young couple arguing

Understanding verbal abuse

Domestic and family violence can take many forms, including emotionalfinancial, physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse. One common form of this abuse is verbal abuse, where a person uses words to gain power and control over their partner (or ex-partner). Although not present in all types of abuse, verbal abuse often forms part of other patterns of domestic violence, such as physical and emotional abuse.

Verbal abuse can occur in different types of relationships- including adult to child, peer to peer, or even in workplace relationships. In the case of intimate partner relationships, it’s particularly important to look at the difference between “normal” arguments, and verbal abuse.


The distinction between arguing and abuse

Arguments are an unavoidable part of most relationships. While it’s not always possible to resolve differences, it’s important to try and create a safe environment where you can appreciate the other person’s opinion, even when you disagree. You can start by discussing boundaries and decide in advance how you will respectfully resolve conflict, ideally without yelling or name calling.  Try to listen effectively to your partner and understand their perspective, or sometimes just simply ‘agree to disagree’.

While it’s important to aim to respectfully resolve differences, many people still have one-off unhealthy arguments where they yell at each other, or get angry. This alone does not constitute abuse. Verbal abuse is when the arguments are ongoing and uneven, and one partner regularly initiates arguments to degrade, control, or dominate the other.


Signs of verbal abuse

  • Yelling: it’s normal for people in relationships to raise their voice or yell every now and then, but ongoing and repeated yelling is cause for concern
  • Swearing and name calling: belittling your partner by calling them names, swearing at them, or putting them down
  • Demanding or ordering: telling your partner they have to do something and they don’t have a choice
  • Threatening or blackmail: telling your partner there will be consequences if they don’t do what you say – e.g. “If you go out with your friends tonight, don’t bother coming back”
  • “Gaslighting”:  whereby a person is manipulated into questioning their own sanity or perceptions
  • Manipulating: saying things to get someone to do what you want, often through guilt, such as “I did this for you” or “if you loved me you’d do this for me”
  • Patronising your partner: for example saying “You won’t understand, so I’ll explain this again”
  • Blame: always saying it was the person’s fault for “causing” the argument and making you be abusive
  • Passing abuse off as a joke: shaming, insulting, swearing or belittling your partner and then saying “I was only joking” or “You’re too sensitive”
  • Insulting people, or things, that your partner likes, or their religious beliefs
  • Refusing to talk to your partner and blaming them for your silence.

Long term effects of verbal abuse on victims can include low self-esteem, self-doubt, self-harm, and anxiety. Victims may also find it difficult to make decisions and doubt their own ability to communicate.


Steps you can take to stop verbal abuse

If you think that your behaviour may constitute signs of verbal abuse (or any form of domestic violence) there are some steps you can take to get help to change your behaviour:

  • Safety: Call 000 immediately if anyone’s safety is at risk
  • Learn more about it:  Health Direct and other websites provide information that can help you better understand what verbal abuse is and the damage it can do
  • Aim for healthy disagreement: There are many strategies you can use for effective communication to resolve conflict, without resorting to verbal abuse
  • Talk about it: Discussing your concerns with a trusted friend, GP, or a qualified counsellor can be the start of changing this behaviour
  • Behaviour change: Change is possible but ongoing expert support is your best option for success. Men’s behaviour change programs offer tools for developing better relationships, and learning non-abusive behaviour so that you behave differently in the same situations that used to lead to violence. The programs model an attitude of respect rather than punishment or shame for what you have done. Visit our find a men’s behaviour change program page, or enquire about enrolling in the Changing for Good program.


Further reading


If you’re experiencing family or domestic violence you can call MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78, or visit 1800RESPECT.