By Helene Cooper, LCSW-C
Most of us think of abuse as using physical force or the threat of physical harm to control or manipulate another person. Movies, television dramas, and news reports encourage us to recognize the very real threat of domestic violence in relationships. It’s much harder to identify, and to act on, the potential for harm related to words. Words have incredible power, especially when used to inspire, encourage, and spark positive actions. The darker side of that power is the use of words to wound, damage, and humiliate others.
Verbal abuse happens in many different settings, and at times seems all too common in our highly competitive society. We live in a culture of “one-upmanship.” In business, defeating, putting down, manipulating, and intimidating another are often considered to be legitimate “fair game” power plays. Unfortunately, when these tactics are used in the context of what is supposed to be a loving relationship, the consequences can be devastating.
This blog is directed to women who have been hurt and wounded by words, and think that the fact that they have not suffered physical damage means that they have not been abused. If you have felt attacked, controlled, or manipulated by your intimate partner’s words, you need to know that this counts as a particularly stealthy form of abuse.
Stealthy, because verbal abuse leaves wounds that are not visible, and are sometimes harder to recognize and acknowledge. Stealthy, because it often occurs behind closed doors, and the abuser can maintain a public persona as a good and loving partner. Only the person being abused is able to experience the pain and sadness of how dysfunctional their relationship has become. While all abuse stems from a power imbalance, where one person has control over another, we experience verbal abuse as severe emotional and psychological pain. While physical abuse leads to intense fear of being seriously hurt, verbal abuse leads to the pain of confusion and self-doubt. Once confusion and self-doubt set in, it becomes harder to trust your own instincts, and harder to protect yourself from further abuse.
As women, we tend to make excuses for our partner’s behaviors, saying “he doesn’t mean it” or “he’s just having a tough day.” Unfortunately, when harsh, critical, humiliating, and controlling words continue, we then shift to thinking “maybe it’s me,” “maybe it’s my fault,” maybe there really is something wrong with me.” It’s important to recognize the abuser as the one who is wrong, the one with the problem, unable to love in a healthy way, and that it has nothing to do with you. If you feel shame about how you are being treated, try to shift your thinking to realize that your partner is the one who should feel ashamed.
Your job is to take care of yourself, and to get support to build your self-esteem, especially when you are being put down by the person you love. It may be hard to let friends and family know what you are experiencing, but talking to people who love you might help you remember your own worth and value.
Additional support is available through CHANA (Helpline 410-234-0030) and Jewish Community Services (410-466-9200). Counseling can help you learn coping skills to build resilience and strength, and help you find your own voice. There are also websites devoted to exploring the issue of verbal abuse. Author Patricia Evans’ website, www.verbalabuse.com, is particularly good, with information on resources, books, and access to an online support group.
The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is unfortunately not true. As Robert Fulgrum wrote, “Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” Protect your heart, and get the help you need.
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.