An intern who works for me was reviewing some writing I had done on abusive relationships. She asked me, “So what does an abusive relationship look like anyway? I know when they hit you it’s bad. But what constitutes verbal abuse?”

“What?! You mean you don’t know?” I wanted to scream. I was shocked that this 24 year old, bright, outgoing young woman didn’t know how to identify a potentially dangerous trap for trusting and caring individuals. But then I thought about it.  What did I really know about healthy and unhealthy relationships at 21? Not jack, really.

I learned my first hard lesson the way many of the best are: through experience. I had a boyfriend in college who, when we first met, treated me like I was the most precious, beautiful thing on earth. He was kind, thoughtful and gentlemanly. Jeff (I’ve changed his name ) took me out to nice dinners and even bought me gold. Boy, was I hooked. Cinderella had found her prince.

Yet, as time went on he slowly evolved into a toad: someone who made snarky comments, or pointed out faults. He acted innocent and concerned about my welfare while sneaking into my closed mental closets of self-doubt and inadequacy. All people have some feelings like this from time to time. It’s normal. However, abusers know this and use it to establish control in the relationship.

Before I knew it, I was in a full-blown verbally abusive relationship. I figured it out, left it and got educated. One of the first books I found, The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans, is still a valuable resource for me as a counselor. I recommend it to women and men to read when they question their treatment in their relationships.

Here are a few basics that I encourage people to recognize:

Verbally abusive relationships never start that way. The abuser has to seduce with kindness and compassion. Once you are hooked, then they can start with the “shenanigans.”

2.     Both women and men can be victims of verbal abuse. It occurs frequently in homosexual relationships as well.

3.     Abusers rarely try consciously to manipulate. A lot of their behavior may just stem from how they learned to act. This makes it harder to identify because they might behave well in so many other ways and not be aware of their own abuse.

Patricia Evans says that abusers usually are:

·      irritable

·      likely to blame his/her mate for feelings

·      hostile

·      critical

·      silent, non-communicative, demanding or argumentative

·      tend to invalidate partners feelings

·      competitive

Oddly, part of the mind warp in this situation involves contradiction. (p. 38 of the book) Abusive partners often spontaneously say things such as:

·      “I just want you to be happy.”

·      “I love you.”

·      “I would never do anything to hurt you.”

Huh? (Insert confused face here.)

Verbal abuse might escalate to more verbal abuse, or worse — and therein lays the danger. If you’re in a relationship and suspect verbal abuse, seek professional help through a counselor or therapist. Confronting the abuser may not feel comfortable, but confronting your feelings and minding your boundaries, are actions you cannot afford to delay.

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