Denying someone access to other relationships. Taunting on the playground. Yelling degrading remarks. Downplaying accomplishments. Threatening to take the children away.
From bullying and manipulative mind games to sexual harassment and elder care neglect, emotional and verbal abuse is rampant in our society. No one is immune from encountering abusive people, but everyone can make healthy choices to end destructive relationship patterns.
Emotional abuse is difficult to define and many cases are never reported; nevertheless, it's clear that this form of destructive behaviour is based on power and control. An emotionally abusive person may dismiss your feelings and needs, expect you to perform humiliating or unpleasant tasks, manipulate you into feeling guilty for trivial things, belittle your outside support system or blame you for unfortunate circumstances in his or her life. Jealousy, possessiveness and mistrust characterize an emotionally abusive person. Widely recognized signs of emotional abuse include:
Rejecting or denying a person's value or presence and communicating devaluing thoughts and feelings to another person.
Degrading, ridiculing, insulting or name-calling to lessen the self-worth and dignity of another person. Examples include humiliating someone in public or responding to a senior as if he or she is not capable of making decisions.
Terrorizing by inducing intense fear in someone; intimidating and coercing; or threatening physical harm to a person or a person's loved ones, pets or possessions. Stalking, threatening to leave and forcing someone to watch violence toward a family member are all types of terrorizing.
Isolating, physically confining or limiting another's freedoms. These restricting behaviours include denying a person contact with others and controlling someone else's financial affairs.
Exploiting someone's personal rights and social needs or using another person for profit or advantage. Enticing someone into illegal activities for financial gain (drug selling, prostitution) is an example of exploitation.
Detaching and denying emotional care or affection. Shunning a person's efforts to interact or neglecting someone's mental health needs are forms of this type of psychological abuse.1 Although emotional abuse can occur on its own, all types of abuse involve some form of emotional abuse. Similar to other forms of relationship violence, emotional abuse happens most often to individuals with the least power and resources. Over time, emotional abuse brainwashes the victim. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, it is clear that for many, emotional abuse is even more devastating than physical abuse.
Emotional abuse tears at a person's self-esteem and can greatly impair psychological development and social interaction. In children, emotional abuse can hinder attention, intelligence, memory and the ability to feel and express emotions appropriately. For both children and adults, emotional abuse can manifest itself in social withdrawal, severe anxiety, fearfulness, depression, physical complaints, avoidance of eye contact, self-blame and substance abuse. Emotionally abused seniors may feel extreme guilt, inadequacy, depression or powerlessness. Unfortunately, many psychologically abused elderly people are labelled "senile" or "inept."
Because emotional abuse is not as regularly reported as other forms of violence, statistics are sparse. A Canadian study on abuse in university and college dating relationships revealed that 81 per cent of male respondents admitted they had psychologically abused a female partner.2 According to a 2000 report by the National Institute of Justice, an estimated 503,485 women are stalked each year in the United States. Emotional abuse is a worldwide problem for people of any age and any sex.3
The well-worn chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" is just not true. As Dr. Grace Kettering writes in her book Verbal Abuse, "Cruel names and labels can hurt us — dreadfully! Many times the emotional damage is unintentional. Crippling comments may seem so trivial to the speaker as to be soon forgotten. But at a crucial moment or from an important person, certain words spoken to a vulnerable, receptive individual can make or break a life."
Verbal abuse takes on many forms including criticizing, insulting, degrading, harsh scolding, name-calling, nagging, threatening, ridiculing, belittling, trivializing, screaming, ranting, racial slurring and using crude or foul language. Disparaging comments disguised as jokes and withholding communication are also examples of verbal abuse.
Hurling hurtful words at another may sound like: "You're a nag, just like your parents!" "You don't know how to do anything right." "It's your fault!" "You're too sensitive." "Come on, can't you take a joke?" "That outfit makes you look fat." "You're worthless in bed." "Who asked you?" "You don't need that second helping." "All you do anymore is go to church stuff." "Your ex sure screwed you up emotionally."
Verbal abuse can happen anywhere, at any time. Individuals who are teased and pressured at work or school may in turn take out their pent-up frustrations at home. "Kicking the dog" is not enough; instead, they verbally attack their spouse, children, parents, close friends — no loved one is safe.
Wounds that typically accompany emotional, physical and sexual abuse must not be ignored. Both men and women inflict verbal abuse, but women tend to be more often on the receiving end of this destructive behaviour. What may seem innocent and infrequent at first can escalate. Verbal abuse frequently plays a major role in violent crimes. According to a 1998 U.S. Justice Department report on violent crimes, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner.4
All forms of abuse follow a pattern that, left unchecked, will only increase over time. Injuries from verbal and emotional abuse can run deep and leave lasting scars. Many emotionally and verbally abused people reason that, because there are no bruises or broken bones, their abuse must not be serious. But it is. Fortunately, support and resources are readily available to guide individuals into safe, loving relationships. In their well-received book Boundaries, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend state that, "Our pain motivates us to act." If pain motivates you to act against emotional and verbal abuse, then listen and act. You may be saving more than your life.