Stopping Verbal Abuse In Its Tracks 

Sarah is watching TV with her husband Erik. A commercial for a fast food company comes on and she picks up the remote and mutes it. 

“Hey!” Erik yells. “Why the hell did you do that! I was watching it!”

“Oh, sorry,” Sarah says, turning the sound back on.

“Well, it’s too late now!” he rages. “I missed it. You know that I’ve been wanting a hamburger all day.” 

​Sarah stares at him, shocked. She hadn’t known that, and how would viewing the commercial satisfy his desire? She’s trying to figure all this out, why he got so mad, what she can do to fix it, when he leaps from the couch and heads toward the door. 

​“Wait,” she says. “I’m sorry. I thought you hated commercials.”

He turns to her, calls her an idiot and an obscene name, then slams the door. 

​Now, she’s even more confused, remembering all the times he’s complained about commercials. Didn’t he just say last week that he wanted to get a DVR so he could skip them? But Sarah’s afraid to say that, to set him off again, so she just stares blankly at the screen. 

​Like many in verbally abusive relationships, Sarah thinks that if only she changed, she communicated more clearly, she explained things better, her husband wouldn’t get so mad at her. 

​But as Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, explains, abuse victims don’t realize that the problem isn’t theirs: it’s in the abuser’s need to dominate and control. When Sarah’s husband yells at her for no reason, she thinks he’s misunderstood her. She doesn’t realize that he’s not looking for understanding, he’s establishing his power over her. 

Sarah’s story exhibits several of the hallmarks of verbal abuse:

​• It’s hostile.
• It’s unpredictable and even bizarre; the attack comes out of the blue.
• It’s manipulative and controlling.
• It happens when no one else is around.
• The victim feels confused and surprised. Other common aspects of verbal abuse, according to Evans, are:
• The words are hurtful; they attack the person or his/her abilities.
• Verbal abuse may be overt, such as angry outbursts, or subtler, such as jokes that convey a general disdain for the other person or her/his interests.
• If confronted, abusers deny the abuse and try to convince the victims that they are too sensitive or are imagining things.
​• It’s insidious. Over time, the victim’s self-confidence erodes. Victims stop trusting themselves or their perceptions. They become conditioned to the abuse and adapt. They may even think it’s normal, that all people treat their spouses that way. 

What Can You Do If You Are Being Verbally Abused? First and foremost, Evans recommends, recognize that the abuse is not your fault, and that you can’t debate or reason or understand it away. What you can do is refuse to play along.

​Specifically, Evans recommends:
• Respond to abuse with “Stop it!” or “Don’t talk to me like that”—twice if necessary.
• Resist the urge to explain or defend. Remember, the abuser not interested in understanding you; the abuser wants to control you.
• Listen to your feelings and believe them. Don’t believe it when an abuser tells you you’re crazy or wrong or that you can’t take a joke.
• If the abuser keeps trying to provoke you, assess the danger and, if necessary, remove yourself. Verbal abuse can be a doorway to physical abuse.
• Get support through a therapist and/or a support group. An abuser’s behavior is designed to keep you off track; you’ll need support to see it for what it is and develop the self-esteem to stand up for yourself consistently.
​• Seek information. Read the books and articles written on the subject. You’re not alone. Other people have paved the path for your freedom. Take advantage of what they offer. 

​When you stand up for yourself and refuse to be goaded into defending or explaining, the abuser will give up. That’s because, as Suzette Haden Elgin, author of You Can’t Say That to Me!, explains, abusers need a victim; if you won’t play that role, he or she can’t abuse. Elgin also recommends ignoring the bait, but then responding to the underlying assumption that often hides in abuse. 

​For example, Sarah could also have responded to Erik with, “How long have you thought I didn’t care about you?” 

​Erik would have been flustered, thrown back on himself, this time staring at her in shock. Sure, he’d recover; he would use some of the common abuse strategies that the authors outline in their books. But it won’t matter, because no matter what he says, Sarah will not be provoked. 

Verbal abuse can’t function without a victim, and with a lot of support and information and self-care, Sarah has learned to refuse that role. 

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications