Some time ago, a friend of mine left a verbally abusive marriage. She knows I sometimes write on women’s issues, although my commentaries are church focused. But because verbal abuse occurs in all facets of life, she thought her observations, shared below, might be of some help to some of my readers. Her original title appears with it. With permission, I have edited it in places for continuity, added a note or two, and listed recommended resources for victims of verbal abuse. I believe what she has to say is important.
I often read that “the silent treatment,” i.e., refusing to respond to a partner, is abusive, and I always think that there is another “silence” that might be confused with this. The “other silence” is the third reaction that, in my opinion, should be included in the classic “fight or flight” responses to threats. It is the survival response called “freeze.”
In a relationship in which the verbal abuser occasionally or even often exhibits one or more of the following behaviors—criticizes, orders around, “corrects” (no matter the subtlety, the artificial smile, or the tone of feigned concern), puts-down, mocks, undermines, accuses, rages, baits arguments, twists words and changes subjects when confronted by his partner for all or any of the above—there comes a point in the relationship that the abused partner “freezes,” as it were, out of self-protection.
There comes a point, after the heartbreak, the tears, the prayers, the explanations, the fear, the self-doubt, the second-guessing, the feelings of betrayal, confusion, anger, failure; after the research, the counseling, the changing of her appearance, attitude, clothes, hair… there comes a time the victim realizes: This Will Not Stop. No matter, it seems, what she does, or stops doing. (And the trouble is she knows she isn’t perfect, and she is reminded of her flaws, so guilt goads her as well.)
If her sense of self-efficacy hasn’t already been completely destroyed by the thousand little emotional hits of verbal abuse, there comes a point when she is faced with a decision. There comes a point she knows it has to end, but she may feel for the sake of others—the children, the family, the church, God, even him whom she may still love—she can’t leave, or can’t leave yet. (Many people on the outside cannot understand this, by the way, because they have no emotional connection to the abuser, they may know him only as a nice guy, and/or because they believe they would never let themselves be such a victim.)
So she does whatever she can to avoid the hits. Contrary to popular opinion, words DO break bones (just like sticks and stones), only “emotional bones,” if you will, and, just like a bone break affects other body systems, emotional hits affect other aspects of the self, too, unless something is done to fix the injury so the healing can begin. And so the victim realizes she needs to protect herself.
She speaks less and more carefully (so as not to seem to bait an argument or incite a criticism, a sarcastic response, a contradiction, or a rage) thinking that where there is no fuel perhaps the fire will go out.
In order to avoid criticisms, arguments, or put-downs, she remains neutral when it comes to daily choices: whether to stay in or go out, what to watch on television, whether or not to have people over, what to fix for dinner, how to arrange the furniture, and/or how to fix the yard. She remains neutral especially when she has her heart set on a certain thing or event so that the effort to get him to understand her point of view will cause less disappointment should he disregard her wishes or perhaps become angered. She learns to suppress her passion so that she will avoid a more painful response to the rejection that often comes unexpectedly. She participates carefully, more and more on guard.
She learns to not completely trust the good times, the occasional compliment, the way he might praise her in public, the gifts, the hugs and kisses, the greeting card sentiments—even the occasional apology– because the rug of emotional security is likely to be pulled out from underneath her at any time.
She can never quite predict his subtle and/or blatant negative reactions although she has tried. At times, in moments of candor when she thinks she is safe from a put-down or criticism and shares something personal, she may soon realize she called it wrong. She may have even said to herself, “Now, why didn’t I see THAT one coming! I’ve certainly been HERE before!” And then she vows, again, to protect herself even more.
In short, she becomes what he may at length even blame her for, and for which he may, in part, even leave her, or force her to leave him. “There’s no ‘there’ there,” he might put it, as he notes her growing loss of enthusiasm for things they once enjoyed more together. “She gives me the silent treatment!” he might complain. “She USED to be a lot more alive, a lot more fun.” He may even wonder if she no longer has passion for him. She may still have, but she has long since learned to be careful about expressing it, very careful, lest he criticize her mode of expression, or compare her however obliquely to someone else or to some “others” in general, or ignore her altogether. Or her passion may have been quickly replaced by fear, insecurity, intimidation, doubt, rage, and/or resentment, especially at first.
And if she does express her feelings, again, about the reasons why his verbally abusive responses to her engender her “less than enthusiastic responses” to him, she needs to steel herself against the accusations “You’re just too sensitive,” or “It’s all about you.”
There comes a point when this just has to end–if she can pull herself together to do something. Sadly, many can’t. The years of verbal abuse take their toll. Just as a broken bone affects other body systems, “freezing” to survive verbal abuse also affects other aspects of a person’s life. The erosion of her self-worth, self-value, and confidence in this, her primary and most vulnerable relationship, even begins to affect her initiative in other areas of her life.
Her creativity elsewhere deteriorates as she spends so much mental and emotional effort and time trying to figure out, fix, and/or just survive the constant stress of her relationship with the verbal abuser. If she was raised, as many women have been and some still are, to always defer to the man, the “head of the household,” the “stronger,” “more rational” partner (editor’s note: or as some churches teach, the spiritually superior spouse), this exacerbates the pain and adds confusion. Many just give up and live out the relationship as best they can. But sadly, verbal abuse can also escalate to physical abuse.
However, there are those who make the courageous choice of leaving no matter the cost. There is an old proverb: “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (see Proverbs 17:1, Ed. ). Not only may the woman who leaves her verbal abuser suffer materially, she may also suffer the rejection of others because her abuser may present himself outside the relationship as a nice guy. She and perhaps the children may be the only ones who know the truth—or she may be his only victim.
But if she comes to knowing it is the right time to leave, despite the emotional fallout, despite the loss of security, and/or despite the fear, she will at least be able to process it where she is free to express herself. And she will be able to get the help she needs while at the same time regaining her sense of worth and experiencing the return of her creativity and zest for life.
It may be very hard for a woman to adjust to leaving even such a damaging relationship, especially after many years, but at least as the healing progresses it will be in a place of emotional safety and freedom.
Thank you, my friend. I pray many will be helped and enlightened by your observations.
Perhaps the most frequently referenced and quoted expert in the area of verbal abuse is Patricia Evans. Here are two of her books:
The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond
Victory over Verbal Abuse: A Healing Guide to Renewing Your Spirit and Reclaiming Your Life
add, Why Does He Do That? Lundy Bancroft (who also has a helpful website)
There are other books, of course, as well as numerous professional websites and blogs on this topic. Verbal abuse is even being recognized in some churches, now, as a problem of legitimate concern.