Verbal abuse often as damaging as physical
Berating typically used for controlling others
The Journal Gazette/April 14, 2005
By Stefanie Scarlett
We’ve all heard them: the couple who scream obscenities at each other in public, the overzealous parent who berates a child for failing to catch the ball during the big game.
Examples of verbal, or emotional, abuse are everywhere: Just turn on “Jerry Springer” almost any day of the week.
Stephen Jackson of the Indiana Pacers was suspended for a game in February after verbally abusing an official, just the latest athlete to be punished for such an offense.
The Center for Nonviolence in Fort Wayne defines violence as “any words or actions that hurt and control another, cause fear or make someone feel belittled or weak and powerless,” coordinator John Beams says.
It can take the form of blaming, criticizing, humiliating, name-calling, threatening or trivializing someone else as a way to gain control or exert power.
One of the more stunning media examples of verbal abuse came from Jonathan Baker and Victoria Fuller, a married couple who appeared on “The Amazing Race 6” this year and shocked other racers and fans with their ongoing and intense bickering.
In the eyes of many viewers, Baker berated and blamed his wife for every problem they encountered, which left Fuller in tears more than once.
After the race, they were chastised on prime-time television by no less than Dr. Phil. The couple has said “The Amazing Race” didn’t portray their relationship accurately, that things weren’t nearly as bad as they seemed and that they were affected by the stress of competition.
They are still together – and are filming a reality show based on their post-“Race” experiences.
Some might say it’s yet another example of undeserving people being rewarded for their bad behavior.
Of course, many of us will watch.
“In entertainment, the producers are often looking for shock value. There are tremendous amounts of violence and abuse on TV, so people can see the most titillating, shocking things possible & which makes it appear to young people that it’s an OK thing to do,” says Patricia Evans, the author of several books on verbal abuse and runs the Evans Interpersonal Communications Institute in Alamo, Calif.
She didn’t see the Baker-Fuller arguments. But there are plenty of other examples, such as “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell, whom Evans takes to task for his biting criticism and disparaging comments to young wannabe singers.
The problem is the other view, the calm voice of reason to explain that belittling others is wrong, usually isn’t heard in the same context to counteract the effect, she says.
That absence is notable in many TV programs and video games, both of which “have had a horrendous effect on our collective inability to learn the hard task of living in a civilized world,” Beams agrees.
It’s especially troubling, he says, because both forms of media are greedily consumed by children and teens, often without their parents present to discuss what they’re seeing.
But media do not necessarily create a new generation of potential abusers; some might argue what we see is just a reflection of what’s going on in the culture anyway.
So how did we get this way?
Part of it might be due to cultural socialization, Beams says.
“Aggression and control are still very much a part of male identity today & the traditional female socialization tends to still value being more nurturing and more yielding.”
So when the two meet up in romantic relationships, there can be communication problems.
“The same words, spoken by a man or a woman, can have a different impact,” he says.
In many cases, verbal abuse is something that both partners engage in.
In some cases, it leads to physical abuse.
Although anyone can be an abuser, statistics show the majority of them are male, although male victims likely are underreported.
In situations of verbal abuse, the abusers focus on their intent, and not the effect, of their actions, Beams says.
They might explain their behavior by saying, ” “I was just trying to express myself; I was just blowing off steam; I was trying to motivate people; or I was raised in a family where people talked that way all the time,’ ” he says. “If you focus on intent, you’d think there never was abuse.”
Evans agrees, saying that abusers will often accuse their victims of starting arguments or being too sensitive, when they really are just trying to defend themselves.
“Verbal abuse is like brainwashing – it makes the target or victim confused, feeling crazy and struggling to remain herself, while her awareness is constantly assaulted,” she says.
Most cases stem either from habit, or “tit-for-tat escalation” where one person is determined to get payback and it keeps going, Beams says.
“For some people, there’s sort of a gain to be had from baiting somebody else & all the better if they can get that person to try to respond to them, argue with them. There are some really angry people in this world,” says Jeannie DiClementi, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Verbal abuse is a learned behavior; some people aren’t even aware that what they’re doing is hurtful to others, she says.
“Sometimes people resort to swearing and name-calling because they lack the communication skills to express themselves properly. But it’s not a form of communication … calling somebody a ‘bitch’ gives you no information whatsoever,” DiClementi says. “It’s not something to be taken lightly.”
Long-term cases of verbal abuse are damaging to both children and adults.
“Abusing loved ones does not teach anybody a lesson, at least not a good lesson,” Beams says.
“It damages self-esteem, self-image. People begin to internalize it; they feel powerless, they feel helpless. If you hear it enough, you begin to believe it,” DiClementi says.
Experts advise that if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, you should seek help.
Beams and DiClementi suggest the following:
“Examine your own behavior. Pay attention to how people react to you, in good times and bad. Are they hurt or afraid or angry because of something you said, or how you said it?
“Fight the need to always be right, or always win the argument.
“Set limits to name-calling, criticizing and blaming, especially in front of your children.
“Don’t repeat the same arguments over and over.
“Learn better communication skills through counseling or group therapy.
“And perhaps most importantly, if you’re feeling emotional, think before you speak.