The verbal abuse literature is
an outgrowth of the battered women's movement. It pertains to a recently articulated,
though distinct pattern of disrespectful treatment that one partner inflicts upon their
spouse. Verbally abused individuals tend to be women, though there are many abused men as
The line between verbal and physical abuse is
one of degree. The same interpersonal dynamics apply to both relationships. Many verbally
abusive relationships will never cross the physical abuse "line." However, the
absence of physical abuse does not make a verbally abusive relationship OK!
Furthermore, in not putting a stop to verbal abuse may enable it to escalate into physical
abused partner often has little or no idea that they are being treated poorly!"
Even in cases where the physical abuse boundary
has been crossed, the abused partner often has little or no idea that they are being
treated poorly! I have heard, "All he does is squeeze me a little (around the
neck in Maya's* case)"; "He had a reason to scream: I disobeyed him";
"He was so angry at me, he broke my stereo"; "My daughter needs a father,
what can I do?" I hear complaints, but, I rarely hear outrage (that comes as
the abused person gets healthier). These people come to treatment to relieve feelings of
depression, anxiety, inferiority, guilt, self-recrimination, and the like. Often, their
abusive partner has sent them to therapy since they are perceived to be the "sick
ones" (Maya, again). The abused individual is more or less convinced that personal
and marital problems are somehow their fault. Perversely, they are
responsible - but not in any way the victimized person can yet fathom. Victims
have to come out of denial and then take their power.
In almost all cases, the abused partner is
codependent. See codependence-related
articles here. Patricia Evans expertly and comprehensively articulates the
phenomenon in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, required reading for
both partners in my practice.
I never cease to be amazed when an abused
partner tells me they had difficulty reading the Evan's book. Often these people identify
with the abuser more easily than with the victim! The abused proceed to recount the ways
in which their angry outbursts have provoked their partner! "How can I be mad at him
after the way I behaved?"
When I run into this phenomenon, I understand I
am dealing with an individual who has allowed themselves to become so victimized, they
have completely bought into the abuser's world view that the partner is to blame. (See related content on the verbal abuser here.) There is usually
a significant history of recognized or unrecognized childhood abuse and/or neglect in
these individuals. Abuse is a "normal" experience for them, ingrained into every
fiber of their being. Their sense of reality is distorted, and self-esteem is
seriously compromised. The self is not only lost, it never existed. We have work to
There are several reasons abused people allow
others to hurt them:
They don't recognize that their partners are
hurting them. ("My spouse just had a really bad day; he/she doesn't mean it." So
what? Do you deserve it?)
Self esteem is so low, it is
"normal" to feel hurt. ("It's OK, its only me..." No! It is
They lack survival skills, or feel guilty
about implementing a plan. ("How could he do this to me?" Well he did. And
it will happen again, and again. So, what are you going to do about it?)
They are so depressed, anti-depressant
medication is often highly advisable, at least early on.
Women with children who are unable to support
themselves face very real financial concerns that keep them trapped. Their spouses,
characteristically control-oriented, make sure that their women are financially dependent.
Outside of overt physical harm, it does not
help that the legal system is often powerless regarding
aspects of abuse phenomena (i.e.,
the abusive person's innate ability to manipulate the system and appear "right"
on the surface).
My first task is to
break through the denial. Usually this means helping my abused
client become angry - instead of depressed. Remember, anger is a signal that
something is wrong and needs attention. When anger can be connected to its
precipitating event, there is something to work on!
To attend to and correct that which is not-OK
requires a set of cognitive and verbal skills. These survival skills have
not been taught in the home while growing up and need to be learned now. "To appropriately
and effectively deal with what is wrong" does not mean "blowing up" or
making stupid choices. Books like Suzette Haden Elgin's You Can't Say That To Me! and Jean Baer's How to be an Assertive (Not
Aggressive) Woman come to
It is the adult's
personal responsibility to themselves and to their Maker to deal with persons or
situations that hurt them or hurt minors under their care. I will say this
again: It is the adult's personal responsibility to themselves
and to their Maker to deal with persons or situations that hurt them or hurt minors under
their care. Get it?
news is that verbally abused individuals have a relatively easy task ahead..."
The good news is that verbally abused
individuals have a relatively easy task ahead of them. It is not too difficult for most
people to begin to take care of themselves. Getting started is often the hardest part. The
trick is to do in in a way that raises self-esteem ("blowing up", for
The last time I heard from Maya, a very
attractive 20-something Hispanic woman with a lovely 10-year old daughter, she had left
the husband - who loved to squeeze her throat - far behind. She hooked up with a battered
wife's program, was contemplating school, a move, etc. For the first time in her life,
this kind, loving woman felt very good about herself and her future.
Not to be misleading, recovery can be very
difficult. Read about J, a young man who was badly hurt by a woman
and the difficulties he encounters in recovery.
Still, the prognosis of the abused person is
much brighter than that of the abuser. First of all, no one wants to hurt so much. Second,
treatment is much more "superficial" and focused around skills acquisition. On
the other hand, the verbal abuser, who has the social skills, who works the system well,
who "wins" most of the time, not only has to give this up, but faces the far
more daunting challenge of learning to trust.
Parenthetically, abused people sense their
mate's distrust and vulnerability. It is the "soft part nobody else
knows." These empathic people get into trouble when their attempt to heal their
partner through their all-forgiving love backfires. More on this soon, and on why I think
marital or relational therapy where possible works best. Stay tuned!
Read about the
verbal abuser here
PS: God bless you Maya, and more power to you!