The Verbally Abused Partner: Denial

By Dr. Irene Matiatos Ph.D.

The verbal abuse literature is an outgrowth of the battered women's movement. It pertains to a recently articulated, though distinct pattern of disrespectful treatment that one partner inflicts upon their spouse. Verbally abused individuals tend to be women, though there are many abused men as well.

The line between verbal and physical abuse is one of degree. The same interpersonal dynamics apply to both relationships. Many verbally abusive relationships will never cross the physical abuse "line." However, the absence of physical abuse does not make a verbally abusive relationship OK! Furthermore, in not putting a stop to verbal abuse may enable it to escalate into physical violence.

"...the abused partner often has little or no idea that they are being treated poorly!"

Even in cases where the physical abuse boundary has been crossed, the abused partner often has little or no idea that they are being treated poorly! I have heard, "All he does is squeeze me a little (around the neck in Maya's case)"; "He had a reason to scream: I disobeyed him"; "He was so angry at me, he broke my stereo"; "My daughter needs a father, what can I do?" I hear complaints, but, I rarely hear outrage (that comes as the abused person gets healthier). These people come to treatment to relieve feelings of depression, anxiety, inferiority, guilt, self-recrimination, and the like. Often, their abusive partner has sent them to therapy since they are perceived to be the "sick ones" (Maya, again). The abused individual is more or less convinced that personal and marital problems are somehow their fault. Perversely, they are responsible - but not in any way the victimized person can yet fathom. Victims have to come out of denial and then take their power.

In almost all cases, the abused partner is codependent. See codependence-related articles here. Patricia Evans expertly and comprehensively articulates the phenomenon in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, required reading for both partners in my practice.

I never cease to be amazed when an abused partner tells me they had difficulty reading the Evan's book. Often these people identify with the abuser more easily than with the victim! The abused proceed to recount the ways in which their angry outbursts have provoked their partner! "How can I be mad at him after the way I behaved?"

When I run into this phenomenon, I understand I am dealing with an individual who has allowed themselves to become so victimized, they have completely bought into the abuser's world view that the partner is to blame. (See related content on the verbal abuser here.) There is usually a significant history of recognized or unrecognized childhood abuse and/or neglect in these individuals. Abuse is a "normal" experience for them, ingrained into every fiber of their being. Their sense of reality is distorted, and self-esteem is seriously compromised. The self is not only lost, it never existed. We have work to do!

There are several reasons abused people allow others to hurt them:

  They don't recognize that their partners are 
  hurting them. ("My spouse just had a really bad 
  day; he/she doesn't mean it." So what? Do you 
  deserve it?)
  Self esteem is so low, it is "normal" to feel 
  hurt. ("It's OK, its only me..."  No! It is not 
  They lack survival skills, or feel guilty about 
  implementing a plan. ("How could he do this to me?" 
  Well he did. And it will happen again, and again. So, 
  what are you going to do about it?)

They are so depressed, anti-depressant medication is often highly advisable, at least early on.

Women with children who are unable to support themselves face very real financial concerns that keep them trapped. Their spouses, characteristically control-oriented, make sure that their women are financially dependent.

Outside of overt physical harm, it does not help that the legal system is often powerless regarding aspects of abuse phenomena (i.e., the abusive person's innate ability to manipulate the system and appear "right" on the surface).

My first task is to break through the denial. Usually this means helping my abused client become angry - instead of depressed. Remember, anger is a signal that something is wrong and needs attention. When anger can be connected to its precipitating event, there is something to work on!

To attend to and correct that which is not-OK requires a set of cognitive and verbal skills. These survival skills have not been taught in the home while growing up and need to be learned now. "To appropriately and effectively deal with what is wrong" does not mean "blowing up" or making stupid choices. Books like Suzette Haden Elgin's You Can't Say That To Me! and Jean Baer's How to be an Assertive (Not Aggressive) Woman come to mind.

It is the adult's personal responsibility to themselves and to their Maker to deal with persons or situations that hurt them or hurt minors under their care. I will say this again: It is the adult's personal responsibility to themselves and to their Maker to deal with persons or situations that hurt them or hurt minors under their care. Get it?

"The good news is that verbally abused individuals have a relatively easy task ahead..."

The good news is that verbally abused individuals have a relatively easy task ahead of them. It is not too difficult for most people to begin to take care of themselves. Getting started is often the hardest part. The trick is to do in in a way that raises self-esteem ("blowing up", for example, won't).

The last time I heard from Maya, a very attractive 20-something Hispanic woman with a lovely 10-year old daughter, she had left the husband - who loved to squeeze her throat - far behind. She hooked up with a battered wife's program, was contemplating school, a move, etc. For the first time in her life, this kind, loving woman felt very good about herself and her future.

Not to be misleading, recovery can be very difficult. Read about J, a young man who was badly hurt by a woman and the difficulties he encounters in recovery.

Still, the prognosis of the abused person is much brighter than that of the abuser. First of all, no one wants to hurt so much. Second, treatment is much more "superficial" and focused around skills acquisition. On the other hand, the verbal abuser, who has the social skills, who works the system well, who "wins" most of the time, not only has to give this up, but faces the far more daunting challenge of learning to trust.

Parenthetically, abused people sense their mate's distrust and vulnerability. It is the "soft part nobody else knows." These empathic people get into trouble when their attempt to heal their partner through their all-forgiving love backfires. More on this soon, and on why I think marital or relational therapy where possible works best. Stay tuned!

as of December 7, 2000