The Truth About Verbal Abuse

by Annie Kaszina on February 7, 2006

Verbal abuse is, correctly speaking, verbal violence.  The old adage says: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  It’s an utter nonsense.  Words, if spoken by someone whose opinion of you, you care about, can shatter you into a thousand pieces. 

Julie fell in love with Scott at first sight.  It happened at the bus stop when she was 16 on her way back from her first day at college.  She’d sprained her ankle and a friend was half-supporting, half-carrying her.  Despite the pain she couldn’t help but notice the good looking guy waiting at the bus stop. Scott looked at her and his first words to her were that she was ‘a drunken c**t’.  Julie thought that was hilarious.

By the time she got off the bus they had exchanged phone numbers.  They started dating and within weeks had decided they were each other’s perfect partner.  They soon got engaged.  The relationship was passionate, tempestuous with tremendous highs and lows.

5 years on, Julie and Scott are still together and Julie’s confidence is shot to pieces.  Scott still tells her he loves her, from time to time, but spends a lot more time telling her how stupid, lazy, ugly and fat she is.  And, of course, how lucky she is to have someone like him, because nobody else would want her.  The sad thing is, she believes him totally.  She’s been so brainwashed by him for so long.

We live in a society where people habitually say rude, abrasive, sometimes clever, things to each other, which are often quite funny.  But rude, abrasive words have the power to chip away at a person until they break them into small pieces.

And we live in a society where we aren’t very good at seeing the big picture: if words make us laugh, then they can’t be damaging.  (Why not?) Domestic violence is a situation in which one person, still statistically more likely to be the man, strikes their partner and/or the children.  If there are no physical blows then it can’t be violence, can it?

Actually, it can.  Domestic violence is a term that describes any situation where one person deliberately, and consistently, hurts another. 

Verbal abuse is, correctly speaking, verbal violence.  The old adage says: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  It’s an utter nonsense.  Words, if spoken by someone whose opinion of you, you care about, can shatter you into a thousand pieces. 

Had Hitler not been able to use words so effectively in the first place he would never have won support and never have come to power.  Hitler was a past-master of verbal violence.  Did his verbal violence pave the way for physical violence, or simply go hand in hand with physical violence?  It hardly matters here.  What does matter is to be aware that the destructive power of verbal violence is huge.  Whether or not, as often happens in time, verbal violence  escalates into physical violence.

Emotional abuse, correctly speaking, is emotional violence; as anyone who has ever experienced it will know.  The difference between verbal and emotional abuse or violence is illusory.  Maybe verbal abuse sounds less destructive, but it works through emotional brainwashing and brutality.  Telling someone who loves you that they disgust you, repeatedly, will devastate them psychologically.

Mental abuse, correctly speaking is mental violence.  All verbal, emotional and physical violence is mental abuse.  Mental abuse occurs whenever one person in a relationship attempts to gain unconditional power and control over the other person. 

When it is done through physical intimidation it’s easy enough to spot; although women will still, frequently, make excuses like: “He was drunk”, “He’s had a hard time” etc.  Mental abuse is designed to smash another person’s self-confidence so  that they become emotionally dependent; which then becomes another ‘fault’ they can be criticized for. 

Like Julie, I spent years in a verbally abusive relationship; in my case, a marriage.  My then husband had had a difficult childhood.  He was sensitive, vulnerable, and he also had a touch of the ‘bad boy’ about him.  It was an intoxicating mixture.  I felt that I could care for him and make him happy.  I was also flattered by the way he became so passionate about me so fast.

I didn’t know that fast wooing is a key sign of an abuser.  They come into a relationship hungry for the status, the sense of well being and power that they get from having someone fall deeply in love with them.  They woo fast, because they need to hook their partner in before he/she really starts to see their dark side.  They woo fast because while they can come out with all the right words, and acts, and maybe even mean them at the time, it’s not love that really drives them, but having their needs met.  They get their needs met by draining the life, the spirit, the independence, the joy, out of their partner.  They are emotional vampires.

Our courtship was brief.  I didn’t know it at the time but each time I committed a little more of myself to him he started to behave worse.  There was the first time that he screamed: “What the hell do you expect from me” for no apparent reason.  After half an hour he was fine.  On our honeymoon he refused to speak to me for 24 hours.  Then he was as loving as before.  The fights and the silences became more frequent and longer.

I didn’t get it at all.  I didn’t realise that he was throwing temper tantrums and sulking and then starting the whole cycle all over again.  At first when he was nice, I’d ask him why he’d said all those mean things, and he’d say he didn’t mean them.  In time, he stopped being nice and I stopped asking. 

But he still told me, occasionally, that he loved me, and I was more desperate than ever to believe him.  Partly because he didn’t like them, partly because I was ashamed to admit what was happening, I stopped seeing my friends and family.  The more isolated I became, the more dependent I became on him.  And the more careless and cruel he was in his treatment of me. 

In public, of course, we acted like there wasn’t a problem.  I could almost convince myself there wasn’t a problem: he loved me, didn’t he? And I loved him.  I thought he had so much potential to become the man of my dreams (despite all the evidence to the contrary). Our friends thought we had the perfect marriage; they thought he was as caring and sensitive as he appeared to be in public.  He told everyone he was a nice guy, and they believed him.

It took me over 20 years to realise the damage that had happened to me and to our child, who saw – and understood – the stark reality long before I did.  Then it took a while to start unpicking the web of lies he’d spun around me. 

Actually, other people did like and value me.  Other men did find me attractive.  There were a lot of men out there who were an awful lot nicer, and kinder, than he ever was.  I had all sorts of skills, talents and qualities that he had never recognised, never nurtured.  The world was not the cruel, destructive place that he had said; that was his dark reality that he had visited on me.  It didn’t have to be mine.

Recently I was talking, socially, to a wonderful lady in her seventies about a domestic violence poster for our local refuge.  She said that people don’t understand that verbal abuse can be just as damaging as physical violence.  She’d been married to a verbally abusive man for 50 years; because her generation stayed married.  But she’d suffered terribly, not least because he always presented himself to the world as a delightful gentle man.  The years of her widowhood had been the happiest and freest of her life. 

Nobody should lose years, or even months, of their life in the misery, humiliation and fear of an abusive relationship.  If anyone says mean things about you and won’t stop when you tell them not to, because it’s upsetting you, that is abusive.  That person is giving you a clear sign that they don’t care about your feelings – no matter what excuse they make later.  If they don’t care about your feelings, make no mistake, they will smash into you whenever they want to, just to make themselves feel better.  That is the reality of a verbally abusive relationship.

The abuser acts as if he/she has a licence to hurt the other person.  Each time you accept it and give him/her, or the relationship, another chance, you are endorsing his/her right to hurt you.  You cannot help another person to change.  You cannot change them by offering them the love they never had.  You can only tear yourself into bite-sized chunks of raw flesh that they will devour whenever they feel hungry.  That is exactly what you can expect. 

If you are prepared to end up as a whitening pile of bones at the end of the relationship, while your partner moves on to feed on fresh prey, then go for it.  If not, then I suggest you listen very carefully, right from the start, to the words they say.  If, ever, they are dismissive or you, or even if they put you on a pedestal but are dismissive of other people, then run.  It won’t be too long before they turn their savagery on you.  A pedestal is no protection at all.  Protestations of love are no protection at all.  Predators feed on raw meat and abusers are predators, whether the violence they use is verbal, emotional, mental or physical.

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