When I was a teenager, I was addicted to Lifetime movies. We had really limited cable, so I ended up watching a ton of what my friends jokingly referred to as the "woman in peril" channel. Honestly, it earned the name. It seemed like every movie was about a beautiful but naive woman who falls for the wrong man and has to fight for her freedom. They were an over-the-top guilty pleasure — but what they weren't was subtle. When I started dating, these movies didn't exactly prepare me to look for the signs your partner is verbally abusive that could often be more covert and difficult to discern. Which is exactly why it's so important to know what the signs of actual, real-life verbal abuse look like, from the experts themselves who are trained to spot them.
If you think you might be in a verbally abusive relationship but aren’t totally sure, there’s actually a reason it's so unclear. It's because abusers are often good at hiding their behavior at first. In fact, as Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent explains, “Even the most skilled, competent psychologist and psychiatrist can 'miss' spotting a well-oiled sociopath.” While not all people who are verbally abusive are sociopaths, they can still be hard to identify. So, with that in mind and in honor of October's Domestic Violence Awareness Month, here are the behaviors the experts say to pay attention to, because they could be signs your partner is verbally abusive.
Dr. Campbell says that sometimes, it’s not what your partner says that's verbally abusive, but what they don’t say. “The silent treatment is a common tactic of abusers where they choose to abuse you by not using any words,” she explains. If you’ve ever been on the end of an emotionally weaponized silent treatment, you know exactly how devastating it can be. That’s because “their silence creates insecurity where you feel uncertain about what to do next, how to approach them, or how to move forward. This is emotionally abusive,” says Dr. Campbell.
Ah, the old “I was just kidding” defense — a manipulative (and cowardly) technique used by verbal abusers and mean girls all the world over. But guess what? Those hilarious “jokes” they tell that always seem to be at your expense? Yeah, that's actually verbal abuse, says Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, noted psychotherapist and author of Smart Relationships. As she explains, “People who are inept and immature about how to express their unhappiness and frustration about the relationship will often resort to nasty remarks disguised as ‘being in fun.’ But unkindness is never in fun.” The reason people do this, Dr. Wish says, is because they “need to control and change you.” She warns “it doesn't take much for the sarcasm to morph into cruelty and even physical abuse.”
Dr. Campbell agrees and warns that these jokes are also an opportunity for your partner to gaslight you. “They use joking cut-downs to insult you and when you give signs that you're hurt by what they said they turn on you and say that you're too sensitive and take everything too personally,” she explains. That’s not OK, and is totally verbally and mentally abusive.
Dr. Wish says that a major sign of verbal abuse is a partner who constantly criticizes you in front of an audience. “Usually, social situations such as being with friends or colleagues put[s] the brakes on a partner's negative and insulting comments about you,” says Dr. Wish. However, she warns that if behavior like name calling continues in public, then it's a huge red flag. “If your partner or date overrides this social filter, then it is easy to imagine how much more disrespectful and cruel your partner could be when you are alone,” she warns.
We've all had a moment where we lose our patience and snap at someone. However, a pattern of this kind of communication, says best-selling author and relationship expert Susan Winter, is something you should not brush off. She explains that if “instead of speaking and communicating in a calm and rational fashion, your partner snaps at you with impatience,” that’s a form of verbal abuse.
Another red flag, says Winter, is a partner who barks orders at you instead of respectfully asking you to do things. The reason this is concerning, she explains, is that your partner is “demanding that you fulfill their wishes” and that by “barking orders” at you, they are communicating that “you are subservient.”
Another sign to look out for is general disrespect. As Winter explains, this can come in many forms, which at their core are all about being dismissive of you and communicating that what you feel doesn't really matter. Winter says this can come in the form of a partner who constantly interrupts you when you're speaking, and that “this habit is not only rude, but acts as a form of diminishment. Continual interruption implies that what you have to say is of no value.”
Another behavior to look out for is eye rolling. "[It’s] a subtle form of diminishment is to roll one’s eyes when their partner is speaking. It’s passive aggressive and infers that their mate’s statement is incorrect and of no consequence," Winter explains. Or possibly, they just straight up ignore you when you speak. “Ignoring what you’re saying indicates that what you have to say is of no importance. Your partner doesn’t even bother to listen because you have no validity."
Like being dismissive, any behavior that belittles you, Winter says, is something to watch out for. This can oftentimes come in the form of constant correction, she warns. So, if “your partner feels the need to correct whatever you say, from grammar to your line of thinking — or perhaps you have a different opinion than your partner — a verbally abusive partner would feel it necessary to call you out on your error (and especially so in front of others),” says Winter. She continues, “this behavior is belittling, and therefore, abusive.”
While some of the previous points may tend toward the subtle, this last bit of advice is the flashing red light that your partner is being verbally abusive: if they name call or bully you. At this point, they aren't even trying to hide their abusive behavior. “It’s disrespectful to speak to a partner in derogatory language,” Winter says, and that “name calling and bullying has no place in a healthy relationship. This kind of behavior subtly erodes a partner’s self-esteem and confidence.” Bottom line, she says, “using negative language to make a partner feel belittled and inadequate is verbal abuse.” Period.
Is some — or all — of this hitting close to home? If so, it’s time to start thinking about your next step. Is this relationship salvageable, or is it time to cut your losses and get out? Depending on the severity of the behaviors, Winter says you should talk to your partner about their communication style. “Speak up. Clearly identify that what your partner is doing is verbal abuse. Give your partner the exact phrases and situations that you find verbally abusive," she advises, adding, "By replaying the exact language that is abusive, your partner now knows the rules of engagement as well as the boundaries of your relationship.”
Dr. Wish agrees, but stresses that it’s essential that, when you do so, to make sure you are safe. “Be sure to discuss your unhappiness in a safe place such as a restaurant or outdoor park. Tell your close friends or family members about what you are planning, and ask them to call you to see if you are OK,” she says, warning that “verbal abuse is often a rung on the ladder of physical, mental, and financial abuse.”
So again, the most important takeaway is that you want to make sure that you are safe. Fortunately, you don't have to go it alone. Lean on friends and family for support or, if that’s not an option, there are always the folks at The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1−800−799−7233), who are there specifically to offer advice and support. Never settle for a partner who doesn't value and uplift you. You deserve real love, and abuse of any kind, including verbal, just isn’t acceptable.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
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