Dear Susan,

My boyfriend can be verbally abusive when he gets mad. He has called me a “dummy” and a lot worse. What is the best way to deal with him when he is like this? He is great in every other way.

Michelle, London


Dear Michelle,

Name-calling is the most obvious form of verbal abuse. There are other, less evident forms, but all verbal abuse is hostile, power based, and used as a means of control.

Some other forms of verbal abuse include:

Withholding: If there is a relationship, then there must be an exchange of information, without it, there can be no intimacy. Withholding occurs when one partner keeps nearly all thoughts, opinions or feelings, to themselves and remains silent or aloof toward the other partner. The verbal abuser may go for days, weeks or months without attempting to engage his partner in any meaningful interaction.

Jokes: This type of abuse is not funny at all. Critical comments disguised as jokes often refer to generalizations about women, to the partner’s intellectual abilities, or to her competency as an individual. It hurts, can feel insulting or humiliating, and allows the abuser to feel smug. When the partner objects, the abuser may respond with “You have no sense of humour!” “You can’t take a joke!” or “you’re too sensitive!”

Trivializing: Trivializing (as in the example above), discounts the experience and reality of the partner. This type of abuse is often difficult to pinpoint because it can be very subtle. However, the partner may feel that nothing they say or feel is very important or meaningful. This is one of the most insidious forms of verbal abuse, because it can cause the partner to question and discount their own perceptions and ideas.

Judging and criticizing: This type of verbal abuse carries a critical and judgmental tone, and implies a lack of acceptance. Remarks beginning with “The trouble with you is….”, “You’re just never satisfied….”, “You’re too sensitive.” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about…” can leave the partner feeling misunderstood and devalued in the relationship.

Denial: This category of verbal abuse is also particularly damaging, because like trivializing, it denies the reality of the partner, and can cause them to question their own perceptions. When using denial, the abuser may accuse the partner of making things up, or deny conversations ever happened, when the partner clearly KNOWS that the events did occur.

The best way to deal with verbal abuse is to become educated on the topic, so that you are able to identify it the moment it happens and clearly label your partner’s behaviour. However wonderful he is in other ways, unless he is prepared to take complete responsibility for his behaviour and attitude, and learn to manage his anger, he will likely continue to be verbally abusive.

An excellent book on this topic is The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond by Patricia Evans.

It may also help you understand why you are putting up with his behaviour.