But He Doesn’t Raise His Voice: How to Know Verbal Abuse When You Hear It

Compassionate Love Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   (c)2017  Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministry

It can be confusing trying to understand the definitive characteristics of verbal abuse. When does yelling in anger become abusive? Is emotional abuse the same thing? This excerpt from Berit “Brit” Brogaard, author of On Romantic Love, reveals some of it.

“A verbal abuser will define your reality, decide what you can or cannot do, and treat you as an (in-their-eyes) ugly part of themselves, a part that they have to undermine in order to keep up their own sense of self.”

Abuse is always about power and control. An abuser will follow a pattern whether that pattern covers an hour, day, months, or even years. I used to think of screaming, cussing, and insulting as verbal abuse. But what if the abuser does not raise his or her voice? Insults can be more subtle and without swear words.

Picture a woman smiling and clapping at her child’s school play. She greets other parents and thanks the teacher.  Once home, her words to her son or daughter are soft-spoken. “You should have practiced more. You never try hard,” or with a disappointed sigh, “I guess you did your best.”

This type of  insulting is not what I think most people mean when using the terms verbal assault or verbal beat-down.  In a way, what the mother is doing is scarier because of its subtlety. If this child should try to tell a trusted adult how mommy makes him or her feel, will the story be believed? More often than not, people tend to dismiss children unless evidence of abuse is obvious.

Meanwhile, the life lesson is clear and taken to heart. I am not good enough. I am incapable.  I am unlovable.  Schoolwork and relationships are negatively affected. Trust, love, and self-worth remain evasive. Behaviors such as seeking perfection in everything, or underachievment may result. The list goes on because humans are complicated.

Eric* has a favorite joke. His verbal abuse is rarely public.  With a smile he says to his wife, “You’re my californ I A.”  It sounds unusual and harmless unless you know what he means. “California is a big beach [bee-itch],” he first explained.  This is not the only way he repeatedly reminds his wife she is less-than and undeserving. 

She buys the rhetoric early in their marriage. Her full attention turns to pleasing Eric and trying to gain his approval. She ceases to know joy and a vibrant spirit of life outside of this longing. 

Both the mother and Eric are prone to ignore their family members’ achievements. Eric especially will respond with jealousy if his wife shares good news. In families, emotional abuse is the absence or irregularity of acceptance, love, appreciation, time, investment, and positive feelings for another person. It is neglectful or disinterested, manipulative, untruthful, and gives the abuser a temporary sense of power.

Emotional abuse does not have to come with words, whereas verbal abuse by definition does. Both reach the same ends that Brogaard wrote about.  The abuse will define your reality (who  I am, my perception of the world), and decide what you can or cannot do (I am afraid, I have to stay home, I cannot try anything without asking, etc.).

Brogaard added a piece of advice.

“There [are only two ways] to end verbal abuse. Call it to the abuser’s attention. If that doesn’t work, the only way out is to leave, as fast as you can.”

While true, this is not easy or possible in some cases. Where is a child to go? How are believers of lies supposed to understand they are abused? Some women are taught in certain forms of religion that they have to stay in their marriage, submissive, and supportive of their husbands no matter what. To defy this is to defy their understanding of God. 

Personally, I hurt for those who cannot escape. It took me decades.  If you know someone who is abused, or you suspect it, ask a professional how to proceed. On the Truth About Abuse  page of this website are many helpful call numbers and references applicable to various circumstances. 

Today’s Helpful Word

Ephesians 4:29 (from the “An Understandable Version”)

“Do not allow unwholesome [Note: The Greek word for “unwholesome” is “rotten, diseased”] language to come from your mouth, but only what is helpful for building up those who need it, so that you can impart favor [i.e., benefit] to those who listen [to you].”

NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.

*not his real name

*picture from qualitystockphotos.com

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