Verbal abuse is more than name calling

Verbally abusive relationships can include subtle (and not so subtle) abuses of power.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me?” Many of us were taught this lesson as young people and may even have found ourselves passing it on to our own children. This well intentioned teaching may be about helping people be resilient to name-calling and hurtful words by others. At the heart of it, however, these words send a dangerous and mixed message about the reality of verbal abuse and the impact on intimate relationships.

In her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, author Patricia 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.

In addition to name-calling, verbally abusive relationships include more subtle and insidious forms of abuse, including withholding, taunting, accusing, belittling, lying, put-downs, abuse disguised as jokes, yelling and raging. Verbally abusive relationships include the misuse of power or what Evans calls “Power Over,” which refers to behaviors and words that disempower, disrespect or devalue one’s partner.

Michigan State University Extension says that verbal abuse is about maintaining control, dominance and power over one’s partner. 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 their 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, Evans helps readers understand these issues and describes 15 categories of verbal abuse:

Withholding – Refusing to listen or share one’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams.

Countering – Seeing your partner as an adversary and constantly correcting them.

Discounting – Devaluing and discounting your partner’s perspective and point of view.

Verbal abuse disguised as jokes – Disparaging comments like “you’re so blonde…”

Blocking and diverting – Controlling communication by deciding what will be discussed.

Accusing and blaming – Blaming the other person for one’s anger, irritation or insecurity.

Judging and criticizing – “You” statements like “you’re too sensitive” or “you’re a nag.”

Trivializing – Communicating that what your partner has said or done is insignificant.

Undermining – Sabotaging things or relationships important to the partner.

Threatening – Intimidating by threatening to physically hit, leave her or get a divorce.

Name-calling – Overtly using put-downs and hurtful words to label and demean.

Forgetting – Using manipulation and denial and “forgetting” important things.

Ordering – Giving orders instead of asking respectfully for what one wants.

Denial – Denying the reality of the abuse by saying “I never did that” or “you’re getting upset about nothing” and other forms of denial.

Abusive anger – Using anger, rage, irritability and sarcasm to instill fear and control your partner.

The bottom line is if words or attitudes disempower, disrespect or devalue the other, then a pattern of verbal abuse is present in a relationship. Verbally abusive relationships 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 (1-800-799-SAFE) or the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence to find out about local resources available to you.

An alternative to abuse and “Power Over” in relationships is the development of relationships grounded in mutual respect, support, growth, healing, creativity, cooperation and what Evans calls “Personal Power.” You can learn more about the work of Patricia Evans at

Did you find this article useful?