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What is it?  Can it be prevented?  What are the signs of verbal and/or emotional abuse?   Can I help someone that is a victim of verbal and/or emotional abuse?  Can these types of abuse be overcome?

We often hear the terms emotional abuse and verbal abuse used interchangeably, as though they were one and the same.  Where they overlap is when verbal abuse is emotionally abusive, or when emotional abuse is delivered in the form of name-calling and/or verbal character assaults.

Verbal abuse is the use of specific language to demean, belittle, or outright slander and harm another person.

Whereas, emotional abuse is the use of manipulation, deception or deprivation intended to violate the emotional or psychological integrity of the abused.

Verbal abuse can often be merely sloppy bully-like strikes of aggression. They are crude, impulsive and hurtful.

Emotional abuse, on the other hand, carries more of an underlying premeditated sociopathic evil ring to it. However, it is true that some emotional abuse evolves out of a lack of empathy, without there being associated control issues.

When the control factor is operative, verbal abusers act like “pit bulls” and emotional abusers more like “cobras.” Should either walk into your home as an intimate partner, beware!

You are not dealing with something that is “only” verbal or “not physical,” as we often hear people describe both emotional and verbal abuse. You may be dealing with classic intimate partner violence.

Verbal abuse (also known as reviling) is described as a negative defining statement told to the victim or about the victim, or by withholding any response, thereby defining the target as non-existent. If the abuser does not immediately apologize and retract the defining statement, the relationship may be a verbally abusive one.

 In schools a young person may indulge in verbal abuse — bullying (which often has a physical component) to gain status as superior to the person targeted and to bond with others against the target. Generally the bully knows no other way to connect emotionally, i.e., be bonded with others.

 In couple relationships, the verbal abuser responds to the partner’s “separateness,” i.e., independent thoughts, views, desires, feelings, expressions (even of happiness) as an irritant or even an attack.  While some people believe the abuser has low self-esteem and so attempts to place their victim in a similar position, i.e., to believe negative things about himself or herself, this is not usually the case in couple relationships. A man may, for example, disparage a woman partner simply because she has qualities that were disparaged in him, i.e., emotional intelligence, warmth, receptivity and so forth.

Anyone can experience verbal abuse.   Typically, in couple or family relationships verbal abuse increases in intensity and frequency over time.   After exposure to verbal abuse, victims may develop clinical depression and/post-traumatic stress disorder.  The person targeted by verbal abuse over time may succumb to any stress related illness. Verbal abuse creates emotional pain and mental anguish in its target.

Despite being the most common form of abuse, verbal abuse is generally not taken as seriously as other types because there is no visible proof, and the abuser may have a “perfect” persona around others.   In reality, however, verbal abuse can be more detrimental to a person’s health than physical abuse.  If a person is verbally abused from childhood on, he or she may develop psychological disorders that plague them into and throughout adulthood.

Verbal and emotional abuse is every bit as devastating as physical or sexual abuse, but it is often unnoticed and underreported. The scars often aren’t visible to people on the outside; the victims may not understand they are being abused because no one is “hurting” them. People who are verbally and emotionally abused may view the way they are treated as “normal” because that is all they know.Gender Differences – Both genders can be emotionally abusive. Women tend to base their emotional abuse around shaming their partners with statements about their abilities as a provider, lover or father. Men tend to control their partners through fear. They threaten to hurt her, abandon her or ruin her life. Men degrade their partners until they walk on eggshells around them, have little to no self-worth and withdraw and isolate themselves from family and friends. The relationship may become physical or sexually abusive if the woman remains in the relationship.

Emotional and verbal abuse tends to happen every day, while physical abuse generally occurs in cycles with a honeymoon phase after the abuse. Compassion is missing in all abusive relationships, which keeps the abuser hurting those he supposedly loves. Sarcasm, body language, disgusted looks, slamming doors, verbal threats, intimidation and the silent treatment are some ways emotional abusers control their victims. This makes the victim feel unworthy, unable to trust, fearful and shameful. The abused person loses self-confidence as the abuser continues to try to control the relationship by using manipulation, withholding, contemptuous behaviors and other power games.

Losing Your Identity – Verbal and emotional abuse can make you start to second guess who you are. You may start to doubt whether you can make simple decisions for yourself or your family. Children who are emotionally and verbally abused often grow up with the notion that they are there for others. They lack a sense of self. Adults who are emotionally and verbally abused generally sense there is a problem once they are emotionally involved in the relationship, but they are stripped of their sense of self as the relationship progresses. It can be extremely difficult to gather the strength to get out of an emotionally abusive relationship, but it can be done.

Believing the Lies – Verbal and emotional abuse may be more psychologically damaging than physical abuse because victims tend to blame themselves and believe the things that are said to them. It becomes ingrained in the core of the victim. Children who are physically abused may blame themselves, but as they grow, most can see they did not deserve that treatment. Verbal and emotional abuse generally stabs its victims straight through the heart, wounding them and leaving little trace of evidence.

Kathy Kiefer


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