The damage left behind by verbal and emotional abuse can be just as bad, and in some cases even worse, than physical verbal abuse. There’s always a danger that emotional damage caused by verbal abuse will contributes to physical health conditions, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, self-harm, and depression.

When therapists talk about verbal abuse, they differentiate overt and covert verbal abuse. Overt verbal abuse involves yelling, name-calling and not talking at all; a form of stonewalling. Covert abuse takes on much subtler characteristics.

Covert verbal abuse takes place when the abuser hides the abuse inside the context of the conversation during which abusive comments are made. Verbal abusers who engage in this type of behavior intend to humiliate and demean the victim. However, instead of doing it directly, they intentionally create an ambiguous situation where they can avoid responsibility and deny what they so obviously intended to do. If it sounds cowardly, it’s because it is.

An example of covert verbal abuse is making vague comments or criticisms and when called on it denying you were talking about anyone specifically. Here is an even more specific example; the verbal abuser is feeling self-righteous and wants to criticize your point of view but does not have the self-confidence to do it directly. They make a comments like, “Some people take this situation seriously” inferring that you do not. If you ask, “Are you saying I don’t take the situation seriously?” the abuser will tell you, “No,” confirming that they are in fact verbally abusing you. The real cue that you are being verbally abused by a comment like this lies in the fact that the two of you have opposing views on a particular subject. More specifically, the verbal abuser resents that you have opposing views. Because they can’t have a conversation with you in a kind and an adult fashion, they covertly insult you instead.

Covert verbal abuse can conceal the abuse either because of the words the abuser chooses to use (the comments themselves) or because of how the words are said (the delivery of the comments, such as the tone of their voice). Covert verbal abuse is often disguised as neutral comments or even compliments. The context of the comment gives away their true intent. Covert verbally abusive comments never attack the other person directly. Instead, they are comments about someone else or a group. 

Covert verbal abuse is not always so subtle. Sometimes the attacks are slightly more direct, but the abuser claims the abusive comments are made in jest. An example of this would be someone waiting until you are both with other people and then make comments about your appearance or behavior.

Being covert about their verbal abuse enables abusive people to avoid responsibility for the harm they inflict on others. It can also have devastating psychological consequences on relationships and on the receiver’s state of mind.

Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.

References

Anderson, D. E., Ansfield, M. E.,  DePaulo, B. M. (1999). Love’s best habit: Deception in the context of relationships. In P. Philippot, R. S. Feldman,  E. J. Coats (Eds.), The social context of nonverbal behavior (pp. 372-409), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Carter, J. (1994, Spring). The contagiousness of verbal abuse. Mothering, 108-110

Cox, H. C. (1994). Excising verbal abuse. Today’s O.R. Nurse, 16(1), 38-42.

Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond (2nd ed.). Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corp.

Infante, D. A., Riddle, B. L., Horvath, C. L.,  Tumlin, S. A. (1992). Verbal aggressiveness: Messages and reasons. Communication Quarterly, 40, 116-126.

Infante, D. A., Sabourin, T. C., Rudd, J. E.,  Shannon, E. A. (1990). Verbal aggression in violent and nonviolent marital disputes. Communication Quarterly, 38, 361-371.

Ney, P. G. (1987). Does verbal abuse leave deeper scars: A study of children and parents. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 371-378.

Sabourin, T. C. (1991). Perceptions of verbal aggression in interspousal violence. In D. D. Knudsen  J. L. Miller (Eds.),  Abused and battered: Social and legal responses to family violence (pp. 135-145). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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