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Responding to Verbal Abuse

In the post about Healthy vs. Unhealthy Traits, we mentioned warning signs of verbal or emotional abuse can be subtle and hard to spot.

Verbal and emotional abuse can cause just as much mental and emotional harm as physical abuse so it’s important to know the warning signs. Below are a few examples:

  • Sarcasm

  • Belittling

  • Insults

  • Blaming

  • Accusations

  • Trivializing

  • False flattery

The relationship may seem good, and you’ve enjoyed being with the other person. They may be nice or kind so an unkind comment may seem uncharacteristic of them. If the relationship is healthy, maybe that person is just having a bad day, is truly remorseful, and apologizes to their partner.

A warning sign that it may be the beginning of emotional or verbal abuse is if after a remark is made, the abuser says something to try and minimize the comment. For example:

  • When Brock made fun of me and I said something, he would respond that he was just joking.

  • Or a man I dated later commented on something I did or said in a way that I felt was belittling. When I told him how I felt, he responded that he just thought the thing about me “was cute”. It made me second-guess myself and his intentions with the original comment.

In both cases, the comments and responses were hurtful and made me question my self-worth and abilities. Sometimes the comments were delivered with a smile or hug, making it even harder to discern.  

When an unsettling comment is made, it’s important to stand up for yourself. When you respond to a comment that makes you uncomfortable, stay calm and don’t say something spiteful in response, but address how you feel. Sit or stand tall when you respond as this can make you feel more confident.

In a healthy relationship, if a comment is made and the other person expresses unease with it, usually the person who said it will apologize. Or the couple will have a conversation where they both feel heard and respected. But in an unhealthy relationship, the conversation ends with the abuser saying something like, “It was just a joke” to dismiss the victim’s feelings.

It’s important to pay attention to this. The victim is standing up for themselves, but the abuser is not responding in a healthy way. Rather than building trust, it’s breaking down the victim’s self-esteem.

If you’ve told your partner more than once that some of their comments make you feel uncomfortable or if your partner tends to say negative things about you, the things you do, your friends, or your family, it’s probably time to consider if this is the right relationship for you. Our post on Listening to Your Gut, may help you decide.

In both of the examples I gave above, it came down to respect and accountability.

With Brock, as he and I discussed the lie he’d told me and called a “joke”, I kept saying it didn’t feel like a joke and wanted a different response from him. When I didn’t get a different response, I started to feel like a broken record and saw two choices:

  1. Break up with him.

  2. Drop the subject.

Up until this point I’d enjoyed my time with him, so I chose to drop it. I wish I had walked away then. Instead, I stayed and the abuse continued and grew much worse. Breaking up when I first thought about it would have saved me a lot of pain, heartache, and loneliness.

As for the relationship I was in later, it was good in the beginning, but then he started making big decisions without including me and didn’t respect my values. I was hurt and wanted to fix our relationship. I tried having conversations to reconcile, grow, and build the relationship. But the man I was dating, never acknowledged my hurt. He never apologized. He just wanted to move forward as though it didn’t happen. I would say how I felt, and he would ask why we had to talk about it. He wanted to know why we couldn’t move on. I didn’t feel listened to or valued. As much as I wanted to fix the relationship, I again saw two choices:

  1. I realized he wasn’t going to change, so I could stay in a relationship that would have stagnant and hurtful components.

  2. I could break up and save myself more pain and heartache. I chose to end the relationship.

In both cases, the hard part was I cared for and had feelings for the other person. I enjoyed spending time with them. But when they did something that hurt me, they didn’t take responsibility for their comments or the hurt it caused. That’s where victims often get stuck. They start trying to do anything they can to fix the relationship. To get back the good feelings they had in the beginning.

But not all relationships are good. And when we have tried to talk with the other person, but we can’t get to a resolution, then a choice needs to be made.

If you choose to end the relationship, it can be hard – but it will also be good. You’re taking care of yourself and saving yourself from the harm an unhealthy or abusive relationship can cause.

In summary, respond by:

  • Voicing how you feel

  • Stay calm

  • Don’t retaliate or say anything spiteful in return

  • Sit or stand tall when you respond as this can make you feel or appear confident

If they respond by:

  • dismissing your feelings,

  • not taking responsibility for their actions,

  • or saying something (it was just a joke) to minimize what they said,

It may be time to move on from the relationship.

For additional warning signs, please see this page of our website.  


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