Verbal & Emotional Abuse

EMOTIONAL Abuse MaNipULatIve Yelling Name Calling CONned  hateful things subtle innUendos  Gas Lighting Putdowns BULLying  Screaming  ACCUSINGBlaminG SHAMing withholding CONdescending DouBle BinDs CrAzY mAkInG WaLkInG oN eGgShEllS LyinG Countering Criticizing inSINuations  hIDden Dagger trivializing ShOUTing Judging TaUnt SLurBlockingsabotaging Threatening Fake ForGETing Sarcasm Guilt TRIPping

Assertive, healthy communication uses language to connect, support, problem solve, plan, understand, set boundaries, inform, and in personal relationships, increase intimacy. Assertive language is characterized by honesty, integrity, fairness, and openness.

Verbal abuse is the use of language to hurt someone, whether it is with conscious or unconscious intent. Verbal abuse is a dysfunctional use of feedback; i.e., it’s “messed up” feedback. Verbal abuse is a form of Emotional Abuse.

Emotional abuse uses words to hurt, but sometimes requires meaning derived from the context in which the words were used or pairing with a behavior. Neither the words, nor the context or the behavior alone may be abusive, but the words together with the context or behavior are abusive. Beverly Engels defines emotional abuse “as any nonphysical behavior that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person through the use of degradation, humiliation, or fear.” The purpose or attitude behind emotional abuse can be conscious, subconscious or unconscious.

An Emotionally Abusive Relationship is a relationship where verbal abuse is frequent and/or there is a pattern of emotionally abusive behaviors. An abuser has a style of communication that is abusive. Emotionally abusive people use language as weapons. When you are being abused emotionally, you are being treated as if you are the enemy.

Emotional and Psychological abuse are synonymous terms.

Abusive Expectations is placing unreasonable demands on another person or never being satisfied with the other person or how much the other person has done, regardless of the amount of care and effort put into a task. Instead the abuser complains that something more could be done, offers criticism about how it could have done better, or even berates the other person for not satisfying his or her needs. Constant criticism is the pattern in this type of emotional abuse.

Accusing: to charge with an offense, wrongdoing, error, fault, or mistake. Originally it was only used as a legal term, but being in a verbally abusive relationship can feel a lot like being on trial.

Bigoted remark: a remark that is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and/or is intolerant of those who are different

Blaming: fault finding; holding responsible; from Late Latin blasphemare to blaspheme, from Greek blasphēmein ( Accusing and Blaming are verbally abusive when without basis or when excessive. Accusing and Blaming tend to be “automatic” and habitual in verbally abusive relationships.

Blocking is an attempt to derail or end a valid conversation prematurely or to avoid a relevant issue. Often blocking is done by unfairly insinuating that the person that s/he is trying to block is being unreasonable or is nagging. An example would be saying, “Get off my back,” in response to a reasonable discussion. A common form of blocking is to go on the offense and become accusatory of the other person.

Body Shaming Derogatory comments about your own or another person’s body, size, shape, or weight. Sometimes, it’t the tone of voice that makes the comment disparaging. Negative comments about a body part are also a type of body shaming.

Bullying has a variety of definitions: to be habitually cruel or physically aggressive to another person, especially to someone who is physically weaker, younger, shorter, or someone who has less social status; to intimidate; or when one child is physically or verbally abusive to another child.

Character assassination is a deliberate attempt or strategy employed to unjustly damage or discredit the reputation, status, or achievements of another person; to defame.

Con: win someone’s confidence or trust in order to deceive or cheat them

Condescension: to deal with people in a patronizingly superior manner (The American Heritage dictionary); “talk down to.” The word patron comes from the latin word for father, pater.  The inference is as one would speak to a child, or to a person of less rank or understanding. It does not say much for the history of parenting. It is abusive to speak in a condescending manner to a child.

Constant Chaos and Crisis is the emotional climate of a relationship with someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. A person with BPD is easily triggered into an emotional outburst or frequently starts arguments or fights with others. A big deal is often made of small problems. Periods of calm are short and far between.

Countering: to routinely oppose with words or disagree without fully listening; automatically disagreeing

Crazymaking is slang for emotionally abusive behavior.  It is also used to sum up the stress, confusion, and frustration one feels in being in a relationship with someone who is emotionally abusive, usually someone with a personality disorder.

Criticizing: disparaging remarks, sharp disapproval, “dissing,” words that attack the person rather than address problematic behavior.  To criticize in this sense of the word is not giving feedback as there is no real attempt to provide an accurate assessment or information.  Criticizing comments often begin with you or s/he.

Cyber Bullying is using technology to abuse another person. It can take many forms: hate messages, any of the types of verbal abuse, spamming, tormenting on games, Identity theft, locking someone out of their account, stealing someone’s password, death threats; posing as another person online and sending rude, embarrassing, harassing, or otherwise abusive messages to others;  computer hacking and sending computer viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware; wiping out hard drive; post provocative photographs or other information on dangerous sites like pedophile sites; tricking into revealing a secret and revealing the secret; and bashing on website with negative superlatives. See

Denial is when someone claims that s/he did not say or do something that s/he said or did.

Discounting is the invalidation of another person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, or perceptions. Discounting is often an automatic response without listening first rather than reasoned response after careful listening. Discounting comments comments often begin with you or s/he.

Diverting is changing the subject by making an irrelevant, distracting, or critical comment.

Domination is a pattern of behavior used to control another person.  Methods of control include ordering, threats, negative consequences, monitoring, isolating, monopolizing and restricting. Persistently making it unpleasant for the victim to be assertive is a way of using negative consequences to dominate. For example, an abuser may agree to go to a restaurant only to incessantly complain. The abuser wears down the resistance of the victim over time. Abusive men also make use of male privilege and the myth of male superiority to impose their will over women who have been enculturated in the myth.

Domination can take many forms. Phone calls, spending, and chores are examples of activities that might be monitored and restricted. An abuser may attempt to isolate the victim by undermining relationships with friends through subtle criticism of the victim, or disagreeableness around friends and family, or character assassination of the victim behind her back, or character assassination of friends and family of the victim to the victim. The abuser may monopolize conversations, decision making, or economic resources. The abuser may criticize every penny the victim spends while lavishly spending on himself. The abuser may guilt trip by employing moral arguments or lofty principles to get his way.

Double Binds: A simple double bind is when the respondent is offered the illusion of a choice of two possibilities, when fulfilling one request/option would make fulfilling the other impossible. An example is when your boss requests that you complete two projects in the time it takes to do one of them. However double binds are usually more complex. They often involve an injunction with a threat (you will pay/suffer if you do or don’t do what I say). Often the threat is implied rather than stated. The recipient of the double bind message finds it difficult to respond due to the sheer complexity of the bind(s), lack of experience (especially of children), and/or because there is a social rule or taboo or inner vulnerability that the person issuing the double bind is manipulating.

Emotional Blackmail is a complex and sometimes highly subtle form of emotional abuse in which the abuser uses F.O.G. – Fear, Obligation, and Guilt tripping – consciously or unconsciously to coerce you to do what s/he wants. Your innermost fears and an unreasonable sense of obligation are manipulated to coerce your compliance. Threats, punishment, withholding, self-harm, self-pitying, hysterics, passive aggressiveness, or the holding out of an eternal carrot stick that never arrives are different forms that emotional blackmail may take. If you are conscientious and somehow you are always labeled the bad guy, you are probably in a relationship with an Emotional Blackmailer. You may be “pathologized” as sick, crazy, or some other label.  An Emotional Blackmailer may triangulate others against you and enlist their support or use negative comparisons with other to guilt trip.
Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward PhD Publisher: Harper Collins, New York Copyright year: 1997

Ethnic Slur: a disrespectful, insulting, belittling, or slighting remark or innuendo directed at another person’s ethnic or national identity

Fake Forgetting has two forms. One is when someone claims s/he forgot when the agreed behavior was not done because it was inconvenient, unpleasant, etc. (a pattern has to be established before you will know someone is faking). The other form of fake forgetting is when the other person breaks an important promise or forgets an important date and claims that s/he has forgotten even though there was significant discussion. You will probably not get a sincere apology. Fake Forgetting is different from the type of forgetting someone does when s/he has ADD or dementia in that Fake Forgetting is purposeful.

Gaslighting is a pattern of deceptive manipulation aimed at diminishing another person’s perception of reality to serve the abuser’s agenda. Gaslighting is when someone tries to convince you to do what your intuition tells you not to do and to believe untruths for some hidden agenda of the abuser. The agenda can serve a variety of purposes from covering up an affair or addictive behavior to gaining access to the victim’s job or money to covering up their own insecurities. The abuser may employ character assassination as part of the strategy to achieve their ends. Relentlessness, firmness of insistence, charm or anger, and subtlety are used to incite self-doubt of the victim’s ideas, memories, perception, feelings, and opinions. In time the victim can become depressed or in extreme cases, doubt his/her own sanity.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that employs a wide variety of verbal abuse types: forgetting, denial, lying, criticism, blocking and diverting. The abuser may make a hurtful remark and then accuse the victim of being too sensitive, unable to take a joke, misperceiving the meaning of the remark, or flat out deny the comment was ever made. Another tactic is to hyper focus or exaggerate or invent shortcomings of the victim, while denying their own shortcomings.  The abuser may rage at the victim for not believing the lies and shame the victim for being mistrustful. In short, Gaslighting involves denying the reality of the victim to serve a hidden agenda of the abuser.

Guilt tripping is an attempt to make someone feel guilty for the purpose of getting one’s way; restricting another person’s behavior for selfish reasons; or for instilling doubt and confusion in another person to keep him/her submissive. Healing involves recognizing that it has nothing to do with the principle of the issue and everything to do with the security, pleasure, prestige or power the abuser feels in dominating the victim or getting his way. The moral arguments or lofty principles employed in guilt tripping can sound very convincing and valid.  You will need to notice whether the rationale is used to get his/her  way; are impractical or inconvenient for you; or whether the abuser is ever satisfied. A big clue is when you go along with his desire and he still criticizes you or you do it right a dozen times, but are criticized, often harshly, for the one time you don’t (even when the real life consequences for not doing the task are minor). Abusers are masters at manipulating a tender conscience. However, the conscientious person will have great difficulty getting an abuser to admit to any wrong doing.

Harassment is often synonymous with Bullying. See Sexual Harassment.

Hidden Dagger: only the two of you may know that an apparently harmless or amusing statement had additional hurtful meaning from a different context. It is a hidden dagger because the comment, which seems innocuous in its current form, refers to something painful that happened to you or between the two of you at an earlier time. The comment is made when other people are around and who are ignorant of the earlier situation.

Innuendoes and Insinuations: An innuendo is an indirect or subtle comment, usually having derogatory implication.  Innuendoes and insinuations are synonyms. Sometimes insinuations are meant to confuse in order to disguise true intent (often harmful or manipulative), and as such are a wily form of diverting. Ambivalent compliments are a type of this kind of insinuation.

Judging: condemning, denouncing, or appraising a person’s character in a rejecting manner. Judging in this sense is to be unfair. To judge in this sense is the opposite of discerning or the normal definition of judge: to form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises ( Judging comments often begin with you or s/he.
Lying and other patterns and other patterns of deception are a cornerstone of many emotionally abusive relationships. Lying effectively blocks the goals of assertive communication: informing, cooperating, equitable problem solving, understanding and intimacy. It also creates an uneven playing field if the other person believes the lies and remains open, and thus vulnerable to exploitation. White lies are not included, unless the lies become hurtful.

Manipulative: to maneuver a social interaction to one’s advantage over another, to harm another person, or to get one’s way

Malevolent Abuse is a deliberate pattern of emotional abuse aimed at undermining or destroying another person’s success, relationships, or health.

Name calling or Labeling: Name calling is what most people think of as verbal abuse and includes swearing at someone. It is using a word in a way that is derogatory. Labeling is the use of psychological jargon to negatively describe the other person rather than identifying the problematic behavior.

Ordering is telling another person what to do as opposed to asking them politely. Expecting another person to always do what you want them to do when you want them to do it is also ordering.

Prejudice: a negative judgment or opinion formed before knowing the facts; detrimental or injurious; an irrational bias against a group of people different from your own. Prejudiced comments reflect the negative preformed judgment or irrational bias.

Racial epithet: abusive word or label in some way referring to a person’s race

Racial slur: a disrespectful, insulting, belittling, or slighting remark or innuendo directed at another person’s racial identity.

Racism: a belief that talents, character, or morality is attributable to racial characteristics; a pattern of discrimination and abuse against another race; a belief that one race is superior over another race. Racism is a set of attitudes and beliefs that result in a pattern of abuses, including emotional abuse against members of another race.

Relational Aggression: a covert form of bullying involving malicious gossip in the form of lies and exaggerations and which involves ostracism via failing to invite the targeted individual to events and encouraging others to do the same. It is behavior found in clicks, and utilized by some popular girls or heads of clicks, the “Queen Bee.” See character assassination.

Sarcasm is the use of an ironic comment or joke to hurt someone.

Scold: berate, reprimand, condemn severely and at length.

Sexism is discrimination based on the sex of a person; the belief that one sex is superior to another sex; attitudes, conditions, and behavior that reinforce stereotypes of male and female talents, characteristics, and roles; abusive behavior based on gender. Sexism is a set of attitudes and beliefs that result in a pattern of abuses, including emotional abuse aimed at gender.

Sexual Harassment is unwanted sexual comments, affection, or gestures.

Taunt is the use of sarcasm to provoke a negative response.

Threatening is the expression of intent to harm, punish, inflict pain or loss.

Tone of Voice: loud, sarcastic, condescending, hissing, phony inflection, yelling, screaming, and the disappointed sigh

Trivializing is referring to another person’s accomplishment, opinion, experience, or feeling in a way that diminishes its significance.

Types of Emotional Abuse of Children: Rejecting, Ignoring, Terrorizing, Isolating, Corrupting, and Exploiting

Undermining is a comment aimed at weakening, discouraging, or halting another person’s interest, enthusiasm or good spirits.

Unpredictable Responses: In this abusive pattern, there are severe mood swings, inconsistent responses to the same situation, sudden emotional outbursts that have no reasonable explanation, stark inconsistency in preferences, saying one thing one day and reversing themselves the next. This pattern of behavior is common in people with bipolar disorder, addicts (including alcoholics), and BPD. It is highly stressful to live with or work for with someone with these issues and is described as feeling like Walking on Eggshells.

Verbal abuse is sometimes disguised as a joke, but it hurts the receiver instead of being funny.

Withholding is the refusal to share of oneself in an intimate relationship in an appropriate way. Withholding includes the silent treatment, failure to disclose intimations that might deepen the relationship, withholding relevant information, and refusing or withholding normal affections as a way to punish, demean or otherwise hurt the other person. This is different from refraining from sex until one has resolved one’s anger, having the right to private thoughts and feelings, and having the right to say no to sex and other forms of affection. There is a pattern of withholding used as a way to hurt the other person. 



14 responses to “Verbal & Emotional Abuse

  1. Yes, victims can always heal. It is more complicated and takes longer when the abuse is coming from a dating partner and a parent.

  2. Pingback: Recognizing Emotional Abuse in Young People | Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center

  3. Yes. Emotional abuse can show up in any relationship. One key to whether it becomes a psychologically abusive relationship is whether issues are resolved and the relationship returns to a baseline of relative normalcy, comfort and safety.

  4. Is this the same outside of relationships? For example, abuse by family members.

  5. Admitting the truth is liberating. Being able to name it emotional abuse takes the responsibility for the abuse off of you.

  6. I am the victim of emotional abuse and verbal abuse in the form of loud yelling. it feels good to admit this – this is my first step after 34 years of marriage!

  7. Thank you for sharing. It is exceedingly stressful to live with someone with these issues. Her issues, including her rapid escalation of anger and her approach/avoidance behavior when you tried to leave suggest very early attachment issues. People’s brains often don’t regulate themselves as well after a steady lack of early parental nurturance and support, trauma before the age of two, or repetitive trauma during early childhood. She’s a very wounded person who wounds as a intrapsychic defense. You probably didn’t know that, which would have made her abuse hurt worse. I hope that this perspective helps you heal from the resentment that you still feel.

  8. I hope that you are able to heal the bitterness that you feel.

  9. The verbal abuse I endured covers most of the A to Z definitions that fall under abuse. For fifteen years I endured Abusive Expectations where my ex blew up at me after I surprised her with a birthday dinner that took hours to prepare. Her excuse was that she didn’t like how I wrapped the gift and other times she would go off on me because I bought the wrong toilet paper or laundry detergent. If something was missing or not working properly she would accuse me of breaking it and would blame me for anything else that was not going well. When I tried to resolve the issues she would block me and come back with sarcasm, name calling or insults. When she was willing to engage in a meaningful discussion to resolve issues she would engage in fake forgetting and try to find fallacy, even after I would say (e.g. ‘on such and such date and time you are agreeing..’) until I started dating and documenting discussions. She was not a sincere communicator who showed genuine reagrd for anyone but always made innuendoes, was sarcastic and would trivialize how I felt by telling me to “lighten up” and “get a sense of humor” as if my thinking was flawed or misguided. Of course when I tried to leave the and my ex would be on her “best behavior” for about a month and revert back with more of that “fake forgetting” or she would say that the problems were all my fault. Finally I got the courage and I left for good but not without her trying to pull out all the stops with dire treats and emotinal backmail where she said things like ‘I will call your work and tell them what you’re really like’, ‘I can call three doctors and have you put away’, ‘I have a terminal health issue condition that could become “grave” if you move out’ and the biggest whopper was ‘my “lawyer” does not advise you to move out’. I ignored her bluffs, moved out and left no forwarding address. After fifteen years of her verbal and mental abuse that any love I felt for her had died I would not shed a single tear if she died.

  10. I believe the most destructive form of Psychological abuse is practiced by a scorned mate who endeavors to subtly destroy the relationship that the one parent may have with their child. I know firsthand.

    The Mother of my children perfected abuse by using subtle but demeaning remarks while portraying a kind, understanding, loving, and gentile person. She would deliver her venomous misinformation with a soft smile on her lips.

    And indeed it became a multigenerational process as I watch my Son persecute his Ex to his Son’s. It is heart breaking for a grandparent to experience.

    Little wonder that my Ex never found a second mate and today finds herself lonely among her many neighbors in a retirement setting because she is socially inept and without any friends. Sadly, she has alienated herself from humanity as she wallows in self pity.


  11. I wish my ex girlfriend could have seen this and understood it. I know I was verbally abusive. I used angry and cruel words against her when she was feeling vulnerable, and I will always, always regret that. She was the love of my life..

    ..but I worked hard on myself. I tried, and I tried to explain to her that things she did were abusive to me too, but she never wanted to hear it. I wish she and others understood how many different ways there are to abuse someone, that don’t appear overtly hostile or aggressive.

    I didn’t cope with frustration well, and I lashed out. I’m working on myself. I’m a good man. But introspection is difficult, and for some people they never quite get there. I was an abuser, I know this now.

    In my next relationship, at least I will have to tools to avoid abusing her, be able to say no and demand my space from her when I’m feeling abused, and be able to more lovingly communicate how I feel to her.

    I will always love my ex for being the catalyst for my change. Even if she’s no longer in my life anymore, and makes no effort to change herself.

    Great article.

  12. Thanks for the mention. One of the things that I find is that people who partner with abusive people give others too much of the benefit of the doubt.

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  14. Pingback: When my H makes inappropriate jokes... - Page 3

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