Verbal Abuse Part 2: What Can You Do about It?

A portion of the material is adapted from a leader's guide on verbal abuse published by K-State University, which is a secular consideration limited to the topic of abusive verbal communication. For a brief treatment of the biblical concept of submission, refer to A Commentary on Religious Issues in Family Violence.

If you are uncomfortable with how your spouse speaks to you, ask him to read some of the articles on this site and discuss his and your reactions to the information. If he agrees there is a problem, you can work together toward change. Intimacy in a relationship requires mutual respect, communication, understanding, appropriate responses, and emotional support. Discuss the needed changes and issues with your partner and make plans together. Do this at a time of relative calm, not when you are upset.

If he raises the issue of "what the Bible says" about submission as a justification for his behavior, we recommend several articles* addressing that point. Input from a knowledgeable pastor or counselor might help settle the question.

However, your spouse may refuse to be convinced, because he is using doctrine as an excuse not to change. That doesn't need to stop you from pressing the issue. Judith Olsen, in an article entitled "The Invisible Heartbreaker", says, "If one person believes there is a problem, even if the partner disagrees, there is a problem. Those who abuse are often satisfied with the way things are and are insensitive and not motivated to make needed changes."

Dr. Suzette Elgin, a psycholinguist at San Diego State University, identifies four elements to successfully stopping verbal abuse. They all require assertiveness in place of compliance. Wives in many cultic groups are highly trained in compliance, so this won't be easy. Before beginning to implement these steps, assess whether your verbal abuse is part of a larger picture of control and domestic abuse. Assess the possible risk of escalation into physical violence, and take precautions.

  1. Start setting limits. Insisting on limits is the beginning of change. What will or won't you accept? What are you willing to live with? What benefits are you getting from the relationship, even if it is an abusive one? When you communicate to your partner that a change must occur, what are the risks? What is your "bottom line"? A bottom line begins with self-awareness and understanding your limits of tolerance. A bottom line preserves your dignity, integrity, and well-being. Dr. Harriet G. Lerner of the Menninger Clinic recommends these points when setting limits or bottom lines:
    • Don't strike while the iron is hot. That is, set and communicate limits at times that are calm and abuse-free. Anger blocks clear thinking and intensifies emotion.
    • Use "I" language, instead of "you". Without criticizing or blaming, express your feelings and desire for change. Be responsible for your own reactions, behavior and feelings.
    • Move slowly and think small. The abuse began in small steps and was learned over a period of time. Expect changes in stages. Expect to regain emotional strength and self-confidence gradually. The goal for improvement should be one step at a time, slow and steady progress.
    • Don't threaten to leave the relationship. Threats are barriers to problem solving. The abuser may escalate the abuse, expecting you to act on your threat. If you do choose to leave, do it for the right reasons, not to hurt and gain revenge.
    • Be proactive, not reactive. If you believe there are problems, address them. Try to be a problem-solver, not a victim.
    • Gather perspectives and experiences from other women and survivors. Communicate with women you respect and from whom you can learn. Read books by authors who will strengthen your self-esteem. Join support or discussion groups that will give you encouragement and confidence.
    • Review your voice intonation and body posture when you speak. Don't belie your words by a pleading or uncertain tone of voice, or by a submissive posture. Be strong and definite in both words and body language.
    • Dr. Elgin proposes that some characteristics of a woman's speech might lead an abuser to believe that she is weak, insincere or inferior. Much like a young child, an abuser is behaving in an immature manner. You need to function in an "adult" role, giving clear, short directions as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. When you set limits, be prepared to say, "NO! You can't talk to me like that," or, "I won't tolerate this anymore; I won't accept jokes that put me down." Many abusers will be surprised by your assertive manner and will reconsider what has just taken place.

  2. Stay in the present. Dwelling on the past or concerns for the future detracts from your assertive message that you won't tolerate verbal abuse. Staying in the present forces both the abuser and the victim to identify every offense and deal with it. Mentally rehearsing old abuses is actually re-abusive to the victim.
  3. Get professional counseling and support. Find support form a counselor who has had experience in the issues of abuse. This is important--not all counselors will be helpful.
  4. Ask your partner to go to counseling, too. If your partner agrees to counseling, going together to the same counselor may not be advisable. If abuse is like to occur after personal issues are revealed during counseling sessions, be sure to consult your counselor about this concern.
To Dr. Elgin's four points we would add a word of caution:  Be aware that verbal abuse has the potential to escalate into physical abuse. When you begin responding to verbal abuse by speaking firmly and clearly, standing tall, and looking the abuser straight in the eye, there are abusers who consider this behavior a threat. In some cases, perceived threat might move the abuser to physical violence.

Judith Olsen has this to say:

Once a pattern of emotional abuse has developed, there is a risk that in some cases such hurtful behavior will escalate into physical abuse. The transition often begins with seemingly playful or accidental invasions of the spouse’s personal space: standing too close, stepping on toes, not-so-gentle shoving, hitting, or slapping for “fun”, and teasing that does not stop when a spouse asks for it to stop.

If this, too, is tolerated, further serious physical abuse may follow. Men and women continually experiencing these supposedly innocent invasions of personal space need to take a firm stand with their partner and seek help now. A spouse who does not tolerate such treatment will often stop a partner from moving any further down the road toward physical abuse. There is no guarantee that things will get better by waiting, praying for the partner to change, or assuming the partner means it when he or she promises it won’t happen again … and it happens again. Both partner and spouse may need help.

Once things have escalated from verbal to physical abuse, couple counseling together is emphatically not recommended. The abuser will manipulate it to his or her advantage. When physical abuse begins on any level, prepare for the possibility that you may have to leave the situation. Pack a bag and discuss your plan with a trusted friend. A call to a domestic violence program can help you find resources in your community. Do not tolerate physical abuse in any form.

And last, understand that not all abusers will change. Dr. Neil Jacobson, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, has done research in domestic violence which shows that some abusers feel so much power from being abusive that it is virtually impossible to change the behavior.

* See A Commentary on Religious Issues in Family Violence Christian Husbands, and A Real Marriage.

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