Thursday, October 16, 2014

Verbal Abuse in Marriage – The Hidden Cancer

'A time to keep silent and a time to speak.'
Ecclesiastes 3:7b

With exceptions, verbal abuse in any relationship is about control.  It is often a highly successful strategy to excerpt power over another because the abused partner often assumes that his or her spouse is ‘on the same page’ as them in terms of mutual goals, mutual values and mutual perspectives.  The abused partner often can’t imagine that his/her spouse doesn’t share the same mutual affection and concern for each one’s mutual best.  The abused spouse considers their relationship to be about love, partnership and mutuality; the abusing spouse is rather all about control.

What follows is a list of characteristics of a marriage scarred by verbal abuse.


Verbal abuse is usually perpetuated by a man towards his wife, although a wife may also verbally abuse her husband.

Verbal abuse against a spouse is almost never committed in public; rather it’s done in secret when the two are alone.  Only the partner of the abuser hears it.

Verbal abuse usually becomes more intense over time.  The partner either adapts and more pressure is needed to accomplish the same results, or the partner begins to resist and greater intensity is needed to maintain control.

The verbal abuser consistently denies, discounts and/or minimizes the partner’s perception of the abuse.

The verbal abuser invalidates his/her partner’s perspective, experience, feelings, and ultimately his/her person in an effort to maintain control and power over the spouse.


One does not enter into a relationship expecting to be verbally abused.  As a result, the experience can be wholly disorienting.  One may feel one is going crazy.  ‘How can he/she say these things about me and treat me this way, when he/she doesn’t treat anybody else like this?’  One begins to doubt one’s experience, or one’s perception.  One begins to believe what the abuser says about them or about the circumstances.  One feels verbally beaten into submission.  One will often do whatever the spouse is demanding, however demeaning, just to stop the abuse.  One feels isolated and afraid to mention their experiences to anyone else because one is afraid that no one will believe me.

When verbal abuse is perpetuated by a wife against a husband, there is often, along with the usual disorientation that accompanies this abuse, a great sense of shame felt by the man that that hinders his ability to admit that he is being treated this way or that he might need help.

Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship (2010), gives this guide to help women and men recognize if they are in a verbally abusive relationship:

Verbal abuse is hostile aggression.  The abuser is not provoked by his (her) mate. The abuser may consciously or even unconsciously deny what he (she) is doing.  In any case, he is not likely to wake up one day and say, “Oh my!  Look at what I have been doing.  I’m really sorry.  I won’t do it anymore.”  No one but the partner experiences it.  Usually only the partner can recognize it.  The aggression can be recognized because the impact of the behavior on the victim is a hurtful one.

Generally the responsibility for recognizing verbal abuse rests with the partner of the abuser, because the abuser is not motivated to change.  However, the partner may have difficulty recognizing the abuse for what it is because she (he) is led to doubt her (his) feelings.  For example, if she (he) feels hurt or upset by something her (his) mate has said and she (he) expresses her (his) feeling, saying, “I felt bad when you said that,” the verbal abuser¸ instead of recognizing her feeling and responding appropriately, will reject and invalidate her (his) feelings by saying something like, “I don’t know what you are talking about.  You’re too sensitive [or selfish, or you are avoiding responsibility, etc.].  The partner then doubts her (his) own perceptions.  Why?  In childhood, like many, she (he) may have been taught that her (his) feelings were to be ignored.  Feelings, however, are essential to our being, because they are the criteria by which we determine if something is wrong or unsafe.

When the partner can recognize and validate her (his) feelings, she (he) can begin to recognize verbal abuse.  In other words she (he) might say:
            I feel hurt, I am being hurt.
            I feel diminished, I am being diminished.
            I feel unrecognized, I am being unrecognized.
            I feel ignored, I am being ignored.
            I feel made fun of, I am being made fun of.
            I feel discounted, I am being discounted.
            I feel closed off, I am being closed off.
            [I feel minimized, I am being minimized.
I feel invalidated, I am being invalidated.]
If the partner shares her (his) feelings with the perpetrator of the aggression, you can be absolutely certain, he (she) will invalidate them….  The partner may then doubt the truth of her (his) own perceptions.
(Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 24-25)

Verbal abuse covers a spectrum of behaviors, and comes from a spectrum of personalities.  Evans states that the verbal abuser may be any combination of the following traits:
Irritable
Likely to blame his/her mate for his (her) outbursts or actions
Unpredictable (you never know what will anger him/her)
Angry
Intense
Unaccepting of his/her mate’s feelings or views
Unexpressive of warmth and empathy
Controlling
Silent and uncommunicative in private or, frequently, demanding or argumentative
A ‘nice guy’ to others
Competitive towards his/her partner
Sullen
Jealous
Quick with comebacks or put-downs
Critical
Manipulative
Explosive
Hostile
Unexpressive of his [her] feelings

Usually the partner of a verbal abuser finds it difficult to see her/his mate objectively and clearly.  This is especially true if she/he does not realize that her mate is, so to speak, in a different reality.  He/she is not seeking mutuality.  He/she is seeking to control and dominate.  His/her behavior may be so changeable that his/her partner is kept off balance and is confused without knowing it.
(Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 39-40)

So verbal abuse is more than just using harsh words; it’s more than the normal way couples quarrel.  It is, in fact, an entirely different way of relating, with the abusing spouse making use of  different means and different ends than those assumed by the abused partner.  According to Evans (40), relationships marked by verbal abuse share the following characteristics:

Often present                           Often lacking
Inequality                                Equality
Competition                             Partnership
Manipulation                           Mutuality
Hostility                                   Goodwill
Control                                    Intimacy         
Negation                                  Validation

Combinations of these dynamics are embedded in the very fabric of the relationship itself, making it very difficult to pull out one without unraveling the whole.  Without any realization on the part of the abuser, the relationship will ultimately fail, or continue to be enabled by the abused partner who continues to believe the abuser above what his/her heart is telling them.

A pattern of verbal and emotional abuse may continue in a relationship for a very long time.  The abused partner may believe the abuser’s constant accusations that he/she is only getting what they deserve.  The abused partner may feel that the consequences of trying to put a stop to the pain will be worse than his/her ongoing attempts to manage and live with the abuse.  The abused partner may be an accommodator, trying everything he/she knows to appease the abusing partner in hopes that the abuse will finally stop.  The abused partner may feel he/she will lose too much by leaving the abusing partner.  And/or the abused partner may be in denial, choosing to believe that it isn’t so bad.

In relationships where one or both partners profess to be Christians, the abused partner may feel obligated to ‘love’ the abusing spouse, to endure his/her partner’s abuse for the sake of Christ and for the sake of their family, to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the second mile’, to submit to the other ‘as unto the Lord,’ to love his wife ‘as Christ loves the Church,’ to forgive the abusing spouse again and again and again in hopes that their ‘Christian attitude’ towards their abusing spouse will result in the abusing spouse ‘getting it’ and ‘repenting’.  In my experience, I’ve never seen these ‘Christian’ responses lead to anything other than increasing contempt.  For this reason, abused spouses often feel trapped between the intolerable verbal abuse they are experiencing and what they think ‘Christian love’ demands of them in their marriage.  And because no one on the outside sees the abuse or understands the increasingly awful dynamic that characterizes their relationship, the abused partner is left to make these choices alone, and the abusing spouse is free to carry on with impunity.

Whatever its causes, and for whatever reason it is tolerated, verbal abuse is a cancer that metastasizes to affect the entire relationship.  Verbal abuse will kill a relationship, sooner or later.  Sadly, because other personality factors are often at work in the abusing spouse, even when confronted they will almost never acknowledge that they have done anything wrong.  And if the abuser cannot or will not admit their role in their marriage, there is nothing that can be done to save it.  Divorce in this case becomes the only way the cycle of abuse can be stopped.  The Bible says that God hates divorce.  And for good reason.  But there are things worse than divorce.  And if the abusing spouse refuses to become a partner in repentance with the abused spouse, then divorce merely makes official what has already happened as a result of the abuse.


May God spare you from ever finding yourself in a verbally-abusive relationship.  And should the descriptions above describe something of your own experience, may God give you the courage to get help and to take the steps you need to take to get out of that toxic relationship before it destroys you.