What is Emotional and Verbal Abuse?

I knew something was wrong in my marriage, but after years of abuse, it was hard to understand exactly what was going on. And even more difficult to communicate it to others or get help. Emotional and verbal abuse left me in a fog; I doubted myself, I felt terribly hopeless and I didn’t trust my instincts. I thought if I just worked harder, or tip-toed around certain topics, or explained things more clearly, that my spouse would “get it”.  He would be nicer. He would stop being so darn mean.

The Seriousness of Emotional/Verbal Abuse

Emotional and verbal abuse in a marriage can be difficult to understand and identify, but it is extremely destructive and causes great harm to the person in the relationship. In this type of abuse, the abuser uses actions and words to maintain power, control and domination. They have an intense need to stay in control of their world, to impose their belief system on their spouse, and win at all costs. Abusers may use various “tools” to dominate; these often include rage, contempt, constant criticism, manipulation, intimidation, blame-shifting, defensiveness, stonewalling/withdrawal, mocking, putdowns, hostile humor, jealousy, lying, twisting the truth, threats, gas-lighting, the silent treatment, and/or different forms of passive aggressive behavior.

The temptation is to minimize this type of abuse because there are no bruises.  DON’T!  This type of abuse can be every bit as damaging as other forms of abuse. Those who haven’t experienced this often find it hard to understand.  However,  as Christians, we should all understand how damaging this type of abuse is when we look at scripture and read that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Or read how reckless words damage our soul the same way a sword damages our body (Proverbs 12:18). We are told that “healing words give life, but dishonest, perverse, lying words crush the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4 AMP).  As Steven Tracy points out in Mending the Soul (see our Helpful Resources page – Books and Blogs), almost half of the sins identified as the ones God particularly hates are verbal: a lying tongue; a false witness; one who spreads strife among brothers  (Proverbs 6:16-19).  He explains that this is because words have the power to encourage and give life; but in the case of verbal abuse, Satan uses this God-given verbal power to curse and destroy life. It is a perversion of God’s plan for our lives.  

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Recognizing Emotional/Verbal Abuse in your Marriage

A very difficult part of this process is recognizing and accepting the fact that you are a victim of emotional or verbal abuse, and that your spouse is being abusive toward you.

According to Karin Gregory, a registered counselor at Focus on the Family Canada, emotional abuse often goes on for years before any attention is given. “Women who are experiencing abuse are often unaware that their husband’s behavior is abusive,” she writes. “These women secretly wonder if this is what all marriages are like, [and] they are too ashamed to admit to anyone what is happening.”  Or, some women might be, as in my case,  too scared to admit it to anyone.

Leslie Vernick, author of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, (see our Helpful Resources page – Books and Blogs) tells us that a good indicator of abuse is the physical symptoms: “Your teeth are clenched, your heart starts pounding, your stomach is churning,” she describes. “Your body is telling you that something is wrong. Every time you try to have a conversation like normal people do to resolve a problem or a conflict, it always becomes an attack on you.”

Vernick writes that these symptoms may not seem problematic because they’ve become the norm. “Many of us are not even aware that the way we interact with someone or the way we have been treated is destructive. It feels normal. It may even feel like love. However, like termites silently invading a home, over time the evidence of destruction becomes undeniable.”

If you are like me, I’m a “fixer”, so I kept trying to figure out what I could change, what I could say, what I needed to avoid. My mindset was “I need to change. I displeased him again. What can I do to fix this?” But I slowly came to realize that what I did was never good enough.

Nothing I did stopped my husband from yelling, criticizing, correcting, demeaning, lecturing, and being contemptuous. The evidence of abuse and destruction was undeniable. I began to educate myself. I began to realize that he was being verbally and emotionally abusive. In my case, he was also a narcissist.  This was HIS problem. HIS sickness. Not mine.

What Can You Do?

First, if you are just recognizing that there is a problem, I recommend you educate yourself and understand the issues. Go to websites or read literature that will help you identify abusive or destructive behaviors (and see our Helpful Resources page). Perhaps get with a close friend or someone from your church that you trust and discuss it.

Next, once you understand the issues and know there is a problem, it is helpful to admit it to a friend or counselor. I discussed it with my counselor and several close friends that I trusted. Admitting your problem seems to take away some of the shame or denial surrounding the issue. This is one of the key concepts in any recovery program.

After I’d gotten to a healthier place through education and support, I decided to try a different approach with my husband. Instead of walking on eggshells and withdrawing when he was mean, I decided to speak up and stand up in a healthy way. In her book, Vernick suggested three practical steps for addressing the abusive spouse and trying to move things in a better direction:

  • Speak up:  Speak to your spouse with respect, but be honest and vulnerable, rather than keeping everything in and growing bitter and resentful.
  • Stand up:  Establish boundaries in your relationship. Stay in control of the situation and draw the boundary on yourself rather than your spouse. For example, if your spouse has road rage when driving, say, “Stop driving like that, or I won’t travel with you,” rather than, “Can you please slow down when you’re driving?”
  • Step back:  If your spouse refuses to change and reconcile after you speak up and stand up for yourself, tell them that they choose not to respect you that you will have to place distance between the two of you.

For me, this looked like telling my husband that I felt threatened and not respected when he got angry and blocked my way in the house. I wanted it to stop. I let him know that next time I would leave the house.  He trivialized my request and even made a joke of it, but when it happened again, I was ready and had mentally practiced my response. This time, I told him that I didn’t like him blocking my way, I reminded him that I had asked him to stop, and said that since he was continuing to do it, I was leaving the house.   I left the house and drove to a friend’s home, shaking and crying the whole way, but so proud of myself for standing up and doing something about it instead of feeling powerless.  It was a start. It was standing up against abuse.

Dear friend, recognize emotional and verbal abuse for what it is: it is destructive and evil.  It is not God’s plan for your life.  In Jeremiah 29:11, God tells you that he has a good plan for your life.  Plans for good and not for evil.  Plans to give you a future and a hope.   I hope you will believe that and accept that there is a better plan for your life.

This is challenging.  You can do it.  Remember to breathe and pray.