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Is a Verbal Abuser Likely to Change?

"For a long time, I believed I had nothing of value to contribute."

Key points

  • Verbal abuse is highly motivated and consistent unlike the expression of an occasional flash of anger.
  • The need to control underlies most verbal abuse and the foundation is an imbalance of power.
  • Paradoxically, it may be difficult for the target of verbal abuse to recognize the behavior as abusive.
  • Whether or not the verbal abuser can change is dependent on him or her, not you.
Photograph by Moises Alex. Copyright free. Unpslash.
Photograph by Moises Alex. Copyright free. Unpslash.

The foundation for verbal abuse in an adult-on-adult relationship is an imbalance of power; one person has it and is highly motivated to keep it and continue to control the relationship.

It’s important to remember that verbal abuse—whether it’s of the overt or covert variety—is highly motivated and goal-oriented as well as consistent, despite the fact there will likely be so-called “honeymoon” periods where the amount of abuse decreases or stops entirely.

While the person who is the target of the verbal abuse will likely believe that the respite reflects a change of heart on the abuser’s part, the sad truth is that it’s usually a tactic to keep the target emotionally confused and hopeful and, most important, fully committed to staying in the relationship.

Understanding the Imbalance of Power in an Abusive Relationship

While a healthy and satisfying adult relationship would be based on a partnership model, in verbally abusive relationships, one person seeks to maintain control. That’s made possible by certain factors such as these:

  • One person has a greater emotional investment in the relationship than the other.
  • The abuser exploits what he or she knows about the target’s insecurities and self-doubts to control the him or her.
  • One person has greater financial resources than the other or the target is financially dependent on the abuser; each affects both the decision to stay or to leave.
  • The abuser and the target have children and the target is concerned that any action of her/his part will involve the abuser’s retaliation and that the children will be hurt emotionally or psychologically.

Verbal Abuse Can Be Subtle or Covert to Maintain Control

The culture tends to picture verbal abuse as loud, involving yelling, put-downs, name-calling, and shaming; while verbal abuse certainly can and does take these forms, it’s the more subtle forms of verbal abuse that are more likely to entrap you and render you feeling powerless. That was certainly true for Casey, now 42:

“My ex-husband never raised his voice or called me a name; instead, he undermined me at every turn in subtle ways. Plans I’d made or initiated were always changed because he had a ‘better’ idea or solution that included everything from dinner reservations to renovating our kitchen and family vacations. He dismissed any complaints I had by telling me that I was ‘sensitive to rejection’ and that I was ‘emotionally over-reactive;’ it took me years to recognize that he was effectively shutting me up and shutting me down without ever saying so. There wasn’t a single domain in our lives where he didn’t insist on having the final say and, for a long time, I honestly believed that I had little or nothing of value to contribute to him or anyone. I went into therapy and when my counselor suggested I was being abused, I pushed back and denied it but it was the truth. When I tried to talk to him about it, he laughed at me and then refused to discuss it further. I was lucky, though. I ‘only’ wasted six years of my life with him.”

Among the more difficult-to-recognize forms of verbal abuse are:

  • Blame-shifting: The abuser exploits your own self-doubts or insecurities by making whatever has happened your fault; that leaves the abuser with zero responsibility and more control and often makes you feel that you should apologize. A true sleight-of-hand.
  • Brinksmanship: Threatening you with leaving or asking why you just don’t leave if you’re so unhappy. This is enabled by the abuser’s knowledge that you aren’t ready to give up on relationship and that you’re still hopeful a corner can be turned.
  • Stonewalling or ignoring that you’ve said anything. This will put you into a defensive crouch and perhaps feeling panicked; this often ends up with your being a peacemaker and apologizing for something you didn’t do.
  • Gaslighting: Telling you that your perceptions are dead wrong or that you’re projecting or making things up. Again, this preys on your insecurities as well as your hopefulness that things will get better somehow.

Will Your Abuser Ever Change?

Again, this comes down to motivation. We’ve seen how control is established through verbal abuse so the question becomes this: What’s in it for the abuser to stop?

If you find yourself in this situation, do speak to a counselor about strategies and what he or she thinks can happen given the nature of the relationship. Be cognizant of the possibility that confronting your verbal abuser may lead to escalation and remember that verbal abuse is always the foundation for physical abuse even if your relationship has never included it.

Do examine your expectations and ask yourself the following questions, answering as honestly as you can:

  • Is he/she willing to acknowledge the verbal abuse without resorting to defensiveness or blame-shifting?
  • Is he/she willing to hear you out thoughtfully without pushing back, dismissing your remarks, objecting, or starting a fight?
  • Will he/she accept your pointing out verbal abuse and instituting respectful boundaries?
  • Is he/she willing to go into counseling and commit to working on change?
  • Is he/she willing to work on new ways of communicating and resolving conflict?
  • Is he/she willing to commit to a partnership model of relationship?
  • Is he/she willing to commit to a series of steps you mutually decide on if he/she backslides into old behaviors?
  • If there are children involved and they have been targets, is he/she willing to apologize for past behaviors and willing to work on acquiring new parenting skills?

The truth is that if the answers to any of these questions is “no,” it will not be possible to repair or recover the relationship.

This post has been adapted from material in my book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

Copyright© 2022, 2023 by Peg Streep.

Facebook image: KieferPix/Shutterstock

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