The Subtleties of Covert Verbal Abuse
January 27, 2014
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. We learned this phrase as a way to stand up to verbal bullies in our childhood. They were ‘in our face’, throwing mean and spiteful remarks, and we learned to stand strong and not show our hurt, anger or humiliation about being verbally abused by a sibling, a so called friend or the neighborhood/playground tough guy. Though those victimized by bullies learned to put up a strong front, non escaped unscathed emotionally.
When we consider verbal abuse in adult life we usually think of someone, a grown up bully, being clearly disrespectful, demeaning, and hurtful with obvious put downs, name calling and overtly disparaging remarks. But there is another kind of verbal abuse that is is sometimes hard to recognize, though it is no less damaging. It is called covert verbal abuse.
Covert verbal abuse is emotional battering that is sneaky and subtle and can be easy to misinterpreted. The abuser doesn’t present themself to the world as a bully. Disparaging comments may be voiced in an extremely sincere and concerned way. While the victim feels abused, they may question their own reactions and initially might try to talk them self out of believing they are experiencing abuse. “Oh, he said he was just joking,….”Well, maybe I am overacting”. Covert verbal abuse is not as obvious as typical verbal abuse, and is often packaged in so called charming or ‘reasonable’ behavior, but it is filled with manipulation and is intended to be controlling. Over time continuing covert abuse destroys the victim’s belief in them self, can cause them to give up their right to stand up for them self and teaches them to believe they are not of value. The damage is deep, painful and lasting, long past the incident.
Here are some examples of covert verbal abuse:
– Lack of empathy toward a partner:”Why are you making such a big deal out of that?
– Being irritable impatient and argumentative.
– Withholding and withdrawing: Holding a grudge, refusing to discuss a problem, giving the silent treatment, ignoring and dismissing the other.
– Putting the other down with seeming kindness: “Honey, you’re just a bad driver.”; or “That’s OK, you never have been much of a cook.”
– Discounting another’s feelings and opinions: “Oh, you don’t know what you are talking about!”, or “You are just too sensitive.”, or “I’m not going too fast, you’re being a baby!”
– Minimizing or not acknowledging the other’s accomplishments “That’s not much of a promotion.”, or ” I thought you would have finished that weeks ago.”
– Making judgmental comments: “Why would you do that…it makes no sense!”
– Engaging others but ignoring a partner in a social situation.
– Telling ‘funny’ stories about the other that aren’t really funny but more likely embarrassing.
– Being competitive with a strong desire to win, to have their own way.
– Acting like the victim: Turning a situation around to make the partner feel like they caused the problem.
– Quick come-backs, joking put-downs or sarcastic remarks
It is important to understand that the victim does not cause the abuser to be abusive and that there is no excuse or justification for any form of abuse – not having a bad day, having problems and stress in life, or ‘joking’. Abusers do not acknowledge that their treatment of others is abusive and do not change without getting help to solve the personal issues underlying their abusive behaviors. A victim of abuse who is staying in a relationship with the belief she/he can bring about change in the abuser by explaining, defending, understanding, or complying, or who is staying with hope of spontaneous change will be disappointed over and over as the abuse continues.
Without doubt, cruel words can do worse than break bones. If you are struggling with a covert verbal abuser in your life, please seek help. You deserve to be respected and valued for exactly who you are in your relationship. The first step for change is to learn more about the dynamics of abuse and to gain an understanding about yourself as a victim. If you would like more information or to discuss your situation please call me at my Charlotte University Area office, 704-770-7743.
M. Leslie Owens, MSW, LCSW