Discounting” means denying someone else’s rights to their own thoughts, emotions, or experiences. This usually involves repetitively discounting and dismissing someone’s feelings.

This could mean telling someone that they:

  • are too sensitive
  • are childish
  • don’t have a good sense of humor
  • are being dramatic

Discounting can therefore cause someone to question their own version of reality and be unsure of whether what they feel is right or wrong.

It may also involve gaslighting, wherein the perpetrator denies events or describes them in a way so different to reality that the person on the receiving end starts to think that they are losing their memory or their mind.

Judging

This involves repetitive negative and judgmental evaluations that challenge someone’s sense of self-worth.

Typically, judging behavior involves the perpetrator using “you” statements such as:

  • “You’re never happy.”
  • “It’s never enough for you.”
  • “You’re always upset for no reason.”
  • “You’re so negative.”
  • “People don’t like you.”

The use of the word “you” in this context can isolate a person and be very emotionally damaging.

Blaming

A person who uses this type of verbal abuse focuses on blaming someone for things they can’t reasonably control. Blaming as a form of abuse may manifest in one of several ways.

For example, a person might blame their partner for them:

  • not getting a raise
  • forgetting things
  • ruining their reputation
  • not finishing university

Name-calling

This type of verbal abuse involves someone calling someone else names that are negative, demeaning, or belittling, such as:

  • stupid
  • idiot
  • worthless
  • dumb

The perpetrator might try to disguise this abuse as “teasing” or “using pet names.”

A person might also use name-calling to negatively refer to someone’s ethnicity, gender, race, religion, or state of medical health.

For example, they may say, “Women are always so emotional,” or, “You’re old, who cares about you?”

Unhealthy arguments

Everyone disagrees or argues from time to time.

However, in verbally abuse relationships, arguments or disagreements usually progress toward shouting and involve aggressive comments. One person may also yell, threaten, or demean another until they get their own way or feel that they have “won.”

Withholding

Withholding occurs when someone refuses to share their thoughts, feelings, or important or personal information with another, often in order to gain more attention.

It can also involve the “silent treatment,” wherein someone walks away from an argument or disagreement and refuses to answer calls or texts, ignoring someone over minor issues.

Condescension

Condescension occurs when someone repeatedly makes hurtful statements that they claim are simply “jokes” or “sarcasm.” Sometimes, these “jokes” may even start out as funny but become demeaning as time goes on.

Examples include statements such as, “You’re always such a mess … I’m kidding!” or, “Oh wow, that looks great on you, it really accentuates your big hips.”

Manipulation

Manipulation occurs when a person repeatedly puts pressure onto someone else, often subtly. This, they may feel, allows them to order someone to do something without directly staying it.

Examples of manipulative statements include, “If you really cared about me you would do this,” and, “If you do that, everyone will think you’re a bad person.”

Threats

Threats are a more direct form of verbal abuse. Often, threats are a way of getting someone’s attention or controlling their behavior.

Some examples of threatening statements include:

  • “If you ever leave me, I will hurt myself or take the kids.”
  • “I will give your dog away if you do that.”
  • “You will be out of a job if you keep getting so emotional over nothing.”

False accusations

False accusations occur when a person repeatedly accuses someone of things they did not do. The perpetrator may also bring up situations that were resolved a long time ago.

For example, they may say:

  • “You’re probably staying late because you’re having an affair.”
  • “You’re always off having fun without me.”
  • “I bet you wore that just to get attention.”

Trivializing and undermining

This occurs when a person repeatedly makes statements or comments that trivialize and undermine someone else’s:

  • opinions
  • interests
  • occupation
  • style
  • personal preferences

This may also involve the perpetrator undermining or disagreeing with practically everything the other person says, suggests, does, or feels. For example, they may say things like, “Your job doesn’t really matter, so who cares if you’re late?” or, “You actually like that? You have such bad taste.”

Over time, statements such as these can cause someone to question their own ability to make good choices. This may cause them to feel as though they should resort to accepting the other person’s decisions.

Denial or justification

The perpetrator may also continuously deny, justify, or rationalize their abusive behavior. They may even refuse to acknowledge that their behavior is abusive, harmful, or within their own control.

For example, they may say, “I have a short temper, I can’t help getting so angry,” or, “I’m not being abusive, I just love you too much.”

Circular arguments

Sometimes, arguments can take a little while to resolve. However, in verbally abusive relationships, they can go round in seemingly endless circles, with no resolution in sight.

These arguments can be exhausting and cause a person to worry that any action or event could restart the whole process. This may change how they act or cause them to agree with everything the other person says or does in order to avoid further conflict.

Learn more about the signs of emotional abuse here.

Verbal abuse can occur in just about any type of relationship. For example, it can occur in the home and in workplace, educational, and social settings. That said, verbal abuse seems most common in romantic relationships with an imbalance of power.

Relationships commonly affected by verbal abuse include those between:

  • parents and their children
  • romantic partners
  • bosses and employees
  • coworkers
  • relatives
  • medical professionals and their patients or clients
  • teachers or professors and their students
  • friends
  • roommates

Verbal abuse can be hard to detect for several reasons.

For example, most types of abuse occur behind closed doors and involve strategies that hide or discredit the abuse by encouraging the person on the receiving end to feel that the abuse is their fault, deserved, or out of the perpetrator’s control.

The discrediting and hiding of the abuse may even cause the person receiving it to feel as though it never happened at all.

Generally, however, a person who repeatedly uses words to scare, undermine, belittle, humiliate, or discredit someone is being verbally abusive.

Some common signs of verbal abuse include:

  • telling someone that they are “always wrong,” or disagreeing with everything they say or do
  • repeatedly making negative comments about or belittling someone’s personal preferences, feelings, or thoughts
  • blaming another person for their own behavior or actions or things that they cannot control
  • repeatedly accusing someone of things they have not done
  • starting arguments or conversations that never seem to have a resolution, which may linger and create tension
  • threatening someone
  • telling someone what they can and cannot do, whether directly or indirectly
  • calling someone negative names or using put-downs or insults, sometimes based on factors such as gender, age, or education level
  • trying to control another person’s decisions, actions, or other elements of how they live their life
  • causing someone to question their own self-value, thoughts, and beliefs

Although these behaviors tend to occur behind closed doors, some may also manifest in the open, though they may be very subtle.

Learn about how to recognize the signs of child abuse here.

Verbal abuse can be hard to address. Once it begins, it tends to become a pattern in the relationship, and most perpetrators will discourage, physically prevent, or threaten someone in order to stop them talking with others about the problem.

Over time, verbal abuse can affect someone’s self-esteem and isolate them, making it harder for them to reach out for help.

It is important to remember that the best way to overcome verbal abuse will depend on a variety of individual and situational factors. For example, if a coworker seems verbally abusive, someone could report it to their company’s human resources department for counsel on how to handle the situation.

Typically, however — regardless of the circumstances — once verbal abuse has begun, it becomes worse over time. Sometimes, it can escalate into physical abuse or other types of emotional abuse. It is also important to remember that people who verbally abuse others generally do so to gain power or control over them.

People who are verbally abusive also tend to experience multiple feelings in the form of anger. They often deny or suppress their true feelings, so confronting them about their behavior will rarely work.

A pattern of verbal abuse can be very difficult to break without outside help or limiting contact. People who experience any type of verbal abuse should try to get help as soon as possible in order to stop the pattern and prevent it from progressing toward other forms of abuse and the development of conditions such as depression or anxiety.

This may include setting clear boundaries, such as refusing to engage in abusive arguments or reducing contact with the person. People planning to address verbally abusive relationships should also make a safety or exit plan with someone they trust who fully understands the situation, especially in cases involving children and domestic partners.

People who experience verbal abuse can often also benefit from therapy conducted by a certified counselling psychotherapist — especially one who specializes in trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or emotional abuse.

There are also many organizations dedicated to guiding people through the process of handling a verbally abusive relationship. For help, people can contact the:

Verbal abuse occurs when a person uses words to scare, demean, humiliate, or isolate someone else, usually in an attempt to gain or maintain control or power over them.

It can cause psychological harm and tends to manifest in less obvious ways than other forms of abuse.

People who think that they are experiencing verbal abuse should try to safely seek help to stop the pattern of abuse and prevent it from progressing.

This may involve talking to a trusted adult or authority, seeking counseling, setting relationship boundaries, or utilizing abuse support networks or organizations.