Color & Control:

Emotional and verbal abuse: How to recognize it

Caregiver yelling at an elderly man in a wheelchair

Physical abuse inflicted on a romantic partner can leave bruises, cuts and scars, making it abundantly clear that violence has occurred in a relationship. But what about the kind of harm that has no visible signs or doesn’t leave markings on the skin? What about the type of damage that can wear down self-esteem and put mental health at risk?

While not apparent to the naked eye, emotional and verbal abuse can be just as painful and devastating—and can last much longer if not addressed. Here are some ways you can recognize this type of abuse in your relationship or others.

Types of verbal abuse

To identify emotional abuse, you need to recognize that it can occur in various ways. One of the many ways that emotional pain can be inflicted is with verbal abuse. It doesn’t always involve rage and shouting. Sometimes, it’s subtle and manipulative as the abuser aims to undermine self-esteem.

Here are some ways you, or someone you care about, may be abused verbally and emotionally:

Name-calling: Using derogatory adjectives such as “dumb” or “useless” or insulting pet names.

Sarcasm: Can be excused as a joke but is meant to highlight ignorance or gullibility.

Opposing: Constantly disagreeing with you and not hearing your side of things.

Blaming: Saying their abusive behavior is your fault because you are the one who makes them act the way they do.

It doesn’t always involve rage and shouting. Sometimes, it’s subtle and manipulative as the abuser aims to undermine self-esteem.

Yelling: Shouting, raging or cursing to gain dominance.

Belittling: Patronizing language meant to make you feel insignificant and allow them to feel superior.

Interrupting: Not letting you finish your explanation or stopping you from speaking.

Humiliating: Making fun of you, whether alone or in public, and laughing at your expense.

Denying: Denial that they’re inflicting verbal abuse, shrugging it off.

Accusing: Jealous and possessive partners often make unfounded and repeated accusations of cheating.

The short and longer term impact of verbal abuse is a decrease in the victim’s emotional well-being, which can manifest as a loss of self-confidence. When people are down emotionally, their self-esteem suffers. This could cause anxiety and depression that may lead to negative changes in their behavior. For instance:

Avoiding certain situations: People who are abused verbally in a relationship tend to walk on eggshells around their partner, afraid to set them off.

Seeking affection or attention elsewhere: It’s not uncommon to feel so alone in a verbally abusive relationship that you will go out to find someone else who is willing to listen and accept you as you are. While getting away from your abuser is ideal, lowered self-esteem, inability to self-love, and desperation may lead you to seek the attention of the wrong person.

Withdrawing from social interactions: Emotionally abusive people often try to isolate their partners to gain control, leading them to avoid spending time with their family, friends, and even coworkers.

This type of abusive behavior can happen in relationships at all ages; teens can be victimized by romantic partners, as can seniors. If you experience, witness or suspect abuse please reach out to your family doctor, social worker or trusted friend for support.

This piece was supplied by the health professionals at

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