Lynn Cohen, MA, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Vacaville, California, says verbal abuse victims are often isolated and confused, and may think that they are the problem rather than the abuser. "In therapy, we would usually start with building self-esteem in the client, so they could ensure that the verbal abuse didn't continue in the relationship, or that the victim didn't continue in the relationship," Cohen says.
One of the largest hurdles verbal abuse victims need to surmount, Evans says, is to stop blaming themselves. "It often takes time for the partners of verbal abusers to realize that the abuser is the one with the problem," she writes in her latest book on the issue. "Most women who are verbally abused spend time focused inward, soul-searching, taking inventory, trying to identify their 'sins,' trying to find out what they did wrong."
Defending yourself through language judo Not surprisingly, many of the survivors portrayed in Evans book opt to end their abusive relationships. Those victims and their partners who decide to battle the demons together must work with their partners to change the abusive behavior. For people who are serious about ridding their lives once and for all of verbally abusive relationships, linguist Suzette Haden Elgin, PhD, has written a concise, easy to follow book.
You Can't Say That To Me: Stopping the Pain of Verbal Abuse -- An 8-Step Program that describes how to overturn even the most entrenched patterns of abuse, whether these same have evolved in family, work, or social settings. "If you are a verbal victim, you need to set aside the idea that you are weak," writes Elgin. "It takes a great deal of strength to endure life in an environment of verbal violence. It takes courage to get up every day and face your tormentor(s) again.
That's not weakness -- but it is a great waste of your strength." Elgin suggests how to identify signs of verbal abuse, strategies for defending yourself against it, and, finally, various tactics for putting an end to it. Among other things, she says that the majority of verbal abusers aren't sadistic, and thus don't derive pleasure in inflicting pain. Her theory is that many are simply emotional "klutzes" who need education, or people who simply don't know how to get the emotional attention they so desperately crave.
Among other things, Elgin suggests going into "Computer Mode" when faced with a verbal attack -- that is, keeping very neutral and controlled, "the safest stance you can have." She suggests answering someone who yells "Why can't I ever FIND anything around here! Do you hide things to annoy me, or WHAT?" with a calm, neutral statement such as "It's very annoying not to be able to find things." Your goal, she says, "is to respond to the attacker in a way that doesn't set you up, reward the attacker, sacrifice your dignity, or cause a loss of face on either side.
Eventually the attacker will run out of steam, making a mental note that you're no fun as a victim and shouldn't be chosen for that role in the future." Therapists are not in full agreement on how easily abusers can be rehabilitated. Patricia Evans agrees that such abusers often aren't aware of how damaging their behavior is. Nevertheless, she says, abusers usually feel better after a verbal assault, while the victims invariably feel worse. Most therapists agree, however, that abuse is a learned behavior.
Marriage and family therapist Lynn Cohen points out that most verbal abusers have cripplingly low self-esteem. They were probably verbally abused themselves, most likely as children. "They don't think much of themselves, or they wouldn't be doing it," she says. Why you shouldn't put up with it Regardless of why verbal abusers do what they do, victims must recognize the toll that the abuse takes on their mental and physical health.
Women, in particular, face societal pressure to keep up the facade of the "happy home," or to avoid confronting a boss, coworker or friend who verbally abuses them. But verbal abuse is literally dangerous to our health, as Elgin points out in her book. A "toxic verbal environment," she writes, is dangerous in the same way that contaminated food or polluted water is dangerous. Not only does verbal abuse lead to depression, it's poisonous for everyone in the vicinity.
Many people, she adds, associate verbal self-defense with "a collection of killer smart cracks plus language strategies for wiping the floor with your opponent. That's not an accurate image, and you don't have to go that route. Use [gentle] verbal self-defense instead." -- Paige Bierma is an award-winning health, medical, and youth affairs journalist in San Francisco. Her Vibe magazine expose on wilderness therapy camps won the top Investigative Reporters and Editors' award for outstanding magazine reporting.
Further Resources Patricia Evans' homepage defines the different kinds of verbal abuse, includes several bulletin boards, and lists resources for helping victims. http://www.verbalabuse.com e-mail: EICI@verbalabuse.com National Domestic Violence Hotline For support or information on emotional and physical domestic abuse, call 800/799-SAFE, or visit their Web site at http://www.ndvh.org