What Is Verbal Abuse?


It’s a big deal for victims of intimate partner abuse to speak of it. Most have suffered a great deal before breathing a word. Most have also wrestled through a labyrinth of inner questions and self doubts—What did I do to cause him to treat me that way? Did I say too much? Did I push him too far?

Victims of verbal abuse[1] navigate other questions, and doubts, while making sense of what is happening to themIt hurts when he calls me names, but there aren’t bruises. It shreds me when he demeans what I do, but I don’t have black eyes. It’s devastating when he gives me the silent treatment, for weeks on end, but he’s never hit me. His angry outbursts are terrifying, but I’m sure things would get better if I stopped angering him so much. He’s not the best communicator, and so I’d better learn to communicate better. If I were a better wife, he wouldn’t find so much wrong with me. If I did more things right, then we’d have a better marriage.

It’s confusing, even when verbal abuse turns physical—welts, black eyes, damaged eardrums, and the like. Even when victims see marks on themselves, they face other questions and doubts—Doesn’t everybody lose it sometimes? He’s not like that when he’s sober. He said he was sorry. He bought me flowers. He promised that it would never happen again.  

Hope runs deep that things will get betterWe were fighting less before he tried to strangle me. God could still change him. God could still turn around our marriage. God could still turn around our family. It could still be good. We could still be happy.

Shame stops the voices of many victimsWhy have I put up with this for so long? Why have I allowed my children to see it? Why haven’t I protected them better? If I had been a better mother, this wouldn’t have happened.

Fear accompanies breaking the silenceWill he leave me if I say something? What will friends and family members think? How will I make ends meet if the marriage falls apart? Where will the children and I live? How will I take care of them alone? Or, will I lose custody of them? Am I failing God if we get divorced? Will he harm me, and the children, if I tell someone?

Circumstances have usually escalated before a victim finds the courage to tell someone. She knows it’s risky, but she’s desperate enough to try. At best, the situation has become miserable; at worst, it has become dangerous.

No doubt, it’s confusing when a victim of verbal abuse comes forward. Some are so tangled in false guilt, and self blame, that they can’t see they’re being abused. That’s precisely what an abusive partner has groomed them to believe. Multiplying confusion, many victims don’t believe they are abused until marks appear on their bodies; even then, some aren’t able to name it abuse. The reasons for denial are complex. Understandably, a victim wrestles to let go of cherished hopes, and dreams that her marriage will get better. And a perpetrator has usually given her enough incentive (apologies, flowers etc.) to hook her in the cycle of abuse.

Vapory situations of verbal abuse dissolve, as time passes, leaving nothing besides a victim’s perceptions and feelings. While it’s easy to overlook invisible wounds caused by verbal abuse, God’s Word acknowledges the power of words either to build up, or to tear down:

“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell . . . With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:5c-6, 9 NIV)

Words matter very much to God. Those who tear down others with words will answer to God:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37 NRSV)

Victims of verbal abuse are more numerous than we know—a woman who apologizes for her every move in a grocery store aisle; a woman who shares a prayer request, in a small group, about her husband’s endless putdowns; a man whose wife calls him names, in the church parking lot, when she thinks nobody is looking. Probably victims of abuse have always surrounded me; only I didn’t notice until it affected me. To illustrate this month’s column, featuring verbal abuse, I invite you to read Marriage In Wonderland.

{ By Amy Rasmussen Buckley }


[1] Paticia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, defines verbal abuse as “Words that attack or injure, that cause one to believe the false, or to speak falsely of one. Verbal abuse constitutes psychological violence.”