20 Jun How To Tell If Your Relationship Is Verbally Abusive

Is verbal abuse poisoning your relationship? When you feel angry or stressed, do you act like it’s a licence to say mean, controlling, manipulative, or just outright abusive stuff? Are bad tempers, outbursts, rude comments, or put-downs common? Do you expect your partner to backdown, apologise, or “roll over” on an issue, before you’ll stop being mad? Are you nice to your partner in public, but spiteful, controlling, or withholding of love and kindness when you’re alone together?

Couple with their backs turned to each other sitting on couch

The above might not describe you, but does it describe how you experience your partner?

In either case, verbal abuse may be poisoning your relationship. Verbal abuse is relationship poison and is never OK.

Healthy relationships are ones where one or both partners know how to be angry in a way that doesn’t harm the other. Strong emotions should never justify treating each other badly.

Healthy relationships can’t happen when verbal abuse is present.

No exceptions.

What keeps verbal abusive alive in a relationship is that it is usually hidden. Often, it literally happens only behind closed doors.

The abuser can’t change until he or she realises and acknowledges that his or her current behaviour is actually abusive, and learns how to feel empowered in new healthy ways.

And the partner of an abuser can’t change until he or she realises that he or she is actually being verbally abused, and learns how to take a healthy stand against it.

The following list from “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” by Patricia Evans will help you clarify what verbal abuse actually is. Be clear: healthy relationships do not involve any of the following behaviours.

I’ll refer to them in the first person, so if the behaviour describes you, you’re the abuser.

On the other hand, if the behaviour describes your partner, you’re the abused.

Note that it’s not always just one or the other. You might both be both: abuser and abused.


I don’t share who I really am. I keep my thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams to myself. I’ll be aloof, indifferent, disconnected. When my partner asks me to share more of myself, I’ll say stuff like “There’s nothing to talk about!”, or “What are you complaining about?”, or “Here you go again criticising me… leave me alone!


I argue against my partner’s thoughts and perceptions in a way that denies his or her reality. I don’t accept that my partner might simply have a different view. I’ll say stuff like “You’re wrong”, or “That’s ridiculous… You can’t prove it!”


I deny and distort my partner’s reality and experience, including his or her perception of my abuse, with comments like “You’re too sensitive!”, “You can’t take a joke!”, or “You blow everything out of proportion!”


I decide what can and can’t be discussed. I’ll say things like “Get off my back! Just drop it!” or “I don’t see where this is heading. This discussion is over!”


I blame my partner for my own anger, irritation, or insecurity, with comments like “It’s YOU who has made me this angry!”, or “I’ve had it with your complaining… you’re driving me crazy!”


I act like I’m the authority on my partner’s faults, saying stuff like “The trouble with you is…”, or “You are stupid/crazy” or “You are such a loser”


I say things that imply my partner is insignificant. For example, I’ll say “You’re putting a lot of time into this new little hobby” (referring to partners important new business that he or she really cares a lot about)


I make comments that deliberately dampen my partner’s interest and enthusiasm about something. For example, if he or she says “What a great movie!”, I’ll say “Whatever. It’s just a movie. What are you, a movie critic now?”


I’ll manipulate my partner by bringing up his or her greatest fears, with threats of consequences like “Do what I want or I’ll leave/have an affair/get really angry/hit you…” Basically, I’ll say “If you (X) I’ll (Y)”


You know what this is. All offensive name calling is verbally abusive and is never OK.


I deny and manipulate facts, events, conversations, agreements, with statements like “I don’t know what you are talking about… I never agreed to anything…”, or “That’s not how it happened, you’re crazy!”


I deny our respective autonomy and equality and instead act like I am the boss, with orders like “You’re not going out now. Get back inside”, or “Get in here and clean this up”


I deny the reality of my partner with comments like “You’re making it all up”, “We never had that conversation”, or “You’re getting upset about nothing”


I vent my own anger on to my partner in an attempt to feel good (more powerful) at the expense of him or her feeling bad. Includes ALL yelling, screaming, ridiculing, humiliating, shaming, mocking, and sarcasm. All have no place whatsoever in a healthy adult relationship.


If you recognise your own relationship (or that of someone you care about) in any of the above, well done. The first step to changing a verbally abusive toxic relationship is to acknowledge that it is so.

If you recognise yourself as a verbal abuser, it’s time for you to learn how to feel empowered in your relationship in healthy (rather than toxic) ways. Your verbally abusive behaviour can and must stop before you can have a healthy relationship.

If you recognise yourself as the verbally abused, it’s time for you to learn how to set firm boundaries rather than continue trying to appeal to reason by explaining, apologising, rationalising, giving-in etc… which doesn’t work and so often creates the loss of self that so characterises partners of verbal abusers.

Life’s short. Don’t allow verbal abuse to poison your relationship. Start by reading Patricia’s book, then follow up with a competent marriage and relationship therapist who you trust and can work well with.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For over 20 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.