Is your relationship verbally abusive?

Verbally abusive relationships are just as dangerous as physically abusive relationships and can lead to great confusion for the person being targeted.

Verbal abuse within intimate relationships is more than name-calling. The partner engaging in abusive behaviors may use withholding, taunting, accusing, belittling, lying, put downs, abuse disguised as jokes, yelling and raging. These emotionally and verbally abusive behaviors are about maintaining control and power in a relationship. Those who are on the receiving end of these behaviors may feel confused about what’s really happening for themselves – and within their relationship.

That’s part of what makes verbally abusive relationships so dangerous. The person engaging in abusive behaviors is often skilled at twisting things around in ways that make the person being abused feel like it’s her/his fault. Since the person being targeted is usually blamed, ignored or yelled at, there’s often great confusion and lack of clarity about what’s really happening in a relationship. In her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, author Patricia Evans describes some of the obstacles and indicators that contribute to the difficulty of recognizing verbal abuse in one’s intimate relationship.

Here are some of the frequently mentioned obstacles that Evans shares:

  • The abuse is often subtle with control increasing over time – and the partner gradually learns to adapt to it.
  • The partner doesn’t trust their own feelings. Upsetting incidents are denied by the abuser and the partner thinks they are wrong.
  • The partner has learned to overlook disrespect, unkindness, disregard and indifference and doesn’t stand up for themself.
  • The person being targeted “forgets” the abuse when their partner is friendly to them.
  • The abuser and the partner may function well together in terms of working, caring for a home, raising children – so the abuse is overlooked, minimized or ignored – both by the person being abused and those who witness it.
  • The partner believes that when the abuser is angry it is their fault or that they are the one to cause the hurt.
  • The partner takes too much responsibility for the pattern of abuse and thinks there’s something wrong with themself
  • The abuse has never (or rarely) been seen or validated by others so no one names the behaviors as problematic and abusive.
  • The person being targeted has no models or knowledge of healthy relationships to which they can compare the relationship.
  • The partner may never have considered the question, “Am I being verbally abused?”

Evans reminds us that verbal abuse is a kind of battering – and that while words don’t leave visible scars, the pain of verbal abuse is deep, long-lasting and recovery can be very challenging. Verbally abusive relationships rarely just “get better” on their own and often escalate to physical abuse.

If you believe that you are in a verbally, emotionally or physically abusive relationship, you are advised to seek help and support from friends and family you trust or from a domestic violence agency. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence to find out about local resources available to you. You can learn more about the work of Patricia Evans at

An important part of preventing verbal abuse and other forms of relationship aggression and violence is education. Michigan State University Extension provides programs and opportunities for adults to help young people learn more about dating violence, bullying and harassment. For example, a new MSU Extension resource called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, helps youth and adults learn together about issues of bullying – as well as learning about the differences between relationship patterns that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. You can learn more about Be SAFE through the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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