Verbal Violence: When Words Wound

Debra Littlejohn Shinder

Have you ever been wounded by words? I have, and most of you who are reading this probably have, too. As children, you might have recited the familiar rythme: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." Even then, you probably sensed that it wasn't true.

I know there have been times when I've hurt my friends, spouse, parents, children with careless words that I spoke without thinking, or those that accidentally slipped out in a moment of anger. They've done the same to me. But there are people who deliberately use words as weapons, with the intent of inflicting as much emotional injury as possible. The things they say don't just feel like a slap in the face; they feel like a knife twisting in the gut.

I have a friend who recently married for the second time. Her new husband is a great guy -- most of the time. But lately when they have an argument, he calls her horrible names, accuses her of every sin known to man, says cruel things about her children, her pets, her parents, her friends, condemns her for her political and religious beliefs, and generally unloads a barrage of heavy ammunition so devastating that it leaves her feeling physically assaulted, even though he has never lifted a finger against her.

Her first husband used to do the same thing. So did the boyfriend with whom she had a long-term live-in relationship between marriages. "Aha," popular wisdom would have us say at this point, "and I'll bet her father did it to her first, and she's subconsciously seeking out men just like dear old dad." An easy explanation, and a logical one -- but in this case it's inaccurate. She relates that her father was, in fact, the type who retreated into silence when he was angry. The madder he was, the less he said. Her mother was much the same. She never heard them speak a mean word to each other, and they didn't berate or castigate her and her siblings; instead they withdrew emotionally when they were displeased. So there goes the theory that she's picking verbally abusive men in response to old family patterns.

Or does it? Could it be that she is just as trapped by the subconscious need to love someone who is dramatically unlike her parents as those are who persist in duplicating abusive parental behavior? Is the removal of affection and communication as punishment for misdeeds a form of abuse itself -- albeit a more subtle one than verbal abuse, which in turn is less obviously abhorrent than physical abuse? Did she learn as a child to prefer attention, even negative attention, over no attention at all?

Maybe. But if that's true, then what's *my* excuse? I had a great set of parents, and was the typical SBOC (spoiled brat only child). I always considered myself a strong person, an intelligent person. But I, too, lived with verbal violence for almost ten years. My ex-husband has a drinking problem, and when he drank, he became unreasonable, bitter, and angry -- and sometimes he crossed that line that separates benign criticism and verbal abuse. Like my friend's husband, he never hit anyone, but there were times when I thought he might as well have. The onslaught of profanities and false accusations took both a physical and mental toll.

What is abuse, anyway? And more specifically, how do we define verbal abuse in the context of a long term relationship? What one person calls "abuse" may seem like normal interaction to someone else. To me, "verbal violence" is something that goes far beyond the boundaries of "fair fighting." It's defined not so much by the particular words spoken as by the intent of the speaker. In the legal world, there are at least two elements that have to be proven in order to convict a person of an offense. One is the act itself, but along with that you have to prove a culpable mental state, and that's what I mean by "intent." The object of violence, verbal or otherwise, is to do harm. Verbal violence can take many forms.

Verbal abuse is unjustified, unremitting harsh criticism. Criticism is unjustified when you are criticizing someone for doing exactly what you told or asked them to do. "He said not to bother doing his laundry, then when his boss called and asked him to come in on Saturday unexpectedly, he got mad at me because his favorite shirt wasn't clean." Criticism is unjustified when you are criticizing for something that was in the past, for which the person has already apologized and promised not to do anymore, and hasn't done anymore.

"When we were about to get married, I got cold feet, and I did something stupid -- I had a 'last fling.' Then I did something even more stupid -- I confessed to it. He said he forgave me, and that was over a year ago. I've been completely faithful to him ever since, but every time we have an argument, about anything, he brings that up, and he calls me a slut and a whore." Criticism is unjustified when it is criticism of the person's character for holding a particular political, religious, or lifestyle belief -- a belief that you knew of and accepted in them when you married them.

"He's a Republican and I've always been a Democrat. That was never a problem between us when we were going together. But now, no matter what we're fighting about, he ends up calling me a 'left-wing bleeding-heart liberal' or tells me how stupid I am to support the Democratic party." Criticism is harsh when it is out of proportion to the "crime" committed. Most would agree that the husband who yells, "You ugly, stupid, worthless, lazy-assed bitch!" in response to discovering that his wife forgot to take his shirts to the laundry is criticizing harshly.

Criticism is unremitting when it occurs over and over, and/or goes on for an extended length of time. My friend told me how her husband had followed her through the house, up and down stairs and out into the yard, repeating the above sentiments, for over fifteen minutes, and only stopped when a neighbor looked out her front door to see what was going on. Why do men do this to me," my friend wailed. "Why did John do it when I was married to him? Why is Jim doing it now? Are all men that way? Or is it ME?"

Are all men that way? No. But there are a lot of men and women who never learned how to handle anger, and many of these people have a great deal of anger stored up inside that needs to be handled. Essentially, they've never grown up, and when the stresses of everyday life build up, instead of finding constructive outlets for their tension, they erupt into temper tantrums like little children.

Why do they do it to her? Why did my ex do it to me? I think they do it because they CAN. It happens one time, in a fit of anger, and if she doesn't leave, if she doesn't strike back with the same level of cruelties of her own, if she doesn't stand up and say "I deserve not to be verbally abused," then they do it again. And each time, it gets easier for him, and each time, he feels a little less guilt and remorse over it. And after a while, everytime he feels mad at the world, or mad at himself, he knows that he can "safely" direct that anger at his wife, and get away with it.

"At first, he would always apologize afterward," my friend said sadly. "He would bring me flowers the next day, and be so sweet and attentive, and swear he was never going to do it again. "He still says he's sorry, but his apologies seem less and less sincere. Sometimes he denies that what he said was really 'all that bad,' and sometimes he says he doesn't remember *what* he said. This time he didn't apologize at all, just gave me a hang-dog look, almost like I was the one who should be feeling sorry for him."

I know that look very well. I also know how the violence escalates; the cruel words are said more frequently until the abuser becomes comfortable with his (or her) behavior and no longer even feels guilty about it. The abused, however, rarely becomes comfortable with being the target of violence. And there's where the hope lies, that perhaps the cycle can be stopped. "I love him, but I don't know how much more of this I can take." At some point, when the pain gets to be too much, you have only two choices. You can give up and resign yourself to a lifetime of repeated abuse, or you can stand up and say "I deserve not to be abused." And if the abuser refuses to seek help to stop the abuse, you can leave.

Words can be weapons, and they can kill love just as surely as guns and knives can mortally wound the body. I could tell my friend to leave her husband, but others have given that same advice to no avail. Perhaps someday she will, like she left her first husband, but she hasn't yet given up hope on this marriage. I could tell her of the possibility that one day he'll cross the line from verbal to physical abuse, but I know what she'd say. "I know he'd never hit me," she declares.

I "knew" that about my ex, too, and he never did. But when I saw his verbal outbursts progress to throwing things, then breaking furniture, I had to admit that it was a possibility. I can tell her that, but she won't believe me until she sees it for herself. So I tell her the only thing that I know to be true: "You deserve to not be abused." It wasn't like this in the beginning. He was my Prince Charming. He swept me off my feet, showered me with gifts, made me feel so special. Now he's like a whole different person." But is he really? Should she, in fact, be surprised that a man who declares his love and approval in the most extreme fashion would also express his anger and disapproval in equally dramatic ways? It's not only men who are verbally abusive; women can use the same vicious techniques, belittling, emasculating, and emotionally annihilating their husbands, lovers, and children. I once worked with a man whose wife berated him constantly, and did it in front of family and friends. I wondered how he could put up with it, why he continued to allow her to embarrass and humiliate him.

Of course, I knew why. The same reason I put up with it. The same old answer: "I love her." Love is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't change the fact that he deserves not to be abused. Are most of us sometimes verbally/emotionally abusive to those we love? To an extent, probably so. Who among us has never lost his/her temper and said things we shouldn't have, that hurt people we loved? Where do we draw the line between what's "normal" and what's not? Can you be a "little" abusive, or is that like being "a little pregnant?"

I remarried, and I have a pretty good marriage now. I get mad at my husband and he gets mad at me. Sometimes we each say things that aren't nice, that we wish we could take back. But these incidents are fleeting, and they don't cross that invisible line where the wounds inflicted by words are fatal to our relationship. I think that's because we both know and believe and agree on one thing: we deserve to not be abused.

What do the chronically abused and the chronic abuser have in common? If you look at both their lives, and at their personalities closely, you'll find one similarity in just about every case: low self-esteem. And if you think about the times when you made hurtful, unjustified remarks to your loved ones, it's likely that it happened during times when you weren't feeling very good about yourself. So maybe the solution to the problem lies there, and the secret to putting an end to this vicious cycle is for one (or preferably both) of the parties to learn to love him/herself. If the abuser could do that, there would be no more abuse. If the abused could do that, there would be no more abuse of *her* (or him), because it wouldn't be tolerated.

Abusers have to take responsibility for their actions, and then take action to learn new ways of dealing with anger. That usually means getting professional help. How can a victim make an abuser want to do that? Maybe by taking responsibility for his or her *inaction*, and having the courage to say: I deserve to not be abused. To do that, you have to ask yourself some hard questions:

What constitutes abuse to you? Where do you draw the line?
Are you being or have you been verbally abused by somebody you love?
Do you believe you deserved it?
Do you or have you verbally abused someone else?
Do you believe they deserved it?
What can you do, right now, to stop the cycle of abuse?

Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a former police sergeant and a law enforcement trainer / writer, who has taught crisis intervention, domestic violence dispute mediation, and child abuse investigation at police academies and in community college criminal justice programs in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

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