What Is Considered Verbal Abuse?

Editor's Note: Do you need relationship advice from Dr. David Hawkins, best-selling author of When Pleasing Others is Hurting You and Dealing with the CrazyMakers in Your Life? Send your questions to [email protected] to be answered in his advice column. 

We have known about domestic violence for a long time now. Most communities have laws and protocols to intervene in this form of violence, generally understood to include physical violence. While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. 

Verbal abuse, however, which is certainly a form of domestic violence, is another matter. Verbal abuse/violence takes place in many marriages, at work, school, within families, and takes place in far too many friendships. In most instances, nothing is done to intervene in this form of violence and so it continues. 

Sadly, communities have no policy regarding verbal abuse/violence. Churches have done little to intervene in this epidemic that causes untold suffering. Most couples fail to recognize and call out verbal abuse and so it is no surprise that it continues. 

What exactly is verbal violence that leads to patterns of verbal abuse? 

The simplest definition is perhaps the best: any form of communication that diminishes you. This can take the form of pervasive criticism, sarcastic comments, the dismissive wave of a hand or even stonewalling—an absence of communication that is meant to punish and control. 

While Scripture does not speak of verbal abuse per se, it has much to say about the power of words: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” (Proverbs 18: 21) Words are incredibly powerful and can “pierce like swords.” (Proverbs 12: 18)

While there are no physical scars, there are untold emotional ones. Verbal abuse causes us to doubt ourselves. It causes us to question our self-worth, feel insecure, anxious, and depressed. Verbal abuse and verbal violence is pervasive and incredibly damaging. It takes place in far too many marriages, families, and friendships and needs to be confronted and stopped. 

Recently a writer sent a question addressing concerns surrounding this issue:

Dear Dr. David,

What is considered verbal abuse in a marriage when one spouse is a Christian but the other is not?



Ann’s question is particularly interesting, not only because of the concern about verbal abuse, but because she differentiates verbal abuse from a Christian individual as opposed to one who is not. 

In fact, verbal abuse is verbal abuse, regardless of the perpetrator’s faith. Bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of any specific aspect of their person. It is a horrifically inappropriate to use power and control to force one’s will on another. 

That said, let’s talk about how to intervene with verbal abuse.  

First, understand that verbal abuse is always wrong and damaging. 

It is critical to understand that verbal abuse is never justified. If your mate or friend is unhappy with your actions, they can tell you in non-coercive, non-abusive ways. They can share their feelings and express what they would like from you in a respectful manner. While you may be tempted to defend yourself when verbal abuse occurs, it is more effective to calmly confront the abuser and name the abusive action.  

Second, understand that verbal abuse is not about you. 

Naming the abusive action not only calls out the action but helps you both see that the action is not about you---it is about them. The verbally abusive person is trying to exert some control, perhaps even attempting to be heard, but doing so in an inappropriate way. 

Third, understand that you can stop the abuse. 

It is important to understand that you can put an end to verbal abuse, either by calmly confronting it repeatedly or by temporarily leaving the relationship. You must not defend yourself or criticize the one being critical. Calm, clear confrontation, done on a repeated basis, is likely to have an influence on the abuser.

Fourth, understand that change requires ongoing intervention and this takes courage. 

It is important to “hold your space” when it comes to verbal abuse. You need to be clear, concise, and feel convicted about what you are going to do, and this takes courage. The abusive person may not like being confronted and may temporarily escalate matters. However, being clear within yourself, you can hold your ground.  

Finally, understand that you must guard against abuse recurring. 

Holding your ground, you need to make stopping verbal abuse part of your daily life. Over time you can expect the abuse to stop. Understand, however, that this is largely because of your actions. You are being different in the relationship (not defending yourself and confronting the bad behavior) and this is likely to have a powerful impact.  

Are you in a verbally abusive relationship? Do you feel hurt and insecure in your marriage, family or friendship? We are available to help and would like to hear from you. We at The Marriage Recovery Center are prepared to walk with you through any challenges. Please feel free to contact me at MarriageRecoveryCenter.com or email us at [email protected].

Photo credit: ��Getty Images/gorodenkoff


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