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What Is Verbal Abuse? How to Recognize Abusive Behavior and What to Do Next


Overview Abuse comes in many forms, not all of which are physical. When someone repeatedly uses words to demean, frighten, or control someone, it’s considered verbal abuse.

You’re likely to hear about verbal abuse in the context of a romantic relationship or a parent-child relationship. But it can also occur in other family relationships, socially, or on the job.

Verbal and emotional abuse takes a toll. It can sometimes escalate into physical abuse, too. If you’re being verbally abused, know that it’s not your fault. Continue reading to learn more, including how to recognize it and what you can do next.

What’s the difference between verbal abuse and a ‘normal’ argument? We all get into arguments from time to time. Sometimes we lose our cool and yell. It’s all part of being human. But verbal abuse isn’t normal.

The trouble is, when you’re involved in a verbally abusive relationship, it can wear you down and seem normal to you.

Here are some examples of what normal disagreements look like:

  • They don’t dissolve into name-calling or personal attacks.

  • They don’t happen every day.

  • Arguments revolve around a basic issue. They aren’t character assassinations.

  • You listen and try to understand the other’s position, even when you’re angry.

  • One of you may yell or say something truly awful out of frustration, but it’s an unusual occurrence and you work through it together.

  • Even if you can’t agree completely, you’re able to compromise or move on without punishments or threats.

  • Arguments aren’t a zero-sum game: One person won’t win at the detriment of the other.

Consider it a red flag when the other person engages in these behaviors:

  • They insult or attempt to humiliate you. Then they accuse you of being overly sensitive or say that it was a joke and you have no sense of humor.

  • They frequently yell or scream at you.

  • Arguments take you by surprise, but you get blamed for starting them.

  • The initial disagreement sets off a string of accusations and dredging up of unrelated issues to put you on the defense.

  • They try to make you feel guilty and position themselves as the victim.

  • They save their hurtful behaviors for when you’re alone but act completely different when others are around.

  • They get into your personal space or block you from moving away.

  • They hit the wall, pound their fists, or throw things.

  • They want credit for not having hit you.

1. Name-calling Whether it’s a romantic relationship, a parent-child relationship, or the bully on the playground, name-calling is unhealthy. Sometimes obvious, sometimes disguised as “pet names” or “teasing,” habitual name-calling is a method of belittling you. For example:

  • “You don’t get it, sweetie, because you’re just too dumb.”

  • “It’s no wonder everyone says you’re a jerk.”

2. Condescension Condescension is another attempt to belittle you. The abuser’s comments can be sarcastic, disdainful, and patronizing. It’s all to make themselves feel superior. For example:

  • “Let me see if I can put this in simple terms that even you can understand.”

  • “I’m sure you put a lot of effort into your makeup, but go wash it off before someone sees you.”

3. Criticism There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism. But in a verbally abusive relationship, it’s particularly harsh and persistent in an attempt to chip away at your self-esteem. For example:

  • “You’re always upset about something, always playing the victim. That’s why nobody likes you.”

  • “You screwed up again. Can’t you do anything right?”

4. Degradation Abusers want you to feel bad about yourself. They employ humiliation and shame to degrade you and eat away at your confidence. For example:

  • “Before I came along you were nothing. Without me you’ll be nothing again.”

  • “I mean, look at yourself. Who else would want you?"

5. Manipulation Manipulation is an attempt to make you do something without making it a direct order. Make no mistake about it: It’s meant to control you and keep you off-balance. For example:

  • “If you do that, it proves you don’t care about your family and everyone will know it.”

  • “You’d do this for me if you really loved me.”

6. Blame We’re all at fault for something once in a while. But a verbally abusive person blames you for their behavior. They want you to believe that you bring verbal abuse on yourself. For example:

  • “I hate getting into fights, but you make me so mad!”

  • “I have to yell, because you’re so unreasonable and thickheaded!”

7. Accusations If someone is repeatedly accusing you of things, they may be jealous or envious. Or perhaps they’re the one guilty of that behavior. Either way, it can make you question whether you’re doing something inappropriate. For example:

  • “I saw the way you looked at them. You can’t tell me there’s nothing going on there.”

  • “Why won’t you give me your cell phone if you’ve got nothing to hide?”

8. Withholding or isolation Refusing to talk to you, look you in the eye, or even be in the same room with you is meant to make you work harder to get their attention. For example:

  • At a friend’s house, you say or do something they don’t like. Without a word, they storm out and sit in the car, leaving you to explain and say goodbye to your hosts.

  • They know you need to communicate about who’s picking up the kids, but they refuse to answer your calls or texts.

9. Gaslighting Gaslighting is a systematic effort to make you question your own version of events. It can make you apologize for things that aren’t your fault. It can also make you more dependent on the abuser. For example:

  • You recall an event, agreement, or argument and the abuser denies that it happened at all. They may tell you it’s all in your mind, you dreamed it, or are making it up.

  • They tell other people that you’re forgetful or have emotional problems to solidify the illusion.

10. Circular arguments It isn’t unusual for two people to disagree or argue about the same thing more than once until they find common ground. But abusers will reignite that old argument again and again just to push your buttons, never intending to meet in the middle. For example:

  • Your job requires you to put in overtime without notice. Every time it happens, the argument about your tardiness starts anew.

  • You’ve made it clear that you’re not ready for kids, but your partner brings it up every month.

11. Threats Outright threats can mean that verbal abuse will escalate. They’re meant to frighten you into compliance. For example:

  • “When you come home tonight, you might find a ‘for sale’ sign on the lawn, and I might just be gone with the kids.”

  • “If you do that, no one would blame me for how I’d react.”

What to do If you think you’re experiencing verbal abuse, trust your instincts. Keep in mind there’s a chance it will eventually escalate. Now that you recognize it, you have to decide how you’re going to do something about it.

There’s no single answer for what to do. A lot depends on your individual circumstances.

Reasoning with an abuser is tempting, but unlikely to work. Remember, you’re not responsible for someone else’s behavior.

But you can set boundaries. Start refusing to engage in unreasonable arguments. Let them know you’ll no longer respond to or overlook verbal abuse.

Limit your exposure to the abuser as much as possible. If you travel in the same social circles, you might have to make some difficult decisions. If you can’t avoid the person altogether, try to keep it down to situations where there are other people around.

Then, when you’re ready, cut all ties if you can. Breaking things off with your abuser can be complicated in some situations, like if you live with them, have children together, or are dependent on them in some way.

You may find it helpful to speak with a counselor or join a support group. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective can help you see things in a new light and figure out what to do next.

Outlook Healing takes time, but it’s important not to isolate yourself. Reach out to supportive friends and family members. If you’re in school, talk to a teacher or guidance counselor. If you think it will help, find a therapist who can help you in your recovery.

If you need guidance on how to separate from your abuser or if you fear escalation, here are a few resources that will provide support:

  • Break the Cycle: Supporting young people ages 12 to 24 to build healthy relationships and create an abuse-free culture.

  • Educational information, hotline, and searchable database of programs and services near you.

  • Love Is Respect (National Dating Abuse Hotline): Offers young people a chance to chat online, call, or text with advocates.

  • National Domestic Abuse Hotline (800-799-7233): 24/7 hotline with access to service providers and shelters across the United States.

Once you’re out of a verbally abusive situation, it’s often easier to see it for what it was.


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