Recognizing Emotional and Verbal Abuse

By Kristen
Content Updated on September 7, 2007

Even if nobody throws a punch and nobody gets hit, abuse can still happen on an emotional level.

Verbal and emotional abuse happen in many ways but all of them have the same purposes: make the abuser feel better about themselves and control the victim to comply with the abuser's wishes.

The Abuser

It is important to note that in many cases, the abuser doesn't realize that they're being abusive. Often, the abuser has grown up in an abusive home and believes that their behaviors are normal behaviors that everybody does. Just because they believe their abusive behavior is normal doesn't mean that you should have to let it become a normal part of your life.

Abusers may also see their behaviors as defensive behaviors rather than as abusive behaviors. In their mind, they're not attacking you; they're keeping you from attacking them, even if you have no intention to attack them.

(Because most abusers don't realize they are being abusive, it's also a good idea to be aware of your own behavior, so that you don't act abusive as well.)

Many abusers often have dual personalities. The abuser may act extra nice one moment (e.g. saying how much they love you, buying things for you, giving compliments, doing special things for you, etc.) to show that they really are a nice, likable person who deserves love and respect and loves you, but then they may switch into abuse mode. Don't let yourself be fooled by these happy periods. Abuse is abuse even if the abuser is nice some of the time.

Methods of Abuse

Remember, any one of these methods qualifies as abuse. Don't wait for your abuser to do everything on this list before you recognize that you are being abused.

Ignoring Desires

The abuser often ignores the wishes of the victim. The abuser may believe that their opinions and decisions are more important than the victim's, even with the victim is fully capable of making their own decisions about the matter. Some abusers ignore the victim's wishes just out of selfishness, only wanted to do what the abuser wants to do.

Examples: "I don't care if you want to [work in a different career, cut your hair, buy the red car, ...] because you need to [do what I want you to do] instead." "I don't want to do that, so we're going to do this instead."


Calling somebody a name, telling them that they are less significant than somebody else, comparing them to undesirable people or animals, or suggesting that they are fundamentally messed up is abusive. It doesn't matter if you say it nicely or if you're just trying to help that person get motivated to change. Even something said as a joke can be abusive.

Examples: "You're [stupid, defective, unlikable, unlovable, a mistake, retarded, brain damaged, a pig, a slob, a klutz, just like your uncle (who possesses qualities the abuser dislikes), ...]." "You can't do anything right." "Why are you so [lazy, boring, ...]?"

Constant Criticism

Some criticism can be useful, but when criticism starts happening every day or during every conversation, the constructive criticism turns abusive. Some criticism is obviously intended to be insulting. The criticism may include any aspect of life, from your hairstyle to how you raise your kids.

Examples: "Can't you [talk, act, sneeze, write, ...] like a normal person?" "Your [hair, clothes, makeup, jewelry, ...] makes you look [like a whore, fat, poor, stupid ...]." "You should [insert unwanted advice]."


Telling somebody that they are at fault for things when they actually aren't the person to blame is abusive. Most of the time, abusers do this because they want somebody to blame for their problems and aren't willing to take responsibility for their mistakes. Other times, the abuser uses blaming as insults, which may actually be intended to help the victim or to simply ensure that somebody is assigned fault for a problem.

Examples: "You're the one [making everybody miserable, making me angry, who screwed up, ...]." "You're the reason why [I couldn't have the life that I wanted, I never get to have any fun, ...]." "It's your fault that [he cheated on you, she died so young, I'm so unhappy, ...]."


Threats are used when the abuser wants to control the situation and get what they want.

Examples: "If you [do something / don't do something], I'll [leave you, hurt you, take something away from you, won't love you anymore, ...]."


The abuser may not actually hit you, but if they start yelling, screaming, throwing things, hitting walls, or slamming doors, they are creating an environment of fear to threaten and control you.

Disrespectful Speaking

Speaking to somebody with disrespect is abusive because it indicates that they are beneath you and are insignificant. Disrespectful speaking can be in the form of barking orders, sarcasm, disregarding statements, or acting annoyed for having to talk to the victim.

Banning / Ignoring / Silent Treatment / Shunning

An abuser may use banishment behavior to punish the victim. Shunning behavior includes ignoring, refusing to speak, refusing to listen, not keeping promises, and pretending the victim isn't even there. It is important to note that this behavior isn't done to protect the abuser from the victim; it's done to manipulate the victim.

Excessive Expectations

The abuser may expect the victim to do things that are more than what any other ordinary person is expected to do. If

Examples: The victim may be required to [have perfect grades, have perfect attendance, earn at least a specific amount of money, work at least a specific number of hours, have a certain job, give all of your spare time to helping them, ...].


An abuser often uses guilt to try to make the victim comply with demands. The source of guilt varies from person to person. The abuser will try to find the "guilt button" and push it.

Examples: "After all I've done for you." "But what about the time I [did something nice] for you?" "You owe me." "Your mother would die if she knew." "You're abusing your children." "God knows what you're doing." "Don't you want to [know, do the right thing, ...]?"


An abuser may publicly criticize or insult the victim. This is often done in a joking way to get other people to go along with the insults and join in on the abusive behavior.


An abuser often refuses to admit that they've made any mistakes. They may even try to turn the situation in their favor by suggesting that you are lying or have a mental problem that kept you from perceiving the situation correctly. After prolonged exposure to denying methods, the victim may eventually begin to doubt their own perceptions or memories.

Examples: "I never said that." "I never did that." "That didn't happen." "You're making it up." "You imagined it." "You're crazy." "You're exaggerating."

Trivializing Feelings

An abuser may dismiss the feelings of a victim to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes.

Examples: "You take everything too seriously." "I guess I just can't joke with you." "You're too sensitive." "You're making a big deal out of nothing." "It wasn't that bad."


An emotional abuser may actually imprison their victim to demonstrate their control over the victim. Even if the imprisonment doesn't involve physically hurting the victim, imprisonment is certainly emotional abuse and may border on physical abuse if the victim is held in unsafe or unsanitary conditions.


An abuser may take things from the victim without permission because the abuser believes that they have the right to the victim's property (implying that the victim doesn't actually have any rights).

Controlling the Victim's Behavior

The abuser may try to dictate how the victim is allowed to act, what routines they must follow, and even when to tend to bodily functions.

Controlling Property and Finances

It's fine if one person handles the finances more than the other in a relationship, but it's not acceptable for one person to have total control over the finances. Abusers may insist that the victim must ask for money or may dictate the amount of allowance the victim receives. The abuser may also keep financial information a secret and suggest that the victim has little or no ability to handle money.

The same thing goes for property. For example, an abuser may dictate who gets to drive the car and when. They may also make all the decisions about how the house will be decorated and maintained, what television shows everyone will watch, etc. They may insist that it's because they're way is the right way.

What Should I Do if I'm Being Abused?

See Defending Yourself Against Emotional and Verbal Abuse