Question: My friend recently confided in me about her relationship with her husband. She told me some things that make me wonder if he is verbally abusing her. Is there any way that she can tell if what she is experiencing is abusive?


First, let me applaud your care and concern for your friend. You have asked a great question. It is very difficult to understand the dynamics of a verbally abusive relationship and to know if it is abusive. This is confusing for outsiders as well as for the woman herself. 

Few see the truth 

The reason for this uncertainty is because abusive partners usually show their best side publicly while they abuse their wife and children behind closed doors. Few people see what is really going on. Even women who are experiencing abuse are often unaware that their husband’s behaviour is abusive. These women secretly wonder if this is what all marriages are like. They are too ashamed to admit to anyone what is happening. 

Since it is important to be aware that verbal abuse does not go away on its own, and that it always precedes other forms of abuse, it should not be ignored. It is also important to distinguish between the dynamics that constitute an abusive relationship versus what is generally considered to be "normal" marital conflict. 

3 signs to watch for 

Here are some ways to tell the difference:

  1. Abusive partners operate from a "power over" mindset where control and dominance are the norm.

    On the other hand, the non-abusive partner operates from a position of "personal power" where equality and respect are valued. Although a woman may enter an abusive relationship from this position, her sense of personal power is gradually eroded over time and she assumes a more "helpless" position.
  2. Abusive partners do not accept responsibility for their hurtful words and actions, but rather project the responsibility onto their partner, accusing their wives of inciting their behaviour. The wife learns to accept responsibility for causing the abusive behaviour in exchange for "keeping the peace" at home.

    Both partners in non-abusive relationships accept responsibility for what they say and do, apologize and make amends.
  3. Abusive partners use tactics to discount the non-abusive partner’s reality. This is a form of "brain-washing" which is done in such a way that the partner doubts her own sense of reality and thinks she is "going crazy" or that she is "stupid." She begins to accept her partner’s overwhelmingly persuasive logic while she discounts her own perceptions. The marriage relationship never seems to get any better in spite of the many adjustments she makes both in her thinking and in her behaviour.

    Partners in non-abusive relationships are willing to learn new skills to modify their hurtful interactions. Over time they gradually become more caring and respectful of their partners and their relationship usually improves and becomes mutually satisfying.

Because of your legitimate concern for your friend, you may be tempted to be her "counsellor." The best help you can offer her is to be a good listener and encourage her to seek professional help to discuss her relationship concerns. Verbally abusive relationships are very complex; therefore, I would encourage your friend to seek a counsellor who is familiar with these dynamics. Call Focus on the Family Canada at 1.800.661.9800 for a referral to a therapist in your area.

Gwen Scott (RN, MC, RCC) was a referral counsellor for Focus on the Family Canada at the time of publication. She is a clinical therapist who deals with domestic violence issues. She practices in the greater Vancouver area.

© 2011 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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