In Abuse, Health Professionals

When Words Become Verbal Abuse

Verbal Abuse

The term verbal abuse can encompass many forms of communication. Some are obvious, and some less so. Often verbal abusers want to control another and maintain their dominance in a relationship. The trauma of verbal abuse can have a long-term effect on a person’s life; especially of they receive this abuse as a child. It is also a major warning sign of future physical abuse. If you are in a verbally abuse relationship, or concerned that a loved one is, then the information below is intended for you.



Intimate partner abuse is prevalent in the USA and worldwide. According to One in three adolescents in the USA have received some form of abuse from an intimate partner. Nearly half of all women in collage in the USA report receiving abusive behaviour in a relationship. Half of all youth who have experienced abuse in a relationship attempt suicide.

While the damage of physical abuse is becoming more widely understood, emotional and verbal abuse can be a lot trickier. Since the harm isn’t as immediately obvious as with physical abuse, it can be harder to study, report and understand. This can also lead victims to feel like they won’t be believed when they report it.

Verbal abuse is often found between intimate partners, but children are also frequently the victims. A report of child abuse is made every ten second in the USA. 80 per cent of children who experience abuse will go on to have at least one psychological disorder.

Verbal abuse has long-term effects on adults too. It can impact decision making abilities, self-image, and can even lead to psychological conditions such as PTSD, depression, sleep disorders, drug abuse and thoughts of suicide.


Harsh Words

We’ve all probably said harsh words or been a bit angry with someone before. Perhaps we said things that we didn’t mean and apologised for it later. How does this differ from verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse is typically found in an abusive relationship. These sorts of relationships can include some common characteristics:

  • The abuser will humiliate their partner, sometimes in from of others.
  • They dismiss the opinions or ideas of their partner.
  • They want to be in control of every aspect of the relationship.
  • They are unable to apologise for their actions, often blaming external situations.
  • They attack the self-esteem of their partner with teasing, pointing out flaws and blaming.

Verbal abuse isn’t limited to marriages and partnerships; they can exist between parents and children, siblings, at the workplace, in school or any other interpersonal relationship.


Why People Verbally Abuse

There are many reasons that people become verbally abusive. Each case is different, and there is a danger in assuming the same thing motivates all verbal abusers.

It has been noted that many verbal abusers were themselves victims of abuse as children. Due to this they lack empathy and don’t realise the severity of their actions. While some abusers are also sufferers of mental disorders, this is not always the case. Aggression-causing disorders that can lead to abusive behaviour include borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia.

Irrespective of any underlying causes of abuse there is never an excuse for it. If you are being abused you have no responsibility to stay with your abuser, even if they are a victim themselves.


Types of Verbal Abuse

Eleine Johannes, a specialist in family and community mental health from Kansas State University, verbal abuse includes:


  • Withholding – When the abuser doesn’t to share or open up with their partner.
  • Countering – Constantly contradicting or arguing on the points of view of the abused party.
  • Discounting – Dismissing the achievements or other important events as trivial or unimportant.
  • Verbal abuse as a joke The cover or excuse of humour is used to belittle or humiliate.
  • Diverting – Controlling the conversation in order to maintain control.
  • Accusing – Were the victim is portrayed as at fault for the abuse. This often happens when abusive behaviour is confronted or discussed.
  • Undermining – Where the abuser attempts to belittle or humiliate, often in front of others.
  • Threatening – Controlling through threats.
  • Ordering – Using dominance in order to maintain control.
  • Abusive anger – Threats of physical violence.


Any of these types of verbal abuse, if used regularly, can do a great deal of damage to a person’s self-esteem. They are used to manipulate and keep control over another person.

Verbal abuse is often all about control. The abuser will often try and make the victim feel like they are in fact the abuser themselves. This can become very convoluted and confusing, but often the defining characteristic between the two is that the abuser will want to maintain the status quo, whereas the victim will seek change. If you are in a troubled relationship, and your partner seems to want to it to continue with no change, then you may be in a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship.


What to Do if You Are Affected by Verbal Abuse?

Even if you are not a victim of physical or sexual abuse in a relationship, if you are being verbally abused you should act right away. There are services that can provide help for free and, should the situation get immediately dangerous then you should contact emergency services.

If you prefer to not speak to a professional, then you might want to consider reaching out to a friend or family member. Other authority figures, such as teachers, may also be an option. As Kathy Bosch, from the University of Nabraska, says:

The first step to recovery is being able to tell someone, “I am being verbally abused and it is not acceptable to me.” The first step to help those who are abused is to listen to them and validate what they are telling you.

Here are some links to organisations you can reach out to if you are the victim of verbal abuse:


Verbal abuse is a difficult issue, less clear-cut than other forms of abuse, and because of this it can seem less significant. However the long-term effects of verbal abuse can be catastrophic. It is vital to act quickly. Please join us in spreading awareness of abuse in all its forms. If you have any comments please join the discussion below, or share this article on social media to spark discussion. Alternatively, if you have any concerns feel free to contact us directly.

If you feel the threat of physical violence contact the emergency services and talk to the police right away.


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