The Verbally Abusive Relationship, How to Recognize It and How to Respond by Patricia Evans
Verbal abuse might not be as visible as physical abuse, but it can be just as damaging. What makes this type of abuse so insidious is that the victim blames herself, further weakening her self-esteem, instead of placing the responsibility firmly where it belongs – on the abuser. Patricia Evans unmasks verbal abuse in all its hurtful guises, from the most obvious such as yelling and name-calling, to the covert manipulations of sabotage, double-speak and denial. Evans bases her insights and conclusions on extensive research. She uses real-life situations and dialogue to shed light on this dark, destructive ailment – though she sometimes can be repetitive and unnecessarily complex. Her in-depth analysis of the dynamics of verbal abuse may be more suited to therapists and researchers than to victims seeking coping advice. Evans would be the first to say that if you are in imminent danger, get professional help or a cop. getAbstract recommends her book to anyone who might be in a verbally abusive relationship or who cares about someone who is. Therapists and counselors will also benefit from this well-researched thesis.
- “Verbal abuse is an issue of control, a means of holding power over another.”
- Verbal abuse is not always easy to recognize.
- The two kinds of power are “Power Over” and “Personal Power.”
- The abuser (usually male) and his partner (usually female) operate from different realities: The abuser wants to dominate while his partner wants to cooperate.
- The abuser periodically relieves his anger and tension by venting or controlling his partner. This is the “cycle of anger.”
- Over time, the abused partner loses her self-confidence, assurance and optimism.
- The victim of verbal abuse doubts her own feelings because she is constantly being told she is wrong, overreacting or mistaken.
- Verbal abuse follows several patterns. Some are overt, such as name-calling, while others are covert, such as withholding, trivializing, forgetting and denying.
- Once the abused partner recognizes the abuse, she learns she is not at fault.
- To combat verbal abuse, seek professional help, set limits, change your responses and, if need be, leave.
The Verbally Abusive Relationship Book Summary
About Verbal Abuse
You can’t see the signs of verbal abuse simply by looking at its victims. Unlike physical abuse, verbal abuse leaves no bruises, visible scars or broken bones. But the victims suffer and bear emotional scars. The partner (predominantly female) of an abuser (predominantly male) becomes confused. Why is her partner different in private than in public? Why is there a gap between his words and her feelings? What is wrong with her? Why can’t other people see what is happening?
“Verbal abuse is hostile aggression.”
Verbal abuse may be obvious or subtle, occasional or constant, but it is always “an issue of control…of holding power over another.” In most cases, the abuser denies he is doing anything wrong. Usually, the abuse takes place in private without witnesses. It often escalates over time. In “many, many cases” verbal abuse is a predecessor and a warning signal of physical abuse.
Are You a Victim?
You might think that verbal abuse is obvious, as it is with name-calling. However, many forms of verbal abuse are nebulous and hard to pin down. The abused partner must recognize the ill-treatment because the abuser is probably unwilling or unable to change. If you believe you might be on the receiving end of verbal abuse, consider whether your relationship is experiencing these symptoms:
- He’s often angry for no apparent reason, making you feel bewildered.
- Discussing your feelings or resolving issues is difficult.
- You are often confused because his response does not match your intent.
- He will seldom open up or talk about his feelings.
- He seems to take a contrary position simply to be “right” while you are “wrong.”
- You hear double messages and cannot get clarification.
- You feel blindsided by an unexpected reaction or a broken promise.
“Two Kinds of Power”
Power manifests in two forms: “Power Over” and “Personal Power.” Power Over is about “control and dominance” of another person. Personal Power involves “mutuality and co-creation.” While Power Over requires winners and losers, Personal Power relies on partnership and shared responsibility. If one person in a relationship is oriented toward Power Over, but the other is not, it is as if they live “in two different realities.” The person living in a world based on cooperation (Personal Power) perceives the relationship as mutually supportive and interdependent. However, her partner lives in the reality of competitive Power Over, and only wants to triumph over her. When partners are grounded in Personal Power, they resolve issues together, instead of following the destructive patterns created by a Power Over partner. When a Power Over partner uses words and intent to govern, trivialize or devalue his mate, that is verbal abuse.
About the Abuser
The abuser exercises his power to dominate. He does not admit what he is doing, because he is unable to face his true nature and feelings. He wants to win, but to do so he needs his partner to lose. A verbal abuser might be “irritable, unpredictable, angry, unaccepting, unexpressive, controlling, uncommunicative, competitive, jealous, sullen, critical and explosive.” He uses these emotions to manipulate his partner and retain power, as seen in this exchange between Bert and Bella:
“If the words or attitude disempower, disrespect or devalue the other, then they are abusive.”
Bella: Bert, do you have any plans for today? I thought we’d take a ride to the country. Bert (angrily): Do I have to get your approval for my plans? Bella (confused): No, of course not. I just thought we might spend the afternoon taking a ride together. Bert (angrily): Then why are you arguing about my plans! Bella (confused): I’m not. Why are you so angry? Bert (confrontational and defensive): You’re the one who started it and attacked me about plans. You’re just trying to put it on me now!
“Verbal abuse closes the door to true communication and intimacy.”
Bella does not understand that she and Bert are operating from two different realities, so she is confounded. Bert tells her that she is saying and feeling things that she never intended to convey. He thwarts her attempts to communicate because he wants to dominate, not cooperate.
The underlying emotion that causes verbal abuse is anger. The abuser feels angry because of his “personal powerlessness.” He takes his anger and hostility out on his partner, and then he feels better, while his partner feels terrible. This venting releases his tension. Yet, soon the tension and anger build up again, culminating in another outburst. This is the “cycle of anger.” The partner who carries out this destructive cycle of behavior is an “anger addict.”
About the Abused Partner
The abused partner wants to be heard and understood. She believes her spouse loves her, and that they can work out their problems if she tries harder and communicates better. After a time, she begins to lose faith in her judgment. She suffers a loss of confidence and self-esteem. She questions her perceptions and wonders why she isn’t happy. Yet, she won’t leave the relationship because she clings to some deeply held beliefs, including:
- The belief that if she explained herself better, her partner wouldn’t get angry.
- The belief that she is susceptible to “taking things the wrong way.”
- The belief that she overreacts.
- The belief that her partner is trying as hard as she is trying.
- The belief that she is suffering due to some inherent flaw in her makeup.
- The belief that if her partner understood that he was hurting her, he would stop.
“Generally the responsibility for recognizing verbal abuse rests with the partner of the abuser, because the abuser is not motivated to change.”
The victim of verbal abuse begins to doubt her own feelings because her abuser constantly tells her that they are inaccurate. When she comes to understand that her partner is causing her inner turmoil, she will also be able to recognize that she is being abused. Verbal abuse isn’t easy for the victim to recognize for several reasons: She has learned to ignore unkindness or disrespect, the abuser denies it or she doubts her feelings. Abuse seldom involves witnesses, it might occur when everything seems to be fine and it recurs in different, yet familiar, ways. The abuser shows contempt for things his partner cares about, he is not concerned after the incident and he does not attempt to repair the problem. He tells his partner that she said things she never meant.
“If the partner shares her feelings with the perpetrator of the aggression, you can be absolutely certain he will invalidate them.”
Verbal abuse falls into several categories:
- “Withholding” – The abuser refuses to listen or communicate, destroying intimacy.
- “Countering” – The abuser arbitrarily opposes his partner’s views.
- “Discounting” – The abuser persuades his partner that her feelings are wrong.
- “Verbal abuse disguised as jokes” – The abuser makes jokes that are really insults.
- “Blocking and diverting” – This is one way the abuser refuses to communicate.
- “Accusing and blaming” – The abuser blames his partner for his anger, irritability or inappropriate behavior.
- “Judging and criticizing” – Statements like “You’re too sensitive” can be judgmental. Criticism, particularly if it is disguised as being helpful or constructive, is also abusive.
- “Trivializing” – This negates the victim’s feelings, often in subtle, insidious ways.
- “Undermining” – The abuser wears away his partner’s self-confidence. His comments sabotage her: “Your promotion won’t make a difference financially, so it doesn’t matter.”
- “Threatening” – The abuser uses his partner’s fears, for instance, threatening to leave.
- “Name calling” – There is never an excuse for calling someone bad names, which is one of the most blatant forms of verbal abuse.
- “Forgetting” – This abuser uses this hostile passive/aggressive way to refuse to own his misdeeds or broken promises.
- “Ordering” – When the abuser orders his partner around, he is denying her equality.
- “Denial” – Denial negates the abused partner’s perceptions. The abuser refuses to admit what really happened and claims, “I never said that,” or “You’re making it up.”
The Steps to Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
When the abused partner begins to realize that she and her mate do not share the same reality, she is on the road to recognizing verbal abuse. She starts to understand that her partner only wants to dominate and control her. This realization is painful, but it is also freeing. She now realizes that nothing is wrong with her. She acknowledges that in healthy relationships, one person does not insult, control manipulate or yell at the other. Instead of questioning her own thoughts and feelings, she begins to doubt her partner.
“When the victim of verbal abuse realizes that she was not loved, only controlled, she grieves the lack of love because she knows that she is lovable.”
If you are the victim of verbal abuse, first seek professional help and support. You can ask your mate to accompany you, but see a counselor or therapist with or without him. A good therapist will help you become fully aware of the abusive dynamic in your relationship, and will assist you in developing the inner strength and resources to change your situation.
“The abuser’s declarations of love are in direct contrast to the hurtful things he says.”
Choose professional help carefully. A therapist may find it hard to recognize abuse at first if a couple presents themselves as wanting to “work on their relationship.” If the therapist believes that the abused partner must simply become more assertive or independent, he or she can actually cause the victim additional harm. Avoid any therapist who does not recognize verbal abuse as hostile aggression, lacks extensive knowledge about “patriarchy, power and gender,” or holds the victim of abuse in any way responsible. A therapist will use a “narrative” approach to treat the abuser by identifying the abuse as such, positioning himself or herself against it, and charging the abuser with accepting “total responsibility” for stopping the abuse.
“The verbal abuser’s anger is free-floating and irrational. It has nothing to do with the partner. It does, however, affect her deeply.”
Once you have professional support, begin setting limits on what you will and absolutely will not accept. Do not change these limits no matter what your partner says. Setting limits is difficult because it requires the abused partner to trust her feelings, which the abuser constantly undermines. Start by choosing one category of abuse and deciding not to tolerate it. Distance yourself from the destructive emotions he is trying to elicit. Disengage when necessary. Your goal is to identify every action of verbal abuse. A firm, authoritarian response such as a simple “Stop It!” tells the abuser that you mean what you say. Speak firmly, hold your head up, make eye contact and take deep, cleansing breaths. Use statements such as “Cut it out” or “Don’t talk to me like that.” Other responses you can try, depending on the category of verbal abuse, include:
- When he is withholding, try saying, “I am feeling very bored with your company,” and then leave.
- When he is countering, try saying, “Stop! Please look at my lips.” Do not continue to explain what you mean or he will continue to present counterarguments.
- When he is accusing or blaming, try saying, “Don’t talk to me like that!” or “Remember whom you are talking to!” Again, don’t fall into the pattern of explaining yourself.
- When he is ordering, say, “Can you say ‘please’ nicely?” or “I don’t follow orders.”
“When the partner begins to recognize verbal abuse for what it is, she has awakened from the illusion that her mate shares her reality.””Appeals to the abuser’s compassion are fruitless, because the abuser is not empathetic.”
The best way to protect yourself from verbal abuse is to understand that the abuser is not rational or emotionally mature. Know that his goal is to dominate and control, and not because of anything you have done. You hold the ultimate power. You can resolve any verbally abusive situation by leaving. Always have enough money to get home on your own. Keep friends and relatives’ phone numbers close-by so you can call for help if need be. You might even want to keep a packed bag in your car for hasty getaways.
“The great tragedy in a verbally abusive relationship is that the partner’s efforts to bring reconciliation, mutual understanding and intimacy are rejected out of hand by the abuser because to him they are adversarial.”
Concentrate on the present. Do not beat yourself up about the past or worry about the future. If you want to give your partner an opportunity to modify his behavior, let him know that you are making changes. Tell him you will no longer respond to him as you did previously. Understand that if he refuses to change, you might have to end the relationship. Do what it takes to protect yourself. If he continues to deny responsibility or refuses help, the situation is out of your control. You will recover, but tragically he will never experience an equal, intimate, loving relationship.
About the Author
Patricia Evans has written four books on verbal abuse. She works as a consultant, speaker and facilitator.
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