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© 2004, The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska on behalf of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension. All rights reserved.


"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Do you remember hearing or saying this when you were a child? How much wiser people become as they mature into adulthood and realize that words can indeed be weapons; words can hurt very much. Why would someone who supposedly loves another say things to make a partner feel sick inside, betrayed and confused? Those who are verbally abused often think they may have caused the abuse or are at fault. Some even believe the terrible things said about them may be true. But they're not. The following is a summary of what is known about verbal abuse and the impact it has on women, men, children, families and local communities.

Statistics show that domestic violence (also known as partner abuse, spousal abuse and battering) continues to be prevalent well into the 21st Century. Gaining dominance and control over someone else are some reasons behind domestic violence. Physical and sexual violence are tools used by the abuser to gain control and dominance in the relationship. There are other types of partner abuse that are often less obvious to outsiders such as economic abuse, spiritual abuse, manipulation, threats, using children, and emotional abuse, including verbal abuse.

Most physical and sexual abuse begins with verbal aggression or abuse. In a study of rural women, emotional abuse, which includes verbal abuse, was endured by 100% of women living with an abusive partner (Bosch & Bergen, 2003). Although canny abusers use tactics to hurt their partners where clothing often hides the marks, physical abuse is relatively easy to identify and assess; you can see a black eye or broken bone. But verbal abuse is difficult to measure. Most laws do not define verbal abuse which, therefore mostly goes unreported. Verbal abuse might be interpreted by some as a bad habit, strong expression, or "just the way the person talks." Verbal abuse can be a weapon used by either partner in a couple.

When verbal combat leads to physical assault, men have the distinct advantage because men are usually stronger than women and often inflict physical harm. Those primarily abused through physical violence are women; 90-95% of reported abuse survivors are female. Given the physical differences between men and women and the fact that verbal abuse nearly always precedes physical assault, it is necessary to be aware of the verbal abuse some women experience. Women and men, whether they are parents, advocates, professionals, teachers, neighbors, or family members must work together to stop verbal abuse.