It can be confusing to know what qualifies as verbal abuse and what is simply unkind or rude language. Here are five clear signs of verbal abuse in marriage, how that is different than emotional abuse and how the Bible says we are to respond when we experience or witness verbal abuse.
I was born the only blonde in a house full of brunettes. My older brother knew and spewed all the latest dumb blonde jokes thinking he was super funny even if I was hurt by these" jokes.” I was often the butt of everyone’s jokes, especially because I had to work harder than others to get above average-grades – which often just proved those blonde jokes correct.
Because this is what I grew up with, this is what became my married life too. I was laughed at and felt stupid when on my grocery list I spelled lettuce and yogurt with an e instead of u. When I talked in ways that were uneducated or couldn’t pronounce a word with more than six letters. Again, I was the butt of the joke, too sensitive, and needed to learn to shut up or how to take a joke.
Now, as an adult, I talk too much, standing up and defending the victims of this world. I don’t want to learn how to take a joke when the joke was really at my expense. And I don’t think this is how family, the people who say they love you, should treat each other all in the name of a little fun.
Belittling, name-calling, and condescension became how I expected to be treated. It was my normal when it’s anything but normal! But through my abuse recovery healing journey, I learned that no person deserves to be treated like this. Verbal abuse is a cycle that repeats for generations unless we do something to stop it from continuing.
What Is Verbal Abuse?
LegalDictionary.net defines verbal abuse as, “The repeated improper and excessive use of language to humiliate someone, or to undermine someone’s dignity. Also known as ‘verbal bullying’ because it is the act of directing negative statements toward someone, causing emotional harm. Verbal abuse consists of behaviors that are non-physical, but which can still be rather damaging, such as being threatening, insulting, or humiliating toward someone.”
Verbal abuse, a form of emotional abuse, usually is the first tactic an abuser uses to gain power and control in a relationship. It’s a mindset that the abuser is more powerful than anyone else, is entitled to treat others how they want, and will compete for control over other people – most times someone who should be their equal. Abuse can happen in your home, with loved ones, at work, at church, and even with strangers.
Examples of Verbal Abuse:
To understand what verbal abuse looks like in a relationship, here are five warning signs of verbal abuse and how they may be displayed.
- Demeaning comments: “Wow, putting on some weight?! You’re always going to be fat if you keep eating those cookies.”
- Name-calling: “You’re such a stupid idiot!” or “You are a loser, you can’t do anything right!”
- Deliberate blame-shifting: “I wouldn’t drink so much if you wouldn’t nag so much!” or “I wouldn’t watch porn if you’d have sex more.”
- Threatening: “If you don’t do this, I’m going to divorce you, leaving you with nothing. You will never see the kids!”
- Discounting/Minimizing: “I am not abusing you! You’re crazy. Making things up. You’re too sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?”
Doesn’t That Make Everyone Abusive?
We are all guilty of saying unkind things to people, especially our spouse or children, and other people at times of upset and anger. We may have called someone a stupid idiot for pulling out in front of us in traffic, without even realizing what we’re saying.
The difference between an abuser and a non-abuser is motive. If the motive is to demean, belittle, deliberately cause emotional harm, and/or gain power and control over a partner that is abuse. Again, the abuser has the mindset that he or she is in control of everyone around them, even if they never show signs of anger, and uses abusive or manipulative tactics to keep that control.
Non-abusers aren’t trying to hide anything, are willing to apologize and stop the hurtful behavior especially once they realize they’ve hurt someone else. They may try to rationalize it but they genuinely feel bad for how they’re treating another human being. The abuser, on the other hand, thinks he or she has a right to say these things and others should just put up with it even if it’s hurtful.
What if the Other Person Is Just Joking?
Jokes can be funny without making fun of someone or a certain group of people. The target of the joke shouldn’t be someone with a disability or different gender, race, or religion. When people are joking around everyone should walk away feeling that the conversation was humorous, not demeaning. But if one person is being attacked, while the others are laughing, this is not mere joking. Instead, it’s verbal abuse disguised as jokes for fun.
How Is Verbal Abuse Different from Emotional Abuse?
There is not much difference between verbal abuse and emotional abuse. The goal of the abuser is essentially the same. An abuser launches a verbal attack onto the unsuspecting victim to gain power and control over the victim. Abusers use whatever tactics work to feel the power and control that they seek.
Furthermore, emotional abuse often includes the psychological ways that a person uses their words to manipulate, and brainwash with the use of mental mind games, like gaslighting, crazy-making, and stonewalling to continue the torment. Verbal bullying is usually where an abuser starts to wear down his or her dating or marriage partner. And it can often be passed off as just a joke to which the victim would be told that he or she is too sensitive – which deflects the blame onto the victim.
The problem is it doesn’t usually end there. Most times the abuser escalates his or her tactics to keep the victim entrapped in the relationship. Degradation gets worse over time. The humiliation and verbal attacks become more deliberate and offensive until the abuse is happening more and more often. It often gets to the point that the victim starts to believe everything the abuser is saying and that the victim needs to take the blame for the abuse and protect the abuser from deserved consequences.
How Should We Respond to Verbal Abuse?
The first thing we need to do before ever being verbally bullied by another person is to learn assertive rights and boundaries. We also need to know that we don’t deserve this treatment or have to just accept this from another person.
People often quote Jesus as stating, the only way to handle these abusive situations is to, “Turn the other cheek” (from Matthew 5:39). I disagree with that, sharing not only does God not want us to be doormats and personal punching bags, but He expects us to stand up for ourselves when being threatened.
The first step is to immediately let an abusive person know that you won’t be around him or her if they are going to say such demeaning things or act in harmful ways. Then, you physically separate from that person, as soon as you can, to show that you will assert your boundaries when necessary – these are natural consequences.
Allowing verbal abuse to continue without asserting your boundaries is like giving someone permission to treat you this way.
What the Bible Says about How We Are to Respond:
- “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” – Isaiah 1:17 NIV
- “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.” – Proverbs 22:24-25 NIV
- “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.” – Ecclesiastes 8:11 NIV
- “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” – 1 Timothy 5:8
Can I Divorce if My Spouse Refuses to Stop Verbal Abuse?
As a person who writes about abuse and divorce, and coaches abuse victims through their divorce, I often get told that people do not have a right to divorce in cases of abuse – especially if it’s only verbal. I just kindly disagree. I won’t be abused or abusive to someone else – that’s not in my character.
Furthermore, verbal abuse is most times more harmful than any other form of abuse. And the problem with not allowing a victim to leave an abuser is that the abuse continues and often escalates into other forms of abuse (emotional, physical, financial, and sexual) when the abuser feels he/she can no longer keep the power and control.
Additionally, a victim may unintentionally wish for things to get worse, for their spouse to hit them, or commit adultery so they can morally separate and divorce, to escape the abuser who refuses to stop abusing. Abuse is not a marital problem, it’s an abuser problem. It’s a mindset that doesn’t change with a little marital counseling, especially with someone untrained in identifying abuse.
How to Stop the Cycle of Abuse
To stop the familiar cycle of abuse, we need to allow victims to escape from it and teach the next generation how to treat others with kindness and respect. Also, the most loving thing you can do for an abuser is to allow them to face all the consequences they have earned by their choices to abuse. Without those consequences, they’re more likely to continue to be abusive.
Jen Grice is a divorce coach and author of the books, You Can Survive Divorce and Your Restoration Journey about recovery and redemption after divorce. After her own unwanted divorce in 2013, Jen started a ministry to encourage and empower Christian women to not only survive but thrive after divorce caused by adultery, abuse, or abandonment. You can learn more about her ministry at JenGrice.com. Jen can also be found on YouTube talking about preparing for and divorcing a narcissist. And her books can be found at B&N or on Amazon.
Jen Grice is a divorce mentor and empowerment coach guiding women to surviving and thriving after divorce – caused by abandonment, abuse, and/or adultery. She started Surviving + Thriving Ministries, after her own unwanted divorce in 2013. Now, she writes articles and books, creates videos, and has a "Stronger Woman After Divorce" group coaching program to walk with Christian women who want to heal and thrive after narcissistic abuse. You can find out more information about Jen, her ministry, and her coaching for women, at JenGrice.com.