As a psychologist, I often hear stories about fighting. After all, conflict is a normal part of any relationship and, during heated conversations, feelings of anger and frustration can swell, causing us to snap at our partners. However, when I hear about people who make threats, resort to name-calling, and yell whenever they get riled up, I get concerned. It’s normal to lose one's cool occasionally if you’re arguing with your partner about something, but if these verbal slingshots happen regularly, it may be a sign of emotional abuse.
Because the signs may be subtle, discerning between a heated argument and verbal abuse can be tricky. I’ve seen many people who didn’t realize they were being abused until they began therapy. Oftentimes, they unknowingly minimize or justify their partner’s actions, by telling themselves things, like: “He’s just stressed out from work; once we get away for a vacation, things will get better,” or “He has trouble coping with anger. I know he didn’t mean the cruel things he said to me.” When caustic words like “I wouldn’t get angry if you weren’t so sensitive,” or “You brought the conflict on yourself. I’m not apologizing,” become the norm, not a rare exception, it may be time to re-examine the well-being of your relationship.
It might sound surprising, but nearly 50 percent of women and men have experienced at least one psychologically unsafe encounter with a partner. While it's difficult to ignore the damage inflicted by physical violence—like black eyes and bruises—the psychological wounds left by verbal punches aren't nearly as noticeable. But that doesn't mean they aren't just as damaging to one’s self-esteem and mental health as physical violence.
And while there’s often a thin line between fighting and verbal abuse, there are a few tell-tale signs that could indicate you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.
Name-Calling, Swearing, and Criticism
Abusers typically feel very powerless which causes them to grasp for power and control by blaming and shaming others. One way they do this is by resorting to name-calling and (non-constructive) criticism whenever differences arise. If your partner drops f-bombs, or continuously magnifies your shortcomings in a way that attacks your character, it may be a sign they're trying to disempower you. Throwing out insults, like “You never know what you’re talking about,” or “I’m not in the wrong, you’re just too dumb to grasp what I’m talking about,” could signify that your partner needs to garner all the power in the partnership by trying to cut you down.
Abusers don't always yell and swear whenever things go awry. Sometimes they resort to guilt-inducing tactics as a way to make you feel badly. For example, someone might say, "If you really cared about me, you wouldn't have rescheduled our date for tonight," or "I thought we had a special bond, but I must have been mistaken because if we were really close, you wouldn't act this way." These types of accusations may cause you to second-guess your decisions. You may even begin to take responsibility for the conflict, even when it's not your fault.
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Denying and Blaming
“I never called you a bitch; I said you were bitchy. It’s not my fault you can’t tell the difference.” Verbal abusers often deny your reality by invalidating your feelings. Also, known as “gaslighting,” this form of manipulation can cause you to feel like you’re losing their mind. People who gaslight might also distort the truth and when you point out the discrepancy, they insist that you misunderstood. Over time, this pattern erodes a person's sense of confidence. The abuser may even use this tactic to foster dependency—that is, getting you to rely on their suggestions because you doubt your own perception of things.
A client once told me: “After our worst fights, my boyfriend always makes it up to me. He’s sweet and buys me flowers. He tells me how sad he’d be if I ever left him.” After a verbal attack, even though the abuser may not fully take responsibility for his or her behavior, they often shower you with praise, gifts, or affection. When abuse is subtle, this type of behavior can mask the dangers of repeated verbal attacks. However, if there’s a cycle to the way you argue and you dread fighting, it might be a sign that you’re caught in the cycle of violence.
Jealousy and Paranoia
After a night out with friends, abusive partners may accuse you of not paying attention to them, or insist that you have a thing for a friend or a co-worker. When you deny these accusations, they may demand that you prove it to them by asking to read your texts and emails. Deep down, abusers often feel like they do not matter, but instead of disclosing their fears, they project them onto others.
Devaluing Your Accomplishments
"I don't know why you think your job is such a big deal; it's not like you went to an Ivy League school." Trying to strip you of your power, verbal abusers often devalue your accomplishments and your appearance. At the same time, they often inflate their sense of importance and success. They may even insult you in public, and if you speak up about your hurt feelings, they're quick to insist that you misunderstood the comment.
The pain of verbal abuse can chip away at your psychological well-being. If you suspect you might be in an emotionally unsafe situation, talk to a trusted friend or family member and seek professional counseling.
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