The Unseen Wounds of Verbal Abuse

“It is not the bruises on the body that hurt. It is the wounds of the heart and the scars on the mind.”  ~ Aisha Mirza

When the topic of abuse comes up, we typically think of hitting, punching, pushing, hurting, harming, black eyes and bruised bodies–the physical. Yet, there are other forms of abuse that are prevalent in our society that we need more awareness on.  Let’s bring more light to some of these abusive patterns that can leave unseen wounds.

Verbal and mental/emotional abuse most often occurs in dating and marital relationships, but  can occur in any relationship (among friends, family members, and even coworkers). This abuse often precedes violence, but is rarely discussed. Both men and women can initiate abuse. Some who abuse may purposefully give a lot of love and attention in the beginning of a relationship (a form of grooming) to make the other person feel strongly bonded to them. This makes the ensuing abuse even more harmful and difficult to detect and escape.

Let’s get specific. Verbal abuse could be when someone is being downright critical, acting out in anger, using words to try to control another person, etc. All of this leaves a victim questioning who they are, to feel inadequate, stupid, and worthless. The following are additional forms of verbal and emotional abuse to be aware of:

  • Opposing: The abuser argues against anything the victim says, challenging his/her perceptions, opinions, and thoughts. 
  • Blocking: The abuser switches topics, accuses the victim, or uses words that in effect say, “shut up.”
  • Discounting and belittling: The abuser minimizes or trivializes the victim’s feelings, thoughts, or experiences to the point where the victim feels his/her feelings are insignificant and unimportant.
  • Undermining and interrupting: The abuser undermines the victim’s self-esteem and confidence by in effect saying, “You do not know what you’re talking about,” finishing the victim’s sentences, or speaking on his/her behalf without their permission.
  • Denying: The abuser denies that agreements or promises were made, or that a conversation or other events took place. This manipulative behavior can lead the victim to doubt their own memory, perceptions, and experience. This is commonly known as gaslighting and it is incredibly damaging!

Because I started my career working with victims of domestic violence, I have zero tolerance for physically abusive relationships; get out, get help, talk to someone, protect yourself. There are many resources and hotlines and shelters and people to help victims in physically abusive relationships. If you are in a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship, here are a few actions you can take to see if repair of the relationship is possible. You can begin by letting your partner know you always prefer to know the truth. When your partner tells the truth, you can respond to it instead of reacting emotionally. You can thank their partner for being brave enough to tell the truth. You can then express your feelings in a way that is not hurtful or offensive, so your partner can truly listen and understand your point of view–like using “I” statements. This will help you focus on yourself rather than criticizing your partner, which can lead to healthier relationship patterns and conflict resolution. Of course, having a therapist to help coach you through the process is extremely helpful in putting an end to verbally abusive patterns.

Additionally, you can deflect verbal abuse with humor. It puts both parties on equal footing and deprives those who abuse of the power they seek in belittling their partner. Repeating back what those who abuse say also has an impact; follow this up with a calm boundary. For example, “Did you say you think that I don’t know what I am doing?” You may get a defiant repetition of the insult. Then follow up with, “I disagree,” or “I don’t see it that way,” or “I know exactly what I’m doing.”  In some cases, verbal abuse is best addressed with forceful statements such as, “Stop it,” “Don’t talk to me that way,” “That’s demeaning,” “Don’t call me names,” “Don’t raise your voice at me,” “Don’t use that tone with me,” “I don’t respond to orders,” etc. In this way, you set a boundary of how you want to be treated and take back your power. 

Verbal abuse is tied to mental and emotional abuse. It is all connected. It is harmful. It affects your every thought and relationship from here on out. It affects how you see the world and even yourself.  You may question your memory of events; change your behavior to avoid upsetting your partner; have diminished self-esteem; feel ashamed or guilty, constantly afraid of upsetting your partner, powerless, hopeless, manipulated, used, controlled, unwanted, put down, humiliated, and maybe even feel crazy. Abusive relationships like this often leave no physical marks, yet they are so damaging. Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health, including leading to chronic pain, depression, or anxiety. This is no way to live! You can get help. You do not need to stay in an abusive relationship. It is vitally important that you get the support you need to either work through and repair your relationship, or safely exit and get the help you need to form healthy relationships in the future. You can have a partner that does not abuse you! You deserve it! I am here to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.