Verbal Abuse Destroys. It’s a Scorched Earth Approach.
Want a divorce? Want out of a relationship? Unhappy with yourself, so you direct youranger at another? Want your most dependable employees to quit? Have your children hate you? Want to give therapists job security? Then be a verbal abuser – if you think you can still be fine with yourself a few days, weeks, months or years from now. You will likely be alone, though, when you are standing before that looking-glass.
Sound harsh? Yes, I’m trying to get your attention because this scorched earth behaviorhas lasting trauma for all concerned. Sadly, we therapists deal with this problem too often and, sometimes, too long. Quite often people don’t take it seriously until it is too late. It’s the stuff that inspire sad love songs.
It doesn’t have to happen. It can be reversed. There is help – for both parties.
But is it an addiction?
Clearly, the behavior can feel like an addiction – like you can’t stop. In some ways you get get what you want in the moment, or silence others. You do get a rush and then a release and there is much pain and aftermath.
During addiction it is common to strike out at others and, one sober, there are many frustrations, anger at yourself and others.
I’ve watched clients of both genders destroy good relationships because they would not stop severe verbal abuse of their partner, even when they saw clearly it was killing the respect, love and the relationship. I’ve had others that committed themselves to the challenging internal work needed to overcome early childhood, or adult, verbal abuse. And I’ve watched abuse force others to leave the person they love as an adult.
While I’m mainly referring to truly egregious verbal abuse such as ugly remarks about worth, threats to end the relationship, shouting, scenes in public and private, making sure the victim knows that they (and what they do) is not good enough, calling names, etc., there is also the insipid kind. You are “teased” and made fun of after because you couldn’t take it, or were told ”you can’t take a joke” or told to “act like an adult – everyone gets teased” or you are “too sensitive”. There’s the witty sarcasm, the nasty sarcasm, the telling stories about someone just like you – and the refusal to be affectionate or have sex, the ignoring or social shunning, especially prevalent when you don’t accept or join in with inappropriate behaviors and comments.
Let’s be candid, we’ve all experienced it. It can happen anywhere, but it can’t be in a relationship if you want the relationship to endure.
There are two parties here – the abused and the abuser.
Let’s look at the abuser. Every abuser that I have ever worked with has low self-esteem. They are unhappy with who they are, how they behave, with the choices they have made and are currently living in as a result and want to blame others. Instead of looking seriously at that and correcting themselves, there are many excuses and justifications I hear repeatedly:
- I’m too old to change.
- I’d be happy if s/he would only…..(do what I want).
- I can’t help myself.
- I deserve better – someone more attentive, or around more, or better looking, or younger.
- My partner isn’t very interested in sex with me anymore and that makes me angry too.
- I didn’t get enough as a child, I sure don’t get enough now and s/he should fix all that.
- S/he is weak and it irritates me, because a weak person can’t give me enough.
- If I leave this relationship, I can’t get another, or no one else will put up with my outbursts and they will leave me anyway, so I’m stuck in this one.
- I have to control him/her not to look at the opposite sex or I will be left alone.
- I cannot stand to just be alone, so I have to stay in this relationship.
- I don’t make a lot of friends or spend a lot of time with them because I have to monitor my partner. S/he and what that person are doing is always on my mind anyway. It’s harder (almost impossible) for me to make friends than it is for others.
- I don’t care if I knew about his/her previous obligations to children, elderly parents, loans, job travel, schooling, etc. I don’t accept it now. I want the rules I agreed to change, regardless.
- S/he has to give me what I want because I can’t change unless s/he does.
- Too much trouble. I can control myself for a little while but I always revert.
- I’m not just critical of him/her. I’m critical of myself too. It’s who I am.
- Take me or leave me – I am who I am. (a la Paula Dean and many others). People don’t just “get me”, “get my jokes, personality”, “my emotional (passionate) nature”. There’s nothing I can do about that.
- It infuriates me that s/he finds reasons not to be at home, with me, etc.
- People are unkind to me too. I’m over-looked, not appreciated, not acknowledged properly.
- I came from poverty, or abuse, or neglect, etc. and I have to be tough and speak up for what I need and deserve. Life has not been fair to me.
- I make more money or have more power in this relationship than you do. So….Why and how does this get started? Most textbooks say it starts in childhood to those who were verbally or physically abused, or those who endured intense and frequent criticism. I’ve found it in clients who lived in a home where criticism or verbal abuse were prevalent, in which it was directed towards family members or directed towards those outside the home in the community who were constantly WRONG. Others were given a deep sense of unfairness, anger (and possibly inferiority) engendered by poverty – comparing themselves to others who seemed much more fortunate.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the entitled person, who gives themselves permission to abuse others because they have been made to feel they are special – either by their upbringing, their parent’s wealth or their own achievements. I’ve seen this particularly in some who identify with their ethnic origin, possibly highlighted by clannishness and early émigré needs to bolster the children, encouraging marriage within the ethnic and religious group to maintain roots and “the bloodline”.
Abusers I’ve worked with have some trait similarities to cutters. They feel tension mounting, they act out and then feel a very temporary rush of importance, moral superiority and, especially, control – then release. This is also very similar to the rush an addict gets after first using. Like an addict though, the good feeling, the relief, disappears very quickly and the behavior escalates to try to get the desired result. We all know where this is going and how addictive the adrenaline rush can be.
Verbal abusers are highly defensive, universally blaming their partner, saying they require the power this behavior gives, since they believe they have to stay in control to get what they need, i.e. self-preservation is foremost. They are almost always in denial about the devastation they cause and, though they will acknowledge from time to time that they fear their partner will leave, they don’t worry enough to actually change the behavior. Over time, the abuse almost becomes automatic, habitual and becomes the go-to auto response to their own inner frustration and anger, which they can redirect toward the victim. That actually gives them power, false self-importance and the upper hand in the relationship (until the partner leaves taking with them all power and control).
I’ve found the abuser often communicates with the victim several times a day, keeping a dialogue going until they hear or see one thing they don’t like. Then the communication gets abusive, with a demand from the abuser that they keep on talking, laying the groundwork for an even bigger eruption. This about power and tension build-up and then the desire for release.
My experience has been that the abuser is always the one in power. The power is almost always financial, coming from the one who earns or has the most money. However, it may be physical or intellectual, and I’ve seen a very few cases where the abuser was believed by both parties to be so beautiful/gorgeous that desirability was the point of power, giving them the “right” to do anything they wanted and the victim was so in love that s/he was helpless to leave.
Some entrenched abusers even try to displace their blame from the victim to the therapist, saying, “You haven’t helped me.”, which appears to be an auto-response trying to again displace their own nervous tension and self-distress onto yet another. I feel it’s a good thing to see because it can be very directly named and dealt with clinically while it is happening.
Verbal abusers can be very hard to treat unless their back is up against the wall. That is the time I generally find them ready to stop justifying their behavior, stop reporting they’d “like to stop”, “can only stop for a bit”, “can’t stop”, or will always “fall back into doing it”. When they acknowledge the crisis, effective treatment can quickly take place, in many cases. Sometimes, it is too late for the current relationship, but may make it possible for them to enjoy a healthy one in the future.
Crisis time allows treatment to include compassion for the victim, self- awareness of how and when tension is building, changing the geography (physically getting out, going for a walk, drive, to the gym, etc.) to prevent an outburst, exercise, reading alone and asking yourself, “Would I be acting this way right now if my_______ (mother, mentor, person I admire the most) were watching?”
The victims have a lot to say about how this makes them feel. I will cover their side of this equation in another post. However, what I often hear is: they are afraid to be open and honest in case it causes another ugly argument, feel tense when in company of others as there may a public explosion, feel embarrassed when you have raised your voice, worried if they were not available for a period of time as you will get annoyed and explode…. the list could go on and on. The thoughts are actually much worse and more graphic for many. It’s a terrible way to live. Some compare it to an ugly, cold, dangerous prison, always hoping and watching for the chance to escape while still alive.
Often a behavioral chart is vital and CBT or DBT treatments have proven very effective in my office. When the client will chart and come to automatically identify the triggers and thoughts that start the tension that ends with abuse, it can be short-circuited. We identify the areas most likely to be troublesome even before charting begins and work on exactly why those items are a hot button. Since the unwanted behavior is thought to be based on self-preservation, we can address better ways to deal with that which the data from charting will provide us in more detail.
Perspective can change everything.
Interestingly, few of the verbal abusers that I have treated exercise daily or even regularly. Since regular, consistent exercise is a tension reliever, time to think on oneself and is necessary for over-all health and a healthy mind, I feel it is a necessary initial step to introduce and adhere to.
Left alone, abuser often do not adhere to a diet that promotes optimal mental health, calmness and happiness. Many have been heavy drinkers or become addicted to substances. I especially see depressants since the anxiety about themselves is depressed a bit, though very temporarily, giving way for a new problem – addiction. As a result, I see alcohol and sleeping pills as the most often abused.
I feel a great deal of sympathy for verbal abusers since, without fairly intense personal work, they are likely to end up alone and even more anxious and angry. Even a partner who is too weak to leave, must develop an emotional distance between the abuser partner, just to survive – tuning the abuser out as much as possible. Sometimes that can turn into fantasies (or more) about a loving, kind partner who treats them well. It’s survival for them too.
Direct work on themselves is critical to end the abusing. Though they find a low self-esteem partner to accept the abuse; they too, suffer from lack of solid, enduring self-esteem. Most have very low self-esteem and even hate their abusive behaviors. Self-awareness work is critical; compassion for themselves is critical also. Many are intensely critical of themselves, even as they are highly critical and dismissive of their partners. Getting the abuser to improve their own self-image can be challenging, as many fall into the habit of discounting compliments and resist celebrating their own worth and value. At this point, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can be useful.
For most, awareness and acknowledgment of where the roots of this problem started is important, and sometimes, that awareness and insight alone help the therapeutic process to leap forward.
Helping a verbal abuser to release the need to control and to stop insisting on constant, unusually frequent communication (control) while away from one another is important. There is often nothing to talk about when they parties get home because there has been too much non-critical communication throughout the day, often not fully expressed in texts or WHILE DRIVING, thereby leading to even more ugly words and hurt.
When an abuser can develop other compelling interests, hobbies, schooling, sports or a new employment challenge, it can reduce the time, need and ability to control the partner by micromanaging their behaviors and then giving them a critical review. Getting busy with their own lives, and in doing so getting out their partners, can be life affirming for both. Spirituality or religion or reading self-help books have helped others stay focused on themselves.
It’s often helpful to get the abuser to realize that they have actually given up all control by indulging themselves in this behavior, since they have given the abused the ultimate power – to leave – permanently and not allowing them back into their lives. This often provokes dramatic crying and drama on the part of the abuser to try to get control again and draw the victim back in. Getting an abuser to see they’ve made themselves vulnerable, which is the opposite of their aim, can also speed up therapy and progress.
Meaningful charity work can be a game changer to get the abuser out of their own head, enhance their capacity for empathy and to cause them to really appreciate what they have. Interestingly, I’ve found it challenging to get a verbal abuser to select a charity and do some sort of work, volunteerism or getting involved with those less fortunate. I feel this may speak volumes about their own self-focus and need to build empathy. I often tell them: The fastest, most dependable way to build self esteem is to commit estimable acts. For those who do, I’ve unerringly seen it to be a game changer.
Often I find that it’s very important to have a few, limited joint sessions and to also encourage the abused person to select their own therapist. I provide a few names to consider as well, if they are open to it.
In my opinion, it is difficult and unlikely change will come in time for an abuser without consistent therapy that the client takes seriously, implements and progress is monitored by the therapist. It doesn’t work as well to show up once a month and complain about all that went wrong – yet again.
It’s not possible to list all the treatment options and interventions that are useful to end verbal abuse in this article. I think it would need to be turned into a book to address fully. However, I hope this can help and that abusers can see:
- Oh yes, you can stop.
- You can have a good life.
- You and your partner deserve unwavering compassion.
- It’s time to value yourself and your relationship much more.
Words can hurt, and yet, words can heal. Be kind to yourself. Therapy helps.
Stay tuned, as the next article will be about the victim of emotional abuse and what can be done for them.
Sharon Valentino, CA LMFT, MA, ChT
Psychotherapist Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (51746)
3030 Bridgeway, Suite 108
Sausalito, CA 94965
Serving the San Francisco Bay Area