By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Verbal abuse refers to the use of language as a means to control or subordinate
another person for either self-gratification or to impose one’s view or
will on another or to gain an unfair advantage in resolving a dispute. While
both parties subject to a dispute may use inappropriate language with the other,
verbal abuse has the distinction of one party typically causing more distress
to the other party, and causing insecurities in that party typically for the
purpose of exploitation. In other words, the person wielding the verbal abuse
does so to gain an advantage over the abused typically to his or her own desire.
Verbal abuse takes several forms including threats, foul or demeaning language,
hostile tone or volume, intensity of delivery whether loud or quiet and sarcasm.
Threats are meant to scare or intimidate a person into submission. Threats
can be of bodily harm to a person or other family, friends or pets of the person.
Threats can also include divulging secrets or making outright lies about a person
such to either embarrass or cause to look bad in the eyes of others. Threats
can also be to property as in telling a person they will destroy something and
threats can be financial, thus seeking to hold a person hostage by intimating
economic hardship. Even the legal system can be used against another and thus
threats include telling another person they will unjustly use the legal system
to gain an unfair advantage.
Foul or demeaning language refers to using swear words or words like stupid
or idiot to cause a person to feel less about her or himself. Thus language
is used to put the other person down and gain a psychological advantage where
the abuser thus presents him or herself as superior. Here, one person belittles
the other through the use of language.
Hostile tone, volume or intensity of deliver may appear as shouting, yelling
or screaming or alternately, talking quietly yet intensely, so as to instill
fear. Typically this form of verbal abuse causes the victim to acquiesce for
fear of self-harm, particularly scaring the person that matters might escalate
to include physical abuse.
Sarcasm refers to the use of humor to mask belittling or threatening language.
Thus the information is delivered in such a way so as to provide two distinct
messages. The superficial message is that the intention is humor or levity while
the deeper message is one that belittles, demeans or threatens. Because the
deliverer uses humor to mask the message, the deliverer will try to deny the
deeper message if confronted, thus leaving the receiver somewhat disarmed and
unable to defend against the deeper message.
Typically the person using sarcasm denies the deeper message so as to absolve
him or herself from any wrong-doing and more insidiously try to infer there
is something wrong with the receiver for their misinterpretation. This obfuscation
of the receiver’s reality in this scenario is also a form of psychological
When the receiver gets angry enough at the sarcasm, the person who is sarcastic
typically then uses the receiver’s display of anger as their evidence
that any problem in the relationship originates with the receiver’s anger.
Thus sarcasm as verbal abuse is a potent form of gaining an advantage in a dispute
and is a potent means to control another to one’s gain.
Underneath all forms of verbal abuse are issues of power and control. Gaining
an advantage to the detriment of the other by abusive means is inherently wrong
and can cause significant emotional and psychological distress.
If you are in a lop-sided relationship where your partner uses verbal abuse
in any form to consistently assert their will over your own, then you may require
counseling and other forms of support to end the abuse and either establish
an appropriate equilibrium to the relationship or else provide you an opportunity
to leave safely and heal from the wounds of the abuse.