Frustration and anger can lead to mean-spirited, disrespectful communication. We sometimes reach the breaking point and say hurtful or belittling comments, often while raising our voice.
For example, 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.
âHey!â Erik yells. âWhy the hell did you do that! I was watching it!â
âOh, sorry,â Sarah says, turning the sound back on.
âWell, itâs too late now!â he rages. âI missed it. You know that Iâve been wanting a hamburger all day.â
Sarah stares at him, shocked. She hadnât known that, and how would viewing the commercial satisfy his desire? Sheâs 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.
âWait,â she says. âIâm sorry. I thought you hated commercials.â
He turns to her, calls her an idiot and an obscene name, then slams the door.
Now, sheâs even more confused, remembering all the times heâs complained about commercials. Didnât he just say last week that he wanted to get a DVR so he could skip them? But Sarahâs 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 wouldnât get so mad at her.
But as Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, explains, abuse victims donât realize that the problem isnât theirs: itâs in the abuserâs need to dominate and control. When Sarahâs husband yells at her for no reason, she thinks heâs misunderstood her. She doesnât realize that heâs not looking for understanding, heâs establishing his power over her.
Sarahâs story exhibits several of the hallmarks of verbal abuse:
â¢ Itâs hostile.
â¢ Itâs unpredictable and even bizarre; the attack comes out of the blue.
â¢ Itâs manipulative and controlling.
â¢ It happens when no one else is around.
â¢ The victim feels confused and surprised.
Other common aspects of verbal abuse, according to Evans, are:
â¢ The words are hurtful; they attack the person or his/her abilities.
â¢ 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.
â¢ If confronted, abusers deny the abuse and try to convince the victims that they are too sensitive or are imagining things.
â¢ Itâs insidious. Over time, the victimâs self-confidence erodes. Victims stop trusting themselves or their perceptions. They become conditioned to the abuse and adapt. They may even think itâs 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 canât debate or reason or understand it away. What you can do is refuse to play along. Specifically, Evans recommends:
â¢ Respond to abuse with âStop it!â or âDonât talk to me like thatââtwice if necessary.
â¢ Resist the urge to explain or defend. Remember, the abuser not interested in understanding you; the abuser wants to control you.
â¢ Listen to your feelings and believe them. Donât believe it when an abuser tells you youâre crazy or wrong or that you canât take a joke.
â¢ 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.
â¢ Get support through a therapist and/or a support group. An abuserâs behavior is designed to keep you off track; youâll need support to see it for what it is and develop the self-esteem to stand up for yourself consistently.
â¢ Seek information. Read the books and articles written on the subject. Youâre 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. Thatâs because, as Suzette Haden Elgin, author of You Canât Say That to Me!, explains, abusers need a victim; if you wonât play that role, he or she canât 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, âHow long have you thought I didnât care about you?â
Erik would have been flustered, thrown back on himself, this time staring at her in shock. Sure, heâd recover; he would use some of the common abuse strategies that the authors outline in their books. But it wonât matter, because no matter what he says, Sarah will not be provoked.
Verbal abuse canât continue without a victim, and with a lot of support and information and self-care, Sarah has learned to refuse that role.
If you're being treated with verbal abuse and your partner doesn't stop get help. Couples often wait way too long before getting counseling. And don't hesitate to call me if you'd like some support improving your communication and relationship. Better sooner than later.
I invite you to visit http://www.vitalrelationships.com for more valuable resources and information on loving loving relationships that Last.
Be sure to sign up for âTransforming Relationshipsâ while youâre there.
For over 20 years, Geoff has provided effective and practical coaching to help people succeed in having healthy, joyful, loving relationships. He offers short term coaching for long-term results.
Working with Geoff youâll discover the underlying cause of your relationship problem and the skills and strategies to make positive changes to transform your relationship and your life.
Even if youâre going through a rough spot, suffering from problems or donât have the relationship of your dreams, things can change for the better.