Signs of Verbal Abuse: Patterns To Watch For

Verbal abuse is a form of emotional harm, often prevalent in toxic relationships, where one partner uses words to control, belittle, or psychologically manipulate the other.

Verbal abuse is when a person uses their words to dominate, assault, ridicule, manipulate, and degrade another person, negatively impacting their psychological and mental health. Verbal abuse is a method for a person to control and keep power over another person.

Young man screaming with alphabet letters flying out of mouth

Verbal abuse also includes roughness that is not explicitly directed at people but is used to scare, like slamming doors, throwing things, or destroying belongings.

Victims of verbal abuse often do not “hear” their partner’s words as abusive. Most people assume they would know about it if they were verbally abused.

People think, “That is just how they talk,” or think nothing of it because verbal abuse slivered into our minds and hearts early in life. After all, verbal abuse often involves screaming, yelling, name-calling, and belittling behaviors.

Nevertheless, there is so much more to verbal abuse than people realize. Some people are verbally abused regularly without even recognizing that it is happening.

It can occur in any relationship, including romantic, family, parent-child, and even co-worker relationships. These behaviors are just as severe as other forms of abuse and may damage self-worth and well-being.

Every relationship is different, and indications of emotional and verbal abuse may not be evident from the start.

Verbally abusive people often seem to be excellent partners, and behaviors may arise slowly or suddenly. Verbal abuse often occurs in relationships before physical abuse; yet, this is not always true.

Remember, verbal abuse can happen without the presence of physical abuse. However, the effects of verbal abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse.

Verbal and emotional abuse can sometimes be used interchangeably, but they are two different forms of abuse with distinct characteristics that might overlap.

Verbal abusers use language to hurt the other person, which could involve speaking violently or aggressively, and it could also mean not saying a single word.

Some common forms of verbal abuse include withholding, countering, and discounting. On the other hand, emotional abuse utilizes hurtful tactics rooted in one’s emotions to take control of and mistreat the victim.

Some common forms of emotional abuse include criticism, humiliation, and control.

Difference Between Verbal Abuse & Common Argument

As we know, people get into arguments from time to time. Sometimes, we lose our cool and yell; it is all part of being human. However, verbal abuse is not normal.

Being involved in a verbally abusive relationship can wear someone down and seem ordinary to them. 

These are some examples of what normal disagreements look like:

  • They do not happen every day.
  • Arguments revolve around a primary issue.
  • They do not turn into opportunities to name-call or personally attack someone.
  • Even if you cannot agree, both can compromise or move on without punishment or threats.
  • One listens and tries to understand the other’s position, even when one is angry.
  • One of you may scream or yell or say something genuinely awful out of frustration, but it is an unusual occurrence, and you both tend to work through it together.
  • Arguments are not a zero-sum game: One person will not win to harm the other.

This list is full of red flags when the other person engages in these behaviors during an argument:

  • They frequently yell or scream at you.
  • Arguments take one by surprise, but one gets blamed for starting them.
  • They save their hurtful behaviors and remarks for when you two are alone but act totally different when others are around.
  • They insult or attempt to humiliate you and then say it was a joke, and you have no sense of humor or accuse you of being overly sensitive.
  • The initial disagreement sets off a case of accusations and brings up unrelated issues to put you in the defense.
  • They attempt to set you up to make you feel guilty and position themselves as the “victim.”
  • They get into your personal space, move too close to you, or block you from moving away.
  • They pound their fists, hit the wall, or throw and break things.
  • They want recognition for not having hit you.

Signs of Verbal Abuse

Let us go over the main signs and descriptions of verbal abuse:

1. Name-Calling

Name-calling is harmful, whether it is a romantic relationship, a parent-child relationship, or a bully on the playground.

Anytime a person engages in name-calling, it is a form of verbal abuse. Even if the words are said in a neutral voice, it is not fair treatment of another individual.

Sometimes obvious, sometimes masked as “pet names” or “teasing,” regular name-calling is a method of belittling someone.

Some examples:

  • “How can you not understand? You are just too dumb.”
  • “I now understand why everyone calls you a jerk.”

2. Condescension

Condescension is another attempt to belittle a person. The abuser’s comments can be arrogant, sarcastic, and patronizing. It is all to make themselves feel superior.

Some examples:

  • “I will explain this slowly so someone like you can understand what I am saying.”
  • “I know you think you look good in that dress, but I really think you should change because you look bad.”

3. Criticism

There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism. However, in a verbally abusive relationship, it is particularly harsh and persistent in an attempt to chip away at your self-esteem.

Some examples:

  • “Everything is always my fault, right? You are always upset about something, which is why nobody likes you, and I cannot stand you.”
  • “You messed up again, and no one is surprised because you cannot do anything right. You are useless.”

4. Degradation

Abusers want you to feel horrible and inadequate about yourself. They use shame and humiliation to degrade you and eat away your confidence.

Some examples:

  • “Before I came into your life, you were nothing. If I leave, you will be nothing without me again.”
  • “Take a look at yourself. Who else would want you? So embarrassing.”

5. Manipulation

Manipulation is a method to try and make you do something without making it a direct order. Please make no mistake: it controls you and keeps you off-balance.

Some examples:

  • “If you do that, it shows you do not care about your family and us, and everyone will see it.”
  • “You would do this for me if you truly loved me.”

6. Blame

As humans, we are all at fault for something once in a while. Nevertheless, a verbally abusive person accuses you of their behavior. They want you to think that you bring verbal abuse on yourself.

Some examples:

  • “I hate getting into these fights, but you make me like this. I am so mad!”
  • “I have to yell because it is the only way you will listen to me. You are so unreasonable and stupid!”

7. Accusations

If someone is constantly accusing you of things, they may be jealous. Alternatively, perhaps they are the ones guilty of that conduct.

Either way, it can make a person question whether they are doing something inappropriate.

Some examples:

  • “Why did you look at them like that? You would be lying if you told me there is nothing going on there.”
  • “Give me your cell phone. It should not be a problem if you have nothing to hide.”

8. Isolation

This is when they refuse to talk to you, or look you in the eye, or refuse to even be in the same room with you. It is meant to make you work harder to get their attention.

Some examples:

  • You express or do something they do not like at a companion’s house. They proceed to storm out and sit in the car without a word, leaving you to explain and say goodbye to your hosts.
  • They know you need to communicate who is picking up the kids or making dinner, but they decline to answer your communication.

9. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a methodical effort to make you doubt your version of events. It can even make you apologize for something that is not your fault. It can also make one more dependent on the abuser.

Some examples:

  • You remember an event, agreement, or argument, and the abuser refuses it happened. They may tell you it is all in your head, you dreamed it, or you are making it up.
  • They inform other people that you are absentminded or have emotional issues to solidify the illusion.

10. Circular Arguments

It is common for two people to disagree or argue about the same thing more than once until they find common ground.

However, abusers will reignite that age-old argument repeatedly to push your buttons, never planning to meet in the middle.

Some examples:

  • Your career requires you to put in overtime without notice. Every time it happens, the discussion about your lateness starts anew.
  • You have made it apparent that you are not ready for children, but your partner brings it up every month.

11. Threats

Outright threats can suggest that verbal abuse will escalate. They are meant to scare you into submission.

Some examples:

  • “If you actually do that, no one would blame me for how I would react.”
  • “When you come home from work, you might find a ‘for sale’ sign on the yard, and I could just be gone far away with the kids.”

Impact of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse can affect every aspect of life. This can include academic performance, work/career success, and any relationship.

It is just like any other type of abuse or bullying. Verbal abuse has both short-term and long-term consequences that include the following mental health issues:

  • Chronic stress
  • Anxiety
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Substance use
  • Changes in mood
  • Depression
  • Feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness
  • PTSD
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

When verbal abuse is especially severe, it can impact whether or not people can see themselves as successful in any area of life.

Children who experience verbal abuse may experience feelings of worthlessness, difficulty trusting others, and problems regulating their emotions as adults.

Several studies have proven that kids who are verbally abused, either by their peers at school or home, are at a greater risk for anxiety and depression as adults.

It is not uncommon for a verbally abused person to feel inferior, stupid, and useless. In a few cases, the victims are explicitly told they have these qualities by the individual abusing them.

Verbal abuse can be incredibly confusing because the other person may not always be abusive, and their behavior likely arises slowly over time. This can make verbal abuse something truly insidious and subtle. 

Therefore, when the abuser is caring and gentle, the victim forgets about the adverse behavior.

Ultimately, the victim forgives the verbal abuse pattern or justifies the behavior, stating that the abuser is “going through a difficult time at the moment” or “just stressed.”

Dealing with Verbal Abuse

The beginning step in dealing with verbal abuse is by recognizing it. By placing a name to one’s experience from it, one can begin to find help and support.

Remember that verbal abuse could be a precursor to physical hurt. Preparing for both emotional safety and physical safety is essential.

It is important to be completely honest with yourself and acknowledge verbal abuse when it is happening to take the first critical step to deal with it effectively.

As always, a good advice is to trust your instincts, that “gut” feeling. It probably is not if one senses that something does not feel right. One can also use the information you have learned from this article to help identify the different signs of verbal abuse.

Practice Self-Care

Take the time every day, if you can, to practice self-care, even if it is only for a few moments. To the capacity you can, provide yourself with alleviation from the stress.

Remind yourself of your worth and value and that you deserve care. Being abused is never your fault.

See a therapist: Speaking to a mental health professional is an excellent way to deal with verbal abuse. Therapists can offer sound guidance and help you heal from the trauma.

Make Distance

Do not try to change them. It is best to accept that you probably will not change the abuser’s behavior, nor is it your responsibility.

If it is safe to do so, set boundaries and enforce them. Tell the abuser you will no longer accept this kind of treatment.

Decline to engage in any abusive behavior and walk away if they try. Try to spend as little time as possible with abusive people. Rather, spend time with people who are kind and support you. 

End contact entirely: It is not always possible, such as if you have children together, but if you can, cut off communication entirely from verbally abusive people.

Create a Supportive Network

It may be challenging to share with someone about your experience, but having a trustworthy friend or therapist can be calming and helpful while dealing with verbal abuse.

They might be able to help you make a plan. 

Please do not suffer alone: while verbally abusive people may try to separate you, it is crucial to spend time with people you trust, such as close friends and family, for support.

Make a Safety Exit Plan

If you are worried there might be consequences if you take significant steps to escape verbal abuse, you should make a safety plan first. You may need to leave a relationship to maintain your safety, but you may not be ready to take significant steps.

Instead, create smaller goals to reach out and speak to someone about your actions or find help to develop a sense of control and safety. 

Create a safety plan:

  1. Try calling a local resource.
  2. Use caution with your phone and computer.
  3. Make a list of whom you can call, places you can go, and the steps you can take to ensure your safety.


Verbal abuse is quite common. However, it should not be considered normal. Hopefully, the information in this article will help you recognize verbal abuse more effectively to ensure that you are always treated well in relationships and by others.

Healing takes time, but it’s important not to isolate yourself. Reach out and talk to supportive family members and friends.

If you are in school, talking to a teacher or guidance counselor could be good. If you think it will help, find a therapist to help you recover.


Сalmerry. (2022, March 15). How to recognize verbal abuse: 12 common types. Calmerry. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from

Gordon, S. (n.d.). What are the signs of verbal abuse? Verywell Mind. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from

Pietrangelo, A. (2019, March 29). What is verbal abuse? . Healthline. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Mia Belle Frothingham

Harvard Graduate

B.A., Sciences and Psychology

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard University graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Sciences with minors in biology and psychology