5 Subtle (But Extremely Damaging) Forms Of Verbal Abuse

Abuse isn't always physical.

coupe arguing NEOSiAM 2021 | Keira Burton | Pexels

Most of us are aware of overt and explicit cases of verbal abuse. After a relaxing dinner at your local Italian restaurant, you hear a middle-aged man in the parking lot yelling at his middle-aged female companion: "Hurry up, you old bag, or I am leaving you in the parking lot!" 

You are taken aback. "Wow," you think, "That is one unhealthy relationship. I'm so happy I don't have that kind of connection." But then you start to think about your own relationship and wonder if it is really all that different.


Verbal abuse can be very subtle. This may be partly why many aren't sure if they are in that kind of relationship. But is it actually verbal abuse that you're experiencing on a daily basis with your partner? Or is it something else — even something healthy and normal?

Here are the lesser-known examples of verbal abuse — more subtle than the episode cited above, but nonetheless clear cases of verbal abuse, even if they are not always recognized as such.

Here are 5 subtle, but damaging, forms of verbal abuse:

1. Ghosting, or radio silencing

Your romantic partner didn't break up with you, but despite some evidence of an ongoing relationship with them, they completely ignore you. They do not reply to your text messages, FaceTime calls, or emails. Or, if you live together, they don't reply when you talk to them. Despite there being nothing "verbal" about these cases, they are still cases of verbal abuse — and a rather severe form. Not responding to a person or ignoring a person on purpose is a kind of verbal abuse. Or if you don't like that terminology, call it emotional or psychological abuse.


2. Passive-aggressive behavior

There are too many cases of passive-aggressive behavior to cover here. But here is one telling example: You turn in a report to your boss. He or she reads it and tells you that you did a good job (a compliment), but then adds that the report was "almost as good as Mike's" (a subtle insult).



3. Mind reading

Your romantic partner comes across as knowing better than you what kind of person you are. He or she confidently tells you that you are "immature," "unreliable," or "untrustworthy." One indication that this is verbal abuse is that there is a lack of cited and fair evidence.

Verbal abuse tends to hit hard without a fair trial. A partner or colleague may call you "irresponsible," "inconsistent," or "incoherent" without providing any evidence. Had there been evidence, it might have been a fair criticism. Without evidence, let's just call it what it is — verbal abuse.


4. On and off behavior

Your partner constantly breaks up with you over almost nothing, such as subtle differences of opinion or mildly disagreeable behavior. Constantly breaking up with someone and not really meaning it is a kind of abuse. In a very straightforward sense, it is verbal abuse: Those breakup words sting every single time.

5. Hot talk about others

Your exclusive romantic partner turns his or her head whenever an attractive person of the opposite sex walks by (or someone of the same sex if you're in a same-gendered relationship). This is hurtful to an exclusive partner, and therefore abusive, especially if done deliberately. But it is not verbal. When it's verbal abuse, it sounds more like this: 

Lisa: That was a really good movie. I loved it.
Ron: I am glad to hear that. The lead actress is just so hot. Oh my god, her legs are unbelievable. 
Lisa: Yeah ... she's not bad. 

Talking romantically about other people when you're in an exclusive relationship (without the other person's consent or participation) is verbal abuse. In most cases, it hurts a partner. It usually also makes him, or her, feel inferior. Talking about hot women, or other guys' muscles, is not good relationship behavior. It's psychologically damaging. It's verbal abuse, even if it wasn't intended to be.


If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety as a result of ongoing emotional abuse, you are not alone.

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone and is not a reflection of who you are or anything you've done wrong. If you feel as though you may be in danger, there is support available 24/7/365 through the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-7233. 

If you’re unable to speak safely, text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474, or log onto thehotline.org.


Berit “Brit” Brogaard, D.M.Sci., Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami. Her work has been featured on Huffington Post, MSNBC, Daily Mail, TIME, Psychology Today, Psyche Magazine, and ABC News, among many others.