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  • Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are often used interchangeably, but while they might overlap, they are two different forms of abuse with distinct characteristics.
  • Verbal abusers use language to hurt another person; this might involve speaking aggressively or violently, or it could mean not saying a single word.
  • A few common forms of verbal abuse include withholding, countering, and discounting.
  • Emotional abuse, on the other hand, utilizes hurtful tactics that are rooted in one’s emotions to manipulate and mistreat the victim.
  • A few common forms of emotional abuse include criticism, humiliation, and control.
  • If the abuse is primarily characterized by the use of language to tear a victim down, it’s probably verbal abuse; if verbal abuse is one of many tactics used against a victim, it’s likely emotional abuse instead.

We sometimes use the terms “verbal abuse” and “emotional abuse” interchangeably… but we shouldn’t. Because while they might overlap, verbal abuse and emotional abuse are two very different forms of abuse, with distinct characteristics and effects. Let’s understand the differences between the two:

Verbal Abuse: The Aggressive Use or Suppression of Language

Verbal abuse is the use of language to hurt or tear down another person; it is a means of maintaining control over someone. This verbal abuse often comes in the form of aggressive words, but it can also be the suppression of language used to hurt or dehumanize another individual.

This form of abuse is not always characterized the same way. To put it into perspective, it may be an enraged man yelling at his wife or it could just as easily be an enraged man ignoring his wife. The following are a few common forms and signs of verbal abuse:

1) Withholding: Withholding involves concealing information, thoughts, and feeling. Those who employ this form of verbal abuse refuse to engage in healthy conversations with their partner. And anything that they do share with their partners is pointless or obvious.

    Here’s an example: Brooke comes home from work and ignores her boyfriend’s greetings. Confused, he asks why she isn’t talking to him. She continues to ignore him and interrupts her silence only to say that she put the keys in the kitchen.

2) Countering: This is the more aggressive form of verbal abuse, as countering is the tendency to start an argument or be confrontational. It involves habitually and regularly discounting the victim’s thoughts and feelings.

    Here’s an example: Sarah mentions the construction projects that were recently proposed in her neighborhood. She expresses her concern for traffic that will surely prolong the trip to the kids’ school every morning. Her husband looks at her, annoyed, and tells her that she’s stupid—he insists that it won’t have any effect on the drive to school, and she’s dumb for thinking it would.

3) Discounting: This involves denying the victim the right to his or her feelings. The abuser may tell the victim that he or she is too sensitive, too immature, or has no sense of humor. The point of attack is to reject the victim’s feelings and to make them think they’re in the wrong.

    Here’s an example: Andrea starts crying after her boyfriend calls her an idiot for the hundredth time. He tells her to stop crying, that it was just a joke. She starts to question why she took it so seriously.

Verbal abuse can also involve judgment, trivialization, threats, heightened anger, and denial of any of the previously mentioned actions.

Emotional Abuse: The Ultimate Manipulation

Emotional abuse, too, involves attempting to control another person, but primarily uses emotion instead of language to achieve this. These abusers are not typically aware of their abusive tendencies, only of their feelings that lead to the abuse such as their insecurities.

This form of abuse is typically a combination of hurtful tactics used on the victim, including intimidation and shaming. Additionally, some of these tell-tale signs of emotional abuse are similar to those of verbal abuse. Here are a few examples:

1) Criticism and manipulation: Abusers criticize their victims constantly and also manipulate them into believing they deserve the criticism or that they are in the wrong.

    Here’s an example: John accidentally throws his dad’s new suit into the washing machine, only noticing her mistake when he pulls it back out an hour later… ruined. His father is enraged and criticizes John for the rest of the night for being “so careless.” John feels horrible and knocks himself for being yes, “so careless.

2) Humiliation: The abuser relentlessly puts the victim down in front of other people.

    Here’s an example: Jess and Max are going out with their friends to celebrate Jess’s job promotion. Max makes a toast and tells his girlfriend how proud he is of her. She responds by “joking” that he’ll never be as successful as she is… and that he’s lucky she can afford to pay their rent each month.

3) Control: Emotional abusers often try to control their victims however they can, whether that be financially or socially.

    Here’s an example: Matthew tells his girlfriend Malia that he’s going to visit an old friend for the weekend. She responds by throwing a fit, saying that he can’t—she doesn’t know this guy, so he’s not allowed to hang out with him. After the tears start flowing down her cheeks, he gives in and calls his friend to tell him they’ll have to reschedule.

In addition to these tactics, emotional abuse also can involve mind games, isolation, and excuses for the unacceptable behavior.

A Differential Breakdown

Verbal and emotional abuse can be hard to tell apart, as the line between them is often blurred. But perhaps the best way to determine the form of abuse is to look at all of the signs we talked about. Is verbal abuse one of many tactics used to control an individual? If so, then it probably goes further than the verbal abuse and is actually emotional abuse. However, if the abuse is primarily characterized by the hurtful use of language, then the issue at hand is likely a case of verbal abuse.

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is a staff writer at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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