In my two decades of work with thousands of domestic violence victims, many have told me that the pain they suffered as a result of their partner’s words was equal to or worse than what they experienced when physically assaulted. “Cuts and bruises heal” one woman explained, “Soul wounds don’t”. But for many people, it can be hard to think of speech as abuse, because domestic violence is more often represented in the media as injurious physical brutality. The erroneous thought pattern of the unrecognized sufferer says: “If I’m not being punched and kicked, then I’m not a victim of domestic violence. I’m not as bad off as some people are, and I don’t need or deserve the services offered to them.” All too often, these individuals remain in corrosive relationships, reasoning that their partner has “never laid a hand on them” in force. But the truth is that much like childhood verbal abuse, the intimate partner kind cuts deeply, sometimes leaving permanent scars on a victim’s psyche long after they have left that situation. It is also frequently a pre-cursor to actual physical or sexual assault. Many abusers begin with verbal and emotional abuse before moving on to more “traditional” forms of violence several months or years into the relationship.
Emotional or psychological abuse is in a somewhat different category from verbal, because an abuser can threaten, demean, or manipulate their victim without ever saying a word. For example, if the aim is to illicit fear and compliance, an abuser may throw their target a terrifying glare, ball up their fists, or make the shape of a gun with their fingers. In a combination of verbal and nonverbal tactics, words can be carefully chosen to produce manipulative results. An abuser may frequently lie to or about his victim, play on her personal fears and tragedies, publically embarrass her, or intentionally create conflicts within her personal and professional relationships. The victim’s mental chaos aids and enables the abuser, so they will often try to make her question her own sanity by engaging in psychological gameplay called “crazy-making” or “gas-lighting”. In the steps of this twisted dance, the abuser may hide the victim’s car keys, disable their alarm clock, or steal their money, so they can later accuse them of being confused, forgetful, and irresponsible. This helps the abuser to then deny or minimize future abusive incidents by saying things like “You’re crazy. I never said or did that. It never happened.”
It may be easier to understand why an abuser would adopt this behavior when we examine the benefits that it offers them. Verbal and mental abuse serves the following three important purposes for an abuser:
1) To decimate the victim’s self-esteem so they are less likely to think they could leave, make it on their own, or find someone new. After years of hearing that they are worthless, ugly, stupid, or unlovable, the victim starts to believe it themselves. Then, they are dependent upon the abuser for emotional validation, thus insuring that they will stay weakened and firmly in place
2) To shift the blame by convincing the victim that she is deeply flawed, and therefore responsible for the abuse. The victim will then attempt (in vain) to change themselves so they can “fix the problem”, not realizing that it is the abuser who is at fault, and the victim can never live up to the unrealistic expectations which have been laid at their feet
3) To make an “externally narcissistic/internally fragile” individual feel powerful and superior. Using verbal domination helps an abuser to control any interpersonal situation and avoid being questioned or held accountable for their actions. The victim remains in a constantly oppressed “walking on eggshells” state, and if they dare to demonstrate any resistance, the abuser can always rely on the unspoken, overarching threat of physical and/or sexual violence
Despite the lack of bruises and blood, verbal and psychological assaults are just as lasting and damaging as physical abuse because they send the victim crippling messages about his or her own power and value as a human being. In order to leave an unhealthy relationship victims require outside support, economic resources, and self confidence. By criticizing their intelligence, judgment, appearance, or capabilities the abuser “clips their wings” and keeps them in danger. People who are the recipients of constant name-calling, insults, threats, and intimidation should be recognized as victims of domestic violence, and receive just as much attention, concern, and assistance as those who are physically assaulted. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.