Defining verbal abuse

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Physical abuse needs no defining – the bruises themselves define it!

Sexual abuse is understandable to all.

Verbal abuse, on the other hand, needs to be defined.

The occasional angry outburst is not necessarily verbal abuse. Anger may be justified; it may be a warning signal. It may point to a problem. Sometimes it signals problems that need to be solved. Sometimes it points to boundaries that need to be set. It may simply be the result of a bad day at the office.

Consistent demeaning

Verbal abuse is the consistent demeaning of another. It may in fact  take the form of angry outbursts. On the other hand it may take the form of cold, calculating, consistent put-downs. It may even take the form of disparaging humour.

The key to verbal abuse is the word ‘demeaning’. And the abuser may be a man or a woman.

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You’re pathetic!” “You’re stupid!” “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” These are classic verbally abusive statements when they are constantly used to block any attempt at rational discussion about relationship problems.

There are many, much more cruel statements that constitute verbal abuse – but the defining behaviour is that of one person consistently demeaning another.

The NSPCC estimate that  1 in 6 children suffer from abuse – that is all abuse, not just sexual – but those are just the reported cases. It may be as many as 1 in 5 or even 4. So – physical and sexual abuse are just ‘the tip of the iceberg’ for children. The extent of unreported verbal abuse can only be imagined and the effect upon children can be life-long.

A police officer who worked in a Paedophile Unit said: “My unit estimated that 70-80% of people on the sex-offenders’ register attend church. Most sex offenders are never even reported, so those on the register are only the number reported and convicted. It would be nice to think they were seeking redemption, but that simply is not the case. They are known to be virtually untreatable: another nasty truth.”

Unrecognised

If 70 or 80% of sexual abusers attend church, how many unrecognised verbal abusers are there in our churches? This figure highlights the difficulty of recognising abusers of any sort – sexual or otherwise. Lundy Bancroft wrote of abusers: ““They are usually very reluctant to face up to the damage that they have been causing women, and often children as well, and hold tightly to their excuses and victim-blaming . . .  Their value system is unhealthy not their psychology.” It is this unhealthy value system that enables abusers to be so hypocritical. Their perceptions are so flawed that they deceive themselves. It’s also why they can be so convincing to others outside of the family.

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Leadership

When verbal abusers are in positions of leadership in the church, they may be even harder to recognise. A distorted perception of the Bible’s teaching about the role of women and the bringing up of children may be used to justify unjustifiable behaviour and discipline. Abuse and control in the name of religion is no new phenomenon, but perhaps it’s become more subtle in recent years. When uncovered, sexual abuse by church  leaders makes the headlines. Verbal abuse and control, however, may be widespread but unrecognised.

The police officer who worked in the paedophile unit explained, “Sex offenders operate through deception and secrecy. Their actions are not noticeable in the way that, say, a thief’s are. When it comes to child protection, people often rely on feeling alarmed, seeing a creepy bloke or spotting something out of the ordinary. When it comes to sex offenders you can’t do that.” This is the case with the great majority of  abusers of any sort – they operate through deception and secrecy – and they’re not easily recognised outside of the family.

Brainwashing

In the case of verbal abuse they may not easily be recognised even within the family. Their perceptions are so flawed that they are impossible to challenge. They are adept at convincing family members that it is they, not the abuser, who is at fault. “In short,” explains Bancroft,  “an abuser’s core problem is that he has a distorted sense of right and wrong . . . One of the prevalent features of life with an angry, controlling partner is that he frequently tells you what you should think and tries to get you to doubt or devalue your own perceptions and beliefs.” Patricia Evans writes: “The brainwashing effects of verbal abuse cannot be over-emphasized.”

 

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It’s because of this brainwashing effect of verbal abuse that victims may live with the abuse for many years – for a lifetime even. Children will eventually leave home, emotionally-scarred but able to escape. Partners, on the other hand, are likely to become more and more traumatised and brainwashed as the years go by.

That’s why verbal abuse needs to be defined and explained. Only when it is truly recognised for what it actually is, can there be any hope of the victim breaking free of it. Control shows itself, not just in overt verbal abuse and mockery, but in a constant, low-level, pervasive variety of less obvious ways. The solving or resolution of this inner conflict is achieved only when the victim recognises that he or she is being abused.

Highly retaliatory

When it is eventually recognised – what then? Abusers are not open to explanation or confrontation. They feel completely justified, and become highly retaliatory if the victim attempts to stand up for herself. “In fact,” Bancroft insists, “one of the best ways to tell how deep a man’s control problem goes is by seeing how he reacts when you start demanding that he treat you better.”

So if explanation and confrontation don’t work, what can be done? Speaking about the difficulty of recognising sexual abusers, the police officer who worked in a paedofile unit explained “you have to put in place things that will prevent their hidden tactics from being effective.” This same principle is necessary with abusers of any sort. You have to put in place things that will prevent their tactics from being effective.

First, however, it is important to understand the roots of abuse. Read more about this:-

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