5 Warning Signs of a Verbally Abusive Relationship (And What to Do)

Abuse is never okay in a relationship. When you are involved in a verbally abusive relationship, it is often difficult to identify the abuse. This is especially true in the beginning of a relationship and especially if the relationship started off well.

While it can be easy to identify physical abuse, verbal abuse and emotional abuse are often much more subtle, particularly to outsiders. Abuse can happen to anyone, from any background.

It doesn’t matter if you are economically successful, well educated or come from a good family. Verbal abuse can happen to any gender and it can happen to anyone of any sexual orientation.

What is Verbal Abuse?

Verbal abuse is when the victim is frequently demeaned, diminished and put down by their abuser. Verbal abuse can take the form of insults, demeaning comments, gaslighting and more. It can happen in public and in private.

Verbal abuse can happen in all kinds of relationships. It can happen in almost any kind of relationship, whether it is in a romantic relationship or a family relationship and even in friendships and professional relationships. According to PsychCentral, one-quarter of teenage girls have been in verbally abusive relationships.

Being in a verbally abusive relationship can leave long-term emotional wounds. In fact, domestic violence experts consider verbal abuse part of emotional abuse, which can lead to damaged self-esteem, problems in later relationships, PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide. 

Many people who endure verbal abuse become so used to it that the lines become blurred. If this is the case for you or a loved one, here are 5 warning signs of verbal abuse to help you sort through whether you may be dealing with verbal abuse in your relationship.

5 Signs of a Verbally Abusive Relationship

1. Insults

Insults are one of the double-edged forms of verbal abuse. Often, you are told to brush off the insult as a joke or “affectionate” teasing. When confronted about insulting comments, you might be told that you are being too sensitive or that you can’t take a joke.

Insults can start out as playfully poking fun. However, insults frequently have an undertone of meanness to them. The harsher the insult, the deeper the pain. Your partner might call you his “heifer,” or a “space cadet.” On the surface, they appear to be teasing insults, but really, the intent is to target your insecurities or make you doubt yourself.

2. Demeaning Comments

Demeaning comments are made with the intention to cut. They may be sarcastic remarks about your appearance, your intelligence or anything you take pride in about yourself.

Examples of demeaning remarks are “you just slide by at work, you really don’t work that hard,” or “I won’t tell anyone that your hair color comes from a bottle.” These comments might be made with a smile, but these types of comments make you feel smaller and less self confident. This is particularly true when looking at the whole picture and over time.

Demeaning comments are a hallmark of a verbally abusive relationship.

3. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is manipulation that makes you doubt your own thoughts and impressions. According to Medical News Today, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves. They often know something is off, but have a hard time pinpointing just what it is.

In gaslighting, your abuser tells you that you’re making up facts or that you are not smart enough to really understand the issue. You know what you hear or see but they make it out like you do not. 

You may be told you are lying, distorting reality, incorrectly remembering events or conversations, or not making sense. Over time, you may begin to doubt your own thoughts or mistrust your own emotional responses.

Ultimately, the goal of the abuser is to gain control over your thoughts and responses. It places them in the one-up position in the relationship, at the cost of your self esteem and self confidence.

4. Public Humiliation

One of the worst things any of us can experience is being humiliated in public. As children, we are easily embarrassed when we are publically reprimanded. As adults, public humiliation can be extremely damaging to our sense of self and our feelings of security.

Verbal abusers use our fear of public humiliation as a form of leverage. Public humiliation can be swearing at you loudly in public spaces. They may say demeaning things about you or make comments that make you feel ashamed of yourself. The abuser may deliberately make a scene if a restaurant reservation goes wrong or they feel threatened at someone else paying attention to you instead of them.

The result is that you find yourself double checking your own reactions or what you say to them or others while you are out in public. You find yourself shutting down and avoiding going out in public or out with friends.

5. Threats

Threats can take several different forms. An abuser may threaten to hurt you, leave the relationship or even hurt themselves. This is manipulation on their part. The abuser wants to control how you feel and behave. Threats are often a method of provoking you to feel guilt or fear, making you more willing to behave the way that they want.

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What You Can Do About Verbal Abuse

First and foremost, sometimes it is possible that you can find a way to work with your partner, friend or colleague and change their behavior. This is usually unikely though. If you are in a relationship with someone who is verbally abusive, it is unhealthy and toxic. You will have to determine whether their behavior is abusive and what you want to do about it.

Staying in a toxic relationship can have life changing, negative consequences. When in a verbally abusive relationship, you will remain vulnerable and most likely unhappy.

1. Confronting the Abuser

It can be really difficult to confront an abuser about their behavior. This is especially true if the abuse has been going on for an extended amount of time. However, if you start confronting your abuser, you let them know that you are no longer going to permit their bad behavior. When you stand up and say something, you can take back your own power.

In this situation, however, it is important that you remain safe. So it will be important for you to think through how to go about this and take necessary precautions for your safety.

If you are being blamed for something out of your control, call your abuser out on it. Say something like, “I have no control over my boss making me stay late for work. I’m not going to take blame for something that is not my fault.”

If you are being called names or on the receiving end of insulting comments, then say something. Tell your abuser that you are not comfortable with their insults and the comments are disrespectful.

Again, the big caveat here is that you need to be sure you are safe to do so. This may not be the right course of action for you if your safety would be in danger by confronting them.

2. Refuse to Engage

It can be tempting to try and reason with a verbal abuser. You may want to confront them and refute how they are characterizing your own behavior or reactions to them. However, if this approach does not work, then your other option is to refuse to engage with them.

You can ignore their negative comments and refuse to react to their attempts to manipulate your responses or push your buttons. Don’t allow yourself to drawn into an argument. If possible, calmly walk into another room or leave entirely and go to a friend’s house. 

3. Leaving the Relationship

For your own emotional mental health you should seriously consider leaving the relationship. Leaving an abusive relationship requires planning. If you are living with the abuser, then you should have a safety plan that includes a method of leaving, packing bags in advance and having a safe space to stay when you leave. You should also have money set aside to help support yourself.

In some cases, ending a relationship can be short-term or temporary. Some abusers do have the ability to learn to control their behaviors and change for the better. They can learn to recognize and take ownership of how poorly they have treated you and others. This is particularly true with the help of a qualified counselor. However, if it becomes clear that your abuser is not capable of, or does not want to change, then ending the relationship entirely is the healthiest choice.

Stepping into Survival from a Verbally Abusive Relationship

Acknowledging that you are in a verbally abusive relationship is not easy. However, abusive relationships cause long-term emotional damage. Abuse is never acceptable in a relationship, no matter whether it is a partner, a colleague, a family member or a friend. Nobody deserves to be treated badly, manipulated into losing their self confidence or controlled by someone else.

Recovery from abuse is possible. The first step is recognizing the abuse and confronting it. The next step is seeking help. Finding self-value and love goes a long way toward survival. We all deserve to be treated well by those around us.