Verbal and Emotional Abuse

Recognizing abuse can give you skills to successfully interact with a narcissist.  Verbal abuse is emotional abuse.

Verbal Abuse
by Kerby Anderson


Most everyone has heard of or knows someone who has been verbally abused. Perhaps you are involved in a verbally abusive relationship.  It is possible that no one knows your circumstances. Verbal abuse is a kind of battering which doesn’t leave evidence comparable to the bruises of physical battering. You may be suffering in silence and isolation.

In this article, I want to tackle this very important issue in an effort to understand this phenomenon and provide answers.  Like any area of human action, it begins in the mind and heart. Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is.” What a person thinks in his mind and heart will be reflected in his words and actions.

Verbal abuse is more difficult to see since there are rarely any visible scars unless physical abuse has taken place. It is also less visible simply because the abuse often takes place in private. The victim of verbal abuse lives in a gradually more confusing realm.  In public, the victim is with one person. Privately,  the abuser becoms a completely different person.

Frequently the perpetrator of verbal abuse is male and the victim is female, but not always. There are many examples of women who are quite verbally abusive.  For the sake of simplicity of pronouns in this program, I will identify the abuser as male and the victim as female.

One of the first books to describe verbal abuse was Patricia Evan’s book The Verbally Abusive Relationship.{1}  She interviewed forty verbally abused women ages  21 to 66.  Most of the women had left a verbally abusive relationship. We will use some of the characteristics and categories of verbal abuse these women describe in this book.

Another important book in understanding verbal abuse  describes “crazymaking.”  George Bach and Ronald Deutsch wrote Stop!  You’re Driving Me Crazy {2} and describe what crazymaking feels like including feeling “temporarily thrown off balance,”  “lost and not  knowing where to turn,” and “being caught off guard.”

A victim is often the target of angry outbursts, sarcasm, or cool indifference. The abuser’s reaction to these actions is frequently cloaked in a “What’s wrong with you?” attitude.  She is accused of “making a mountain out of a molehill.”  Over time she loses her equilibrium and begins to wonder if she is the one who is crazy.

The key to healing is to recognize verbal abuse and begin to take steps to stop it and bring healing. Since the abuser is usually in denial,  the responsibility for recognizing verbal abuse often rests with the partner.

Characteristics of Verbal Abuse

Now I will  focus on some of the characteristics of verbal abuse as outlined in The Verbally Abusive Relationship.{3}

1. Verbal abuse is hurtful and usually attacks the nature and abilities of the partner. Over time, the partner may begin to believe that there is something wrong with her or her abilities. She may come to feel that she is the problem, rather than her partner.

2. Verbal abuse may be overt (through angry outbursts and name- calling) or covert (involving very subtle comments, even something that approaches brainwashing). Overt verbal abuse is usually blaming and accusatory, and consequently confusing to the partner. Covert verbal abuse, which is hidden aggression, is even more confusing to the partner. Its aim is to control her without her knowing.

3. Verbal abuse is manipulative and controlling. Even disparaging comments may be voiced in an extremely sincere and concerned way. But the goal is to control and manipulate.

4. Verbal abuse is insidious. The partner’s self-esteem gradually diminishes, usually without her realizing it. She may consciously or unconsciously try to change her behavior so as not to upset the abuser.

5. Verbal abuse is unpredictable. In fact, unpredictability is one of the most significant characteristics of verbal abuse. The partner is stunned, shocked, thrown off balance by her mate’s sarcasm, angry jab, put-down, or hurtful comment.

6. Verbal abuse is not a side issue. It is the issue in the relationship. When a couple is having an argument about a real issue, the issue can be resolved. In a verbally abusive relationship, there is no specific conflict. The issue is, the abuse and this issue is not resolved. There is no closure.

7. Verbal abuse expresses a double message. There is incongruence between the way the abuser speaks and his real feelings. For example, he may sound very sincere and honest while he is telling his partner what is wrong with her.

8. Verbal abuse usually escalates, increasing in intensity, frequency, and variety. The verbal abuse may begin with put-downs disguised as jokes. Later other forms might surface.

Sometimes the verbal abuse may escalate into physical abuse, starting with “accidental” shoves, pushes, and bumps.These are a few characteristics of verbal abuse. Next we will look at some of the categories of verbal abuse.{4}

Categories of Verbal Abuse

1. Withholding. A marriage requires intimacy and intimacy requires empathy. If one partner withholds information and feelings, then the marriage bond weakens. The abuser who refuses to listen to his partner denies her experience and leaves her isolated.

2. Countering. This is the dominant response of the verbal abuser who sees his partner as an adversary.

He is constantly countering and correcting everything she says and does. Internally he may even be thinking, “How dare she have a different view!”

Countering is very destructive to a relationship because it prevents the partner from knowing what her mate thinks about anything. Sometimes the verbal abuser will cut off discussion in mid-sentence before she can finish her thought.

In many ways, he cannot even allow her to have her own thoughts.

3. A third category of verbal abuse is discounting. This is like taking a one hundred-dollar item and reducing its price to one cent.

Discounting denies the reality and experience of the partner and is extremely destructive. It can be a most insidious form of verbal abuse because it denies and distorts the partner’s actual perception of the abuse.

4. Verbal abuse disguised as jokes. Although his comments may masquerade as humor, they cut the partner to the quick. The verbal jabs may be delivered crassly or with great skill, but they all have the same effect of diminishing the partner and throwing her off balance.

5. Blocking and diverting. The verbal abuser refuses to communicate, establishes what can be discussed, or withholds information. He can prevent any possibility of resolving conflicts by blocking and diverting.

6. Accusing and blaming is another form. A verbal abuser will accuse his partner of some wrongdoing or some breach of the basic agreement of the relationship. This has the effect of diverting the conversation and putting the other partner on the defensive.

7. Judging and criticizing. The verbal abuser may judge his partner, and then express his judgment in a critical way.  If she objects, he may tell her that he is just pointing something out to be helpful, but in reality he is expressing his lack of acceptance of her.

These are just a few of the categories of verbal abuse.  Next we will look at a number of other forms of verbal abuse.

Other Forms of Verbal Abuse

Trivializing can also be a form of verbal abuse. It is an attempt to take something said or done and make it insignificant. When this is done in a frank and sincere manner, it can be difficult to detect. Often the partner becomes confused, believes she hasn’t effectively explained to her mate how important certain things are to her.

Undermining is also verbal abuse. The abuser not only withholds emotional support, but also erodes confidence and determination. The abuser often will squelch an idea or suggestion just by a single comment.

Threatening is a classic form of verbal abuse. He manipulates his partner by bringing up her biggest fears. This may include threatening to leave or threatening to get a divorce. In some cases, the threat may be to escalate the abuse.

Name-calling can also be verbal abuse. Continually calling someone “stupid” because she isn’t as intelligent as you or calling her a “klutz” because she is not as coordinated can have a devastating effect on the partner’s self esteem.

Verbal abuse may also involve forgetting. This may involve both overt and covert manipulation. Everyone forgets things from time to time, but the verbal abuser consistently does so. After the partner collects herself, subsequent to being yelled at, she may confront her mate only to find that he has “forgotten” about the incident. Some abusers consistently forget about the promises they have made which are most important to their partners.

Ordering is another classic form of verbal abuse. It denies the equality and autonomy of the partner. When an abuser gives orders instead of asking, he treats her like a slave or subordinate.

Denial is the last category of verbal abuse. Although all forms of verbal abuse have serious consequences, denial can be very insidious because it denies the reality of the partner. In fact, a verbal abuser could read over this list of categories and insist that he is not abusive.That is why it is so important for the partner to recognize these characteristics and categories since the abuser is usually in denial. Thus, the responsibility for recognizing verbal abuse and doing something about it often rests with the partner.


1.Patricia Evan, The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1996.
2.George Bach and Ronald Deutsch, Stop! You’re Driving Me Crazy. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1980.
3.Evans, 81-84.
4.Ibid., 85-104.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International

About the Author

Kerby Anderson received his B.S. from Oregon State University.  He has an M.F.S. from Yale University, and his M.A. from Georgetown University.

He is a nationally syndicated columnist whose editorials have appeared in The Dallas Morning News,

The Miami Herald,  San Jose Mercury News  and The Houston Post.

Ann Bradley


  1. I read your info/articles all the time, and thanks once again. Our family is dealing with a “classic” narcissistic abuser. I’d like to add/put another way that abusers like this often blame their victims of exactly what they are doing or have done thereby confusing/throwing victim off-guard. They want to play the victim so people will feel sorry for them and often, yes, they go out of their way to spread lies about their victim in order to look good themselves. In our situation, fortunately, the abuser is looking like just what he is when he tries this. However, one place where he put on his best performance was in court – almost crying. They can be the greatest actors in the world! This is an insidious “disease” and our court systems are not set up for it. Victims need incredible strength, support system, a tough lawyer, and most of all people like you…………………..Betty

    • Betty, You are so right that abusers often accuse the victim of the very act they are doing. I used to be able to tell during my divorce what my husband was doing by listening carefully to what he said about me. It was eye opening how well this worked. In front of a judge or other authority figure the narcissist reigns supreme in their acting ability. You are correct in this also. They present the vision they want to be seen as by the authority figure. Narcissists can fool therapists, custody evaluators, and judges and it becomes very dangerous. OJ Simpson’s custody evaluator recommended the kids go to him rather than their grandparents. The judge did not rubber stamp this recommendation and the kids of the woman he murdered did end up with their maternal grandparents. OJ was a superb actor in the theatre of the narcissist. So glad you brought up this awareness of how they work. I write about it extensively in my book, but having it here for everyone to see is really important. Thanks for being so insightful and sharing. Best, Ann

  2. I have been dealing with a covert verbal abuser. I just now realized it after reading this article. I suspected that he was narcissistic and he has every trait from the DSM. Do they know what they are doing? It’s a brainwashing and it’s hard to rid myself of all the sleeper cells he has left in my brain.

  3. I’m so glad I came across this website!

    The past 3 years of my life have been a nightmare! I thought I met the love of my life. We married after only 3 weeks of knowing each other. He had me so fooled. I got pregnant not but 6 months later. Red flags were just popping up everywhere….I was so confused though.

    Just like Ann stated above they can fool everyone. It was almost like he tried to keep me confused, lost, and always wondering what the truth was to EVERYTHING! For him abortion was the only option. I couldn’t comprehend how this man that’s supposed to love me could demand such a thing. I’ll never forget being 3 months pregnant and noticing on the computer history someone had typed in “how to make someone have an abortion?” …My heart fell to the floor! I confronted him with it and he admited to searching for that answer on Google. He had a way of smoothing things over. I should’ve ran then. So many times I should’ve left. I’ve been spit on multiple times. Name called, every characteristic above is HIM. Long story short I ended up being served divorce papers, now he has full custody of our 2 year old! I’m stuck living with him still! I’m in the process of trying to figure out how to put my life back together……I literally feel like I’ve been living in a nightmare. No one understands, everyone thinks I’m the crazy one which he has lead everyone (even my own family) to believe.

    Thank God for my closest dearest friends, my baby boy, and God up above for giving me that extra kick I needed to jump back to reality and realization he is insane and not me!!!!

  4. Why is it that these types of articles are always from the view that the woman is the victim – not the perpetrator? Why is it so difficult to believe that a man can be abused just as easily, hurt just as easily? I realize that the author states, “Frequently the perpetrator of verbal abuse is male and the victim is female, but not always.” This needs to be reinforced a bit more throughout the article. This is great information, and very helpful, but for the sake of everyone the issue of abuse should stop being presented so one sided. As a man who has called abuse hotlines in times of need, the response has always been disbelief, pushback, failure to understand why a man is calling. The pain one feels when verbally and mentally abused coming from the person you love is crushing, I too should have seen the red flags, but why do I still have hope? No where to turn, sadness just everyday. Maybe, starting today, with the help from your article I may be able to begin to understand what I am up against. Thank you.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I have just realized the truth I have been married to for 18 years. We have an 11- year old son which recognizes his dad’s behavior. My husband has started using the divorce threat in the last six months, and I reply that we aren’t going to get a divorce. But I can’t help but think that it’s just a matter of time. I would really like to hold our marriage together for our son’s sake, but is that the best thing to do? I work full time as a teacher, but I have no money. He controls all of it. As a former self-supportive and independent woman, I am now his. I want him to change because I love him. Will this happen? Our two older children don’t like his company and don’t visit much. I have to plan things without him to spend time with them. He’s gives me a huge guilt trip for it, but it’s worth it to me. He threatens divorce, as I stated, but he says I’m the one who has to leave. None of this talk occurs when our son is around, but the manipulations do, and I don’t want my son to treat women the same way. Thoughts anyone?

    • Love is powerful but is it powerful enough to change the behavior of a narcissist? Probably not. Take a cue from your kids – they seem to understand the dynamics. Next time he threatens divorce, don’t tell him it won’t happen. Just be quiet and see what he does/says in response to this unexpected behavior change from you.

      Theoretically no one has to leave to divorce. Filing papers begins the process and the law will decide who has to leave. That path is fraught with danger for not so normal divorces. (high conflict)… People who have a friendly divorce can control the actions and make lists and end with dignity and as friends.

      Before you do anything, plan. But do so quietly. Don’t discuss. Just do some thinking for a while and research for your state’s laws. Right now he is bullying you because you don’t know your rights. You can make a more informed decision when you know how much of what he says is BS and how much is real. Take your time. Best, Ann

  6. I am living a nightmare that is beyond my capabilities. I have aspergers. I escaped one form of being sad in another state and came to a different state for a “softer” type of abuse. I was very honest with this guy. Too honest. I had gone from an ex husband that stole a cash inheritance from me. My grandmother left it to me so that I could get retraining later in life and try to do something different. I am now disabled, so that would have been helpful to me. I reached out for help, but it was the wrong kind and from the wrong person. I cam to SC thinking I was to be married. That is what he said at the time. We visited and dated out of state. He said he accepted my aspergers unconditionally. I am of high function and like to write books and pain, although I do office work for a living. I had written and published six books that sold well until my ex said that if I did not come home (I was promoting my books) that I would not have a home to come back to. That’s bad man #1.

    Bad man #2 was the man I got acquainted with out of state. We had dates. He traveled. I did not. About four years of getting acquainted and I moved out of state with him. I moved there thinking I would be married. We joined a church. It made me feel comfortable that he is Lutheran also. I’m there for six months, and strange things are going on. Two different women (I thought) were calling him and hounding him for money. He was giving out insurance money to one for her car, and another was asking for him to repay the things she lost when she shared a storage unit with him? The 2nd woman somehow got my email address and sent me a copy of the letter to him?

    I had not been very social because of my disability and the fact that I used to weigh about 400 pounds now way down below half that. But these things I noticed disturbed me and did not make sense. He would take his cell phone and go off in the store walking the aisles while he hoped I would shop and leave him alone with his called on his cell. Instead I followed him and listened, and that is how I found out what the women were asking him for. Then one day I got the urge to look through trash in the vehicle he had given me to drive. I found an insurance card for that vehicle in the name of a woman he had said that he only dated about five time, and SHE HAD HIS LAST NAME!!!!

    I should have left, but when I confided to his neighbors, the couple said, but he is such a nice guy–give him a chance. But as things went further along, I discovered that the woman he had shared a storage unit with in NJ was a member of a gastric bypass group that he had been a member of. He finally admitted to being unfaithful with this woman while he was still married to his 2nd wife! And he admitted he was still married to the 2nd wife because he could not afford to divorce her, and he was also still married to the insurance card woman in the same state where we now live.

    And six years later, I am very ill with diabetes, I need knee surgery and I have five tumors on my thyroid which will need to be removed eventually because they will block my airway. I also need carpal tunnel surgery, though office work is probably all I can do if I am lucky. And I have not been lucky. I have looked for work for six years time in this small rural area where I do not have dependable transportation and they do not have a transit system, and I still have never found work. He says it is because of my age that I cannot find work.

    I went to a psychiatrist with ———— to see if he would be willing to have counseling of some type. The doctor talked to me alone once and told me that this man is a narcisstic personality. He says that means that he likely has much less empathy than I ever did (as a child). I was taught manners and rules, then my empathy kicked in a bit at 9 and got stronger as I got older. I am now 55 years old biologically though I feel like about 15 years old.

    I feel lost, isolated, he is verbally abusive to me. He makes jokes that are not funny because he tears me down. He says “well maybe it is because you are autistic.” I have aspergers syndrome–there is a big difference. I am on the high function of the scale and once worked as a justice court clerk as a civil servant. So his slurs about my intelligence, I just about cannot take. He likes to try to get me angry; I think so he can have me thrown out. He claims to have friends in the sheriff’s dept here.

    My neighbors now keep their distance from me, where once they used to like me (and him) as a couple. One neighbor couple they have tried to get me to go to a women’s shelter, but they do not understand that I won’t be able to do much good there. The other women in shelters are younger and healthy and they can find jobs quicker than I seem to be able to do. My ex is about my only recent job reference and he refuses to give me his address for a job reference.

    I am in the worst situation of my life. I do not have people experience to handle this, but my sense that God gave me tells me to agree with this man I am with as often as possible and I have learned to keep fairly silent. Even when he asks me for an opinion, that is a mistake to answer him too. He has these unspoken rules that change. He is also very physically ill and drinking alcohol with his meds, so I am sure this makes his behavior even worse, but he does not like me talking about what he did “yesterday.” He no longer wants to be reminded of what he does wrong. He does not like to apologize any more. He wants everything to be my fault. He blames a lot of me and then says I am trying to lay the blame on someone else for my behavior. But my behavior has become very quiet. But even this sometimes does not work. He gets angry and says I am giving him the silent treatment.

    There is no one for me to talk to. I can’t find a support group here. I talk to this neighbor but I think she does not want to talk to me any more. I know for a fact that another neighbor heard him say f—– you to me out in the driveway. He argued with me about taking trash off to a trash center! What a small thing to argue about when he is getting mice in the garage. His behavior does not make sense.

    And he is also saying “You have mood swings.” Holy cow! I have mood swings?
    I had always lead a very boring life and I consider myself to be an average nice person, but sometimes he says I am not nice. And then all of a sudden, he says I am the nicest person in the world. I know the 2nd statement is very true. But he is the one having mood swings.

    It is all affecting my health, I know it is. But I feel I do not have options. No health insurance, no job, not a dependable car to really look for work 2 cities away where jobs might be. I know I am not the only one this has happened to, but I can’t run across the person who was like me, that did not understand the bad things that are going on and know how to run, how to get away with all my things, like records, certififcates, degrees, my books, clothes, computers and things I would never be able to replace ever again for lack of money for copy fees.

    I am having to be someone I am not meant to be. I feel this is very complicated and that is why people don’t or can’t help. But my needs are simple. My plan is storage unit, sneak things away as donations or garbage center throwaway. Find a dinky garage apt. But then most people may not rent to me because I won’t have a job at first, and where does the money come from? It is all so confusing and seems impossible, what I have gotten myself into. Or find someone who needs a housekeeper and cook. I also did this in my youth. And now since I am older, I know I could do this job and also do some type of office work. I just can’t stand on my feet any more or use my hands a whole lot. I have also had a stroke while with my ex in 2006.

    Someone else has had my experience though you were smarter than me and knew what to do. I hope people will email me.

    There are days I just sleep longer than I should. And he doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like it when I am sick. He berates me for not writing and using my talent, but I cannot create books and short stories and do copy writing when I am being abused. It interferes with creativity. I don’t want it to interfere, it just does. He says that is me making an excuse. I do still paint in acrylics. The sadness and yelling do not seem to affect my ability to paint landscapes and figures.

    So confused, so tired. I feel so alone. I had to seek shelter one night, finally. I tried to go to the women’s shelter. I took my blind dog with me. She is a shih tsu, very small and totally blind. I took her with me because when I left her with me once, one of the big dogs got her other eye–now she is totally blind. He said he was using the bathroom, but she is like a baby. I could not leave her here. I took her with me. I met the police on a corner. I was crying. The shelter said they could not approve it with my dog with me unless I let her go to a foster home. I slept in my car for a few hours then came home and slept on the couch. He was snoring loudly because the alcohol he drank makes him sleep more sounder.

    I don’t know what else to say. My plan: storage unit, sneak stuff away, find cheap safe place to stay with one very small dog, and get a job. But those things never happened because I think I need to get the job first, and no one ever hired me. I have only had two interviews in the past 6 1/2 years.

  7. Thank you so much. I am forwarding this to my daughter that Hates me and my son that thinks I hate him because they have a narcissist brainwashing father… it breaks my heart into pieces to watch him do this to the kids and the kids believe and feel sorry for him

    • I hope the tides turn as they often do in life and your kids see events – and you – in a different light. It happens. Keep the faith it will happen to you. Life is not linear,the twists and turns bring us to many places. Best, Ann

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