Verbal abuse is powerful. After years of counseling as an adult, Natalia realized that she was verbally abused by her father. His harsh words would wear her down to the point she couldn’t think straight. Then he would spin a situation around so everything was Natalia’s fault. Worst yet, as an adult, her dad’s words echoed in her head as she subconsciously reenacted her childhood within her marriage.
Verbal abuse very quickly intimidates the victim while simultaneously establishing dominance and superiority for the abuser. The attack usually catches the victim off-guard though inconsistent timing thus assuring victory. All of this is done to gain control and manipulate a person into doing something.
The pattern is similar to whether the abuser is a spouse, parent, employer, coach, manager, or preacher. It first begins in secret, is infrequent, is mild in tone with minimal use of abusive language, and sometimes is followed by a shallow apology. Then it escalates to public humiliation, is more frequent, shifts blame to the victim, and is excessive in tone while denying abusive words.
Natalia experienced this as a child and then repeated the pattern in her marriage. The first step toward healing is to understand the types of verbal abuse. Because this abuse leaves no marks unlike physical or even sexual abuse, it can be hard to identify. Here are some examples.
- Extremes in Volume and Tone Voice – Natalia’s dad would increase his volume of speech by yelling, screaming, and raging. This was often done in contrast to a calmer manner of speech just prior to the outburst. The second method he used was complete silence, ignoring her, and refusing to respond when questioned.
- Intimidating Words – Words have meaning beyond their definition. For Natalia’s dad, words are used to instill fear, intimidate, manipulate, oppress and constrain. Swearing at Natalia, threatening to cut her off, and calling her derogatory names happened whenever she refused to do what her dad requested. The words were particularly hurtful such saying he wished he never had her as a child.
- Intense Manner of Speech – The way her dad would talk was argumentative, competitive, sarcastic and demanding. He frequently interrupted, talked over, withheld key information, bulled and interrogated. Many times the verbal assault was so rapid that she did not have the time or energy to fight point by point. This left Natalia feeling like she had no voice.
- Personal Attacks – Some common examples Natalia experienced included criticizing, name-calling, mocking her responses, defaming her character, berating her feelings, and judging her opinions. To further add to the confusion, her dad would mix some truth with a lot of criticism. This condemning tactic left Natalia feeling inferior and defeated. These cutting remarks haunted her well into adulthood.
- No Apology – Her dad refused to take responsibility and became hostile when Natalia would confront him. He also invalidated or dismissed her feelings, lie about what he said, and conveniently forget promises or commitments. There was no show of remorse or an apology for how his words hurt her. Instead, he would go on the defensive over minor infractions by blocking and diverting casual remarks.
- Blame Game – Anything that went wrong was Natalia’s fault. Her dad would accuse her of being too sensitive whenever she would show the least amount of sadness for his remarks. He would be overly critical of her reactions sometimes one-uping her feelings by claiming that he hurt her because she hurt him first. Any opposing opinion was quickly dismissed. In essence, Natalia was to blame for the negative condition in which her dad would find himself.
- Browbeating – Typical sayings that her dad would make included: “If only you would…, then I won’t have to be this way,” “You don’t know how to take a joke,” “The problem with you is…,” “I’m critical for your own good,” and “That (verbal abuse) didn’t really happen.” As a result of the verbal abuse, Natalia felt like she could never win, and she was always in the wrong. This resulted in a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, constantly walking on eggshells, fearfulness of her dad’s response, and frequent embarrassment by his behavior.
Natalia was not going crazy. The verbal abuse she endured was real and left her feeling confused and frustrated. After learning more about verbal abuse, she was able to stop the pattern forward which ultimately saved her marriage.