Verbal abuse is violence in the form of words, according to psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D. It includes any sort of abuse that uses words in an attempt to control, manipulate, or harm another, and it may or may not be paired with physical abuse. Like all forms of abuse, it can come from romantic partners, friends, family members, or even bosses or co-workers.
One of the reasons verbal abuse can be hard to identify is that it can look like a lot of different things. Behaviors like threatening or screaming at someone might seem like more obvious examples, but psychotherapist Annette Nunez, Ph.D., LMFT, says it can also be discrete manipulation, gaslighting, or simply making someone feel less than.
“Verbal abuse is all about power,” she explains. “So if it’s insulting somebody, if it’s making somebody feel less than, those are all examples of a mode of verbal abuse. It’s about manipulating the vernacular, in order to keep somebody submissive.”
Verbal abuse is also often unprovoked, as opposed to happening only in the heat of the moment in an argument, adds clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy. This behavior trains a victim of verbal abuse to associate certain things with danger, ultimately changing their behavior, she explains.