How to Recognize Verbal Abuse

Forms of Emotional and Verbal Abuse You May Be Overlooking

How to Recognize Verbal Abuse
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There are three million cases of domestic violence reported each year. Many more go unreported.

Emotional abuse often precedes violence, but is rarely discussed. Both men and women abuse others, and unfortunately, many don’t even know it.

Why Is Emotional Abuse Hard to Recognize?

Emotional abuse may be hard to recognize because it can be subtle, and because abusers often blame their victims. They may act they have no idea why you are upset.

Additionally, you may have been treated this way in past relationships, so it’s familiar to you and harder to recognize.

Over time, the abuser will chip away at your self-esteem, causing you to feel guilty, doubt yourself, and distrust your perceptions.

Other aspects of the relationship may work well: The abuser may be loving between abusive episodes, so that you deny or forget them. You may not have had a healthy relationship for comparison, and when the abuse takes place in private, there are no witnesses to validate your experience.

The Personality of an Abuser

Abusers typically want to control and dominate. They use verbal abuse to accomplish this. They are self-centered, impatient, unreasonable, insensitive, unforgiving, and they lack empathy and are often jealous, suspicious, and withholding.

To maintain control, some abusers «take hostages,» meaning that they may try to isolate you from your friends and family. Their moods can shift from fun-loving and romantic to sullen and angry. Some punish with anger, others with silence—or both.

It’s usually “their way or the highway.”

Are You Being Abused?

Emotional abuse may start out innocuously, but grow as the abuser becomes more assured that you won’t leave the relationship. It may not begin until after an engagement, marriage, or pregnancy. If you look back, you may recall tell-tale signs of control or jealousy.

Eventually, you and the entire family will “walk on eggshells” and adapt so as not to upset the abuser.

Being subjected to emotional abuse over time can lead to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, inhibited sexual desire, chronic pain, or other physical symptoms.

People who respect and honor themselves won’t allow someone to abuse them. Many people allow abuse to continue because they fear confrontations. Usually, they are martyrs, caretakers, or pleasers.

They feel guilty and blame themselves.

Some aren’t able to access their anger and power in order to stand up for themselves, while others ineffectively argue, blame, and are abusive themselves, but they still don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries.

If you’ve allowed abuse to continue, there’s a good chance that you were abused by someone in your past, although you may not recognize it as such. It could have been a strict or alcoholic father, an invasive mother, or a teasing sibling. Healing involves understanding how you’ve been abused, forgiving yourself, and rebuilding your self-esteem and confidence.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

If you’re wondering if your relationship is abusive, it probably is. Emotional abuse, distinct from physical violence (including shoving, cornering, breaking and throwing things, etc.

), is speech and/or behavior that’s derogating, controlling, punishing, or manipulative. Withholding love, communication, support, or money are indirect methods of control and maintaining power. Passive-aggressive behavior is covert hostility.

The passive-aggressor is «a wolf in sheep's clothing.»

Behavior that controls where you go, to whom you talk, or what you think is abusive. It’s one thing to say, “If you buy the dining room set, we cannot afford a vacation,” and another to cut up your credit cards. Spying, stalking, and invading your person, space, or belongings is also abusive, because it disregards personal boundaries.

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional abuse, but it’s often unrecognized, because it may be subtle and insidious. It may be said in a loving, quiet voice, or be indirect—or even concealed as a joke. Whether disguised as play or jokes, sarcasm or teasing that is hurtful is abusive.

Obvious and direct verbal abuse, such as threats, judging, criticizing, lying, blaming, name-calling, ordering, and raging, are easy to recognize.

Following are other subtle types of verbal abuse that are just as damaging as overt forms, particularly because they are harder to detect.

When experienced over time, they have an insidious, deleterious effect, because you begin to doubt and distrust yourself.

Opposing: The abuser will argue against anything you say, challenging your perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. The abuser doesn’t listen or volunteer thoughts or feelings, but treats you as an adversary, in effect saying “No” to everything, so a constructive conversation is impossible.

Blocking: This is another tactic used to abort conversation. The abuser may switch topics, accuse you, or use words that in effect say, “Shut up.”

Discounting & Belittling: This is verbal abuse that minimizes or trivializes your feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It’s a way of saying that your feelings don’t matter or are wrong.

Undermining & Interrupting: These words are meant to undermine your self-esteem and confidence, such as, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” finishing your sentences, or speaking on your behalf without your permission.

Denying: An abuser may deny that agreements or promises were made, or that a conversation or other events took place, including prior abuse. The abuser instead may express affection or make declarations of love and caring.

This is crazy-making and manipulative behavior, which leads you to gradually doubt your own memory, perceptions, and experience. In the extreme, a persistent pattern is called gaslighting named after the classic Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight.

In it, a husband used denial in a plot to make his wife believe she was losing her grip on reality.

Confronting Abuse

In order to confront the abuse, it’s important to understand that the intent of the abuser is to control you and avoid meaningful conversation. Abuse is used as a tactic to manipulate and have power over you.

If you focus on the content, you’ll fall into the trap of trying to respond rationally, denying accusations, and explaining yourself, and will lose your power.

The abuser has won at that point and deflected responsibility for the verbal abuse.

Sometimes, you can deflect verbal abuse with humor. It puts you on equal footing and deprives the abuser of the power they seek in belittling you. Repeating back what is said to you also has an impact, followed by a calm boundary.

For example, «Did you say you think that I don't know what doing?» You may get a defiant repetition of the insult. Then follow up with, «I disagree,» or «I don't see it that way,» or «I know exactly what I'm doing.


In some cases, verbal abuse is best addressed with forceful statements such as, “Stop it,” “Don’t talk to me that way,” “That’s demeaning,” “Don’t call me names,” “Don’t raise your voice at me,” “Don’t use that tone with me,” “I don’t respond to orders,” etc. In this way, you set a boundary of how you want to be treated and take back your power. The abuser may respond with, “Or what?” You can say, “I will not continue this conversation.”

Typically, a verbal abuser may become more abusive; in which case, you continue to address the abuse in the same manner. You might say, “If you continue, I’ll leave the room,” and do so if the abuse continues.

If you keep setting boundaries, the abuser will get the message that manipulation and abuse won’t be effective. The relationship may or may not change for the better, or deeper issues may surface.

Either way, you’re rebuilding your self-confidence and self-esteem, and are learning important skills about setting boundaries.

Abuse can slowly chip away at self-esteem. Usually, both the abuser and the victim in a relationship have experienced shaming in childhood and already have impaired self-esteem. Confronting an abuser, especially in a long-term relationship, can be challenging.

It often takes the support and validation of a group, therapist, or counselor to be able to consistently stand up to abuse. Without it, you may doubt your reality, feel guilty, and fear loss of the relationship or reprisal.

If it feels daunting, you can try a different, educative approach.

Once you take back your power and regain your self-esteem, you won’t allow someone to abuse you. If the abuse stops, a relationship may improve, but for real, positive change, both of you must be willing to risk change.

©Darlene Lancer 2010, 2017

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


11 Common Patterns of Verbal Abuse

How to Recognize Verbal Abuse
 Written by Writer’s Corps member Jade Anna Hughes 

Verbal abuse happens nowhere in a relationship. It’s a lot more calculating and insidious, causing people on the receiving end to question themselves, wonder if they are overreacting, or even blame themselves.

Verbal abuse usually happens in private where no one else can intervene and eventually becomes a regular form of communication within a relationship.

For people experiencing it, verbal abuse is often isolating since it chips away at your self-esteem making it more difficult to reach out to a friend.

Many people who experience it rationalize the abuse in their mind and don’t even realize it’s an unhealthy form of communication. But that doesn’t make it any less distressing or mentally exhausting for people on the receiving end.

Ultimately, verbal abuse is a means of maintaining power and control over another in the relationship. And there are many subtle forms verbal abuse can take, making it even harder to recognize.

For example, verbal abuse includes being subjected to name-calling on a regular basis, constantly feeling demeaned or belittled, and being subjected to the silent treatment by a partner.

If you can’t tell whether your partner is being “funny” or “belittling,”  here are a few tell-tale signs you are being diminished in your relationship.   

Here are the 11 most common verbal abuse patterns to look out for in a relationship:

1. Name-calling 

This type of verbal abuse is probably the easiest one to recognize. This includes being called names and/or being shouted at on a regular basis.

Arguments that always resort to yelling and the use of aggressive phrases in a conversation are all signs that your communication with your partner is anything but healthy.

In a healthy relationship, partners step away from an argument or try to talk through the issue. In a verbally abusive relationship, the abuser will yell until they get what they want.

Example: “You idiot, now you have made me angry!”

2. Condescension

light sarcasm and a sarcastic tone of voice should not be a constant part of your interactions with a partner.This can also include being the constant butt of your partner’s jokes. It can start off funny, which is why it often goes undetected, but over time condescension becomes belittling. 

Example: “No wonder you are always moaning about your weight, look how clean your plate is!”

3. Manipulation

Sometimes it can be easy to spot a controlling personality, especially when someone continuously pushes their partner to do and say things they are not always comfortable with. Manipulation, on the other hand, can be more difficult to detect. It can be subtle, turning situations around and putting the blame on the abused partner.

Example: “If you really loved me you wouldn’t say or do that.”

4. Criticism

It’s OK to provide constructive criticism when requested on occasion; being honest with your partner is healthy. However, constant criticism and belittling of a significant other are NOT healthy, and over time can lead to a significant loss of self-esteem.

Example: “Why are you so disorganized? I can always count on you to ruin our nights out!”

5. Demeaning Comments

If a partner puts you down using demeaning comments that refer to your race/ethnic background, gender, religion, background in general, it is unhealthy.

This doesn’t even need to be consistent, if it happens once, it is no doubt going to happen again, and should not be normalized.

A partner who loves and respects you will not use something that is an inherent part of you to put you down.

Examples: “I’m not surprised, you are Asian, you all do that” or “You women, always crying stupid tears for nothing.”

6. Threats 

While this may seem an easy one to recognize, it isn’t always the case. Threats can be dressed up in a way that makes them appear as if they “aren’t so bad,” or in a way that makes you question if you really heard right. But a threat is a threat and a loving partner does not resort to them to get their way.

Examples:”I will hurt myself if you leave me tonight” or “If you don’t do that you might find that your cat spends the night outdoors!”

7. Blame

Blame is one of the most common forms of verbal abuse and involves constantly putting the blame for one’s actions onto their partner instead of taking responsibility for them. This can include blaming a partner for something they had nothing to do with, to blaming the partner for the abuser’s emotions.

Examples: “You are the reason why we are never on time for anything!” or “Look what you made me do now!”

8. Accusations

Often stemming from severe jealousy, repeated accusations are a form of verbal abuse. Being constantly accused of something often leads a partner to start questioning themselves on whether they are doing something wrong/dressing inappropriately/talking too much, etc.

Examples: “I bet you are cheating on me!” or “I saw you had fun flirting with your boss again, while I was stuck chatting to your boring coworkers.”

9. Withholding

Sometimes a partner may walk away from an argument, preferring to let the dust settle to engage in a more constructive conversation without flaring emotions.

While this is definitely a sign of a healthy relationship, the silent treatment, often called withholding, is not.

Withholding may include your partner refusing to answer your calls when they don’t get what they want or downright ignoring you over nothing. 

Example: You are discussing restaurant options and don’t want to go with your partner’s preference. They leave the room and refuse to talk to you until you apologize for being “mean.”

10. Gaslighting

Gaslighting includesdiscounting a partner’s emotions and making them wonder if their feelings are meaningless and/or wrong.

This is a very common form of emotional abuse, and often goes undetected, as it can be discreet and severely manipulative. Gaslighting can make one feel isolated and unable to express their feelings.

People being gaslighted often find themselves apologizing for behavior that they never committed.

Examples: “Why are you always so sensitive to everything?” 

11. Circular Arguments

If your partner constantly disagrees with you, and starts an argument whenever they see an opportunity, or if conversations and arguments seem to go round in circles, leaving you tired and drained, then these are all signs of an unhealthy relationship.

People on the receiving end of these types of disagreements tend to feel they’re walking on eggshells in order to avoid going back to the same argument again and again.

We do not need to always agree on everything in a relationship, but there should be a mutual acceptance of this, rather than an atmosphere of one-upping the other or engaging in arguments you can never win.

If you feel you are constantly on edge and walking on eggshells around your partner, or if some of these patterns feel familiar to you, you may be in an unhealthy relationship.

Also, if your trusted friends and/or family are telling you that something is wrong, hear them out. They may be seeing, or hearing, something that you cannot.

Remember, by setting boundaries and being honest about how something makes you feel, you can learn to empower yourself in a relationship

If you would more information on how to leave an unhealthy relationship, please check out the US Department of Health’s Office on Women’s Health, or call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to get advice.


14 Signs of Verbal Abuse [Take the Test]

How to Recognize Verbal Abuse

Domestic violence and other types of abuse can also be present when verbal abuse is a part of a marriage or committed relationship.

Knowing the signs of verbal abuse is the first-step to stopping this relationship poison.

Verbal abuse is a form of adult bullying and is always wrong!

Say NO to verbal abuse!

Every person is entitled to respect and freedom — this is an unconditional human right!

Verbal abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence all deny a person's natural human right to security, respect, and dignity.

Verbal abuse is the deliberate use of 'words' to degrade, humiliate, and subjugate another person.

The victim of verbal abuse is harmed in many ways, including lowered self-esteem, less self-worth, more worry and anxiety, and risk for depression.

Verbal abuse can occur in the home or the workplace. Most often, it occurs in the home between two intimate partners.

Verbal abuse — as well as every other form of abuse — cannot be justified and should not be accepted!

Nobody's behavior or situation can excuse another person's abusive behavior. The victim of abuse is NEVER to blame for the abuse they are suffering from!

Say NO to verbal abuse and every other form of abuse.

Not all 'bad' relationship behavior is abuse

Not all relationship conflicts, arguments, and disagreements are abuse.

Expressions of anger or unreasonableness are not necessarily abuse. Only when an individual's goal is control his or her partner is he or she categorized as an abuser.

When you challenge your partner to be more respectful, kind and accepting, and he or she acknowledges his or her faults and makes a sincere effort to be better, this is a strong indicator that he or she is not an abuser.

On the other hand, if your partner refuses to acknowledge his or her bad relationship behavior, blames you for all the relationship problems, continues to insult you, and threaten you, or promises to be better but does not follow through  — then you know your partner is an abuser!


Here are the 14 definitive signs of verbal abuse in a marriage or committed relationship.

After being presented with the 14 signs of verbal abuse, you can take a Verbal Abuse Test.

The 14 Signs of Domestic Verbal Abuse

1. Verbal Assault. As domestic violence injures the body, verbal abuse injures your emotions and reduces your feelings of self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, security, and happiness.

Examples of Verbal Assault:

Your partner says to you…

  • You are stupid.
  • You are fat.
  • You are the only one who doesn't know how to do this.
  • Didn't your mother teach you anything? Don't you have a brain?
  • Nobody s you; you have no friends.
  • You cause all our problems.
  • You are worthless.
  • It's your fault that I am angry!

2. Always Disagreeing. Arguing, always believing he or she is right, and never agreeing with what you say or want is another sign.

Examples of Always Disagreeing:

  • You have no idea what are the best flowers to plant in our garden.
  • I know you have your own ideas about how to discipline our son. However, I have told you many times that the way you are doing it is wrong! You should only do it the way I have told you.
  • You pay too much for orange juice. If you shopped at the store where I go, you wouldn't overpay!

3. Sarcastic Jokes. Some verbal abusers are very skilled at embedding insults and embarrassing comments within humor. Humor can be used as a way to camouflage the intent of the comment so that the verbal abuser cannot be held responsible for what he or she says to you.

Examples of Sarcastic Jokes:

  • If every time you made a mistake, we earned a dollar, by now we would be millionaires!
  • I love you by the pound. Keep it up… gain more weight… you will be more loved than anyone else in this world!
  • With that new hat, I am sure you could easily get a job at the circus!

4. Controlling The Conversation. a traffic cop who directs and controls traffic, a verbal abuser will control and manipulate the conversation and decide what you can and cannot speak about.

Examples of Controlling The Conversation:

  • You have already asked me the same question a thousand times.
  • You never listen to me, so why should I listen to you?
  • You never learn, so why should I bother to talk with you?
  • I have to interrupt you because you say so many stupid things.

5. Blaming. The abuser vigorously 'blames' you for any undesirable situation. Blame is not something that should be part of a healthy relationship. Thus, regardless of the cause of an unwanted event, blaming is always inappropriate, harmful, and one more example of verbal abuse.

Examples of Blaming:

  • It is your fault that I lost my job. You never support me.
  • It is your fault that I cheated on you because you don't give me enough love.
  • It is your fault that I cannot find my keys. You never clean up around here.

6. Dismissing. Always minimizing your concerns and needs is a variant of verbal abuse.

Examples of Dismissing:

  • So what if the windows were open last night! You are always paranoid. Stop thinking negatively and everything will be okay.
  • I will not drive you to the doctor. You always make a mountain a molehill.
  • So what if he criticized you! You are too sensitive.
  • There is nothing wrong with my having lunch with an old boyfriend. Your jealousy just proves you are sick!

7. Threatening. Threatening with harsh consequences to manipulate your opinions or behavior is verbal abuse.

Examples of Threatening:

  • If we get divorced, I will take the children from you. I will prove to the judge you are 'crazy.'
  • If you don't stop your mother from sticking her nose into our business, I will never speak to her again.
  • If you don't keep the house cleaner, I won't give you any more money.

8. Character Assassination. Character Assassination is when your value as a person is challenged.

Examples of Character Assassination: 

  • You are stupid, just your brother.
  • I regret that nobody told me how lazy you are before I married you.
  • If you had half a brain, you could figure it out on your own.
  • You have never achieved anything of value your entire life.
  • I feel I have to treat you a child.

9. Criticism. Continually expressing negative opinions and judgments about you.

Examples of Criticism:

  • You spend too much money.
  • You always drive too fast.
  • When you eat, you chew too loud.
  • You are always thinking the worst of people. This is why you have no friends.

10. Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of 'fact manipulation.' The truth has nothing to do with the matter at hand. The abuser tries to convince you that because you are 'crazy or stupid,' you don't know the truth!

Examples of Gaslighting:

  • You gave me bad advice, and that's why we lost money on the stock market. (This never happened.)
  • You always neglected our son Tom, and that is why he's doing so poorly in university. (This never happened.)
  • You are abusive, and this is why we have such a bad marriage. (This is not true.)
  • I never called you a 'bitch.' (When in fact the abuser did.)

11. Abusive Anger and Rage. The difference between normal relationship conflict and abuse is the intent. Not all anger is abusive. However, if a person uses anger with the intent to systematically control and manipulate you, then it is verbal abuse.

Examples of Abusive Anger and Rage.

  • The abuser uses his or her anger to frighten you.
  • The abuser uses his or her anger to bully you.
  • The abuser uses his or her anger to force you to do what he or she wants.

12. Yelling. Raising the voice to intimidate and bully you is a variant of verbal abuse.

Examples of Yelling:

  • All the above examples of verbal abuse are said in a loud and menacing voice.
  • Screaming in a demanding and rude way such as; «bring me a fork or move your car.»

13. Male-privilege. Some men are under the mistaken belief that their female partner must do whatever they want them to do. These men believe that 'their gender' makes them superior or entitled and that they have a right to control the relationship. This is wrong — men and women are equal.

Examples of Male-privilege (men speaking to their female partners):

  • You need to do what I tell you to.
  • It is time to have sex.
  • Today, you must stay home and clean the house.
  • I don't your friend. Stop talking to her.

14. Racism. When a partner is shamed or put down because of his or her religion, culture, or skin color.

Examples of Racism:

  • When I see where you and your family come from, it does not surprise me that you are so primitive.
  • If you want to get close to God, become a member of my faith.
  • I hope our children have my skin color and not your skin color.
  • I don't want our children to be your family. This is why they can't see your parents.

Four steps to freeing yourself from verbal abuse

1. If you believe you are in a verbally abusive relationship, I encourage you to learn more about verbal and emotional abuse.

Read about abuse, watch videos about abuse, and reach out to qualified professionals.

Take the FREE Verbal Abuse Test below to learn if you are being verbally abused.

2. Acknowledge that abuse is never your fault.

Verbal abuse — and every other type of abuse — cannot be justified. Nobody has a right to hurt you — whether physically or emotionally. Nobody has a right to control you. Your freedom and dignity is a human right!

3. Take the position that you will not accept being abused.

Unless you make it clear to your abuser that you will not tolerate abuse, the abuse will ly continue. 

There are many ways to let your abuser know that verbal abuse will not be tolerated. For example, in person, through writing, or in the presence of another person. Whichever way you chose, make sure you are safe.

4. Make a practical plan on how to stop being verbally abused.

Knowing that verbal abuse is wrong and harmful is never enough!

You must do whatever it takes — no matter how much effort is required — to make sure your partner treats you with kindness and respect and that you feel safe when with him or her.

Taking decisive action to stop abuse is your responsibility and opportunity.

Consulting with an experienced and caring professional can often help you devise a practical plan to end the verbal abuse.

When possible, you should try to preserve your relationship.

However, when this is not possible, there are other options.


The Verbal Abuse Test — take it NOW!

  • Completely FREE
  • No email is required
  • Immediate results
  • Private and confidential
  • 15 easy questions

The Verbal Abuse Test is designed to help individuals determine if they are in a verbally abusive relationship.

This test has been written by the author of this article, a top experienced and qualified relationship specialist.

Learn the TRUTH about your relationship

If the Verbal Abuse Test determines that you are verbally abused, you need to take action.

Know your verbal abuser CAN change for the better IF he or she wants to.

However, you must start the process to stop the abuse.

You do this when you take the position that you will no longer accept being verbally abused, that your relationship is conditional — that your partner treats you and speaks to you respectfully.

Act now to stop the abuse

No one should agree to live in an abusive relationship.  

If you are in a verbally abusive relationship, you need to reclaim your human right to be treated with dignity, respect, and equality.

Start your journey to a healthier relationship by taking the Verbal Abuse Test.

Steps after the Verbal Abuse Test

After you have taken the Verbal Abuse Test, you will be offered the following additional resources to stop abuse:

1. Get our FREE 58-page Marriage and Committed Relationship Guide, Be A Couple Team — the ten most important guidelines. Learn what a healthy and happy relationship is !

2. Take our Emotional Abuse Test. 

3. Watch the Emotional Abuse and the Sexless Relationships video.

4. Learn more about abuse and get FREE resources to STOP abuse.

About the author

Abe Kass, MA, RSW, RMFT, CCHT., is a Registered Social Worker, Registered Couple and Family Therapist, Certified Hypnotherapist, and award-winning Educator. He has a busy clinical practice in Toronto, Canada and throughout the world using the phone or Zoom. 

After many years of clinical practice and research, Abe concluded that practical solutions requiring a focused effort of no more than a few minutes a day for very specific relationship problems were critically needed. GoSmartLife Publishing House has been created to fill this need.


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