This article was originally published on BLAC Detroit.

Are you being abused? Have you questioned whether you’re being abused even though you’ve never been hit? Do you think maybe it’s just you and not really abuse? 

These are just a few of the questions commonly asked by many people in intimate relationships with someone who may exhibit abusive behavior. It may surprise you to know that one in three women and one in four men experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to reports by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What’s even more alarming is verbal abuse often precedes physical abuse. In particular, African Americans experience higher rates of abuse in relationships as compared to other races.

This is why it’s so important to be able to recognize the subtle signs and common patterns of verbal abuse. So, read on… 

What Is Verbal Abuse?

Abuse takes on many forms and isn’t always accompanied by physical harm. Verbal abuse may not show any outward signs, but it can mentally and emotionally devastate its victim. While yelling and cursing are apparent signs of verbal abuse, there are also subtle signs that aren’t as noticeable.


“Verbal abuse is extremely critical, threatening, or insulting words delivered in oral or written form and intended to demean, belittle, or frighten the recipient.” — American Psychological Association (APA)

Malignant narcissists and sociopaths use word salad, circular conversations, ad hominem arguments, projection, and gaslighting to disorient you and get you off track should you ever disagree with them or challenge them in any way. No matter what form of abuse is used on you, it’s common to end up questioning yourself, wondering if it’s really you causing the problem rather than the abuser.

Fortunately, there are several signs to help with recognizing abuse, whether psychological abuse, emotional abuse, or verbal aggression.

Subtle Signs of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse that can be very insidious and difficult to recognize, particularly in the early stages. It can take many forms and often occurs over time, making it even harder to identify. Anyone can exhibit verbally abusive behavior, from a romantic partner to a family member or friend. While it may seem harmless, verbal abuse is quite damaging because it can erode your self-esteem and sense of self-worth, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and a host of other physical and mental health issues.

Here are 10 subtle signs of abuse and patterns of abuse to look out for:

1. Withholding

This is when the abuser refuses to listen or speak, withholding emotional connection. They may avoid conversations or give you the “silent treatment” for extended periods. This can make you feel isolated and alone.

2. Countering

The abuser may question your memory or deny an event took place, making you feel like you’re crazy or confused. You may even begin to doubt your own memory and judgment. This is a form of gaslighting that can be very damaging to your mental health.

3. Discounting

When an abuser trivializes your feelings or opinions, they discount or dismiss them as unimportant or silly. This can make you feel insignificant and not worth listening to, which can destroy your self-esteem.

4. Gaslighting

Gaslighting happens when the abuser manipulates you to doubt your sanity or memories. They may tell you that things happened differently from what you remember. As a result, this can cause you to question your judgment and feel like you’re losing your grip on reality.

5. Blocking and Diverting

It’s common for an abuser to change the conversation or question topics that make them uncomfortable. Sometimes, they interrupt or talk over you to avoid discussing specific topics. Blocking and diverting can make you feel your thoughts and opinions are not valued.

6. Accusing and Blaming

A verbal abuser might point out flaws in you or others and blame you for their problems. They can make you feel guilty and ashamed for things that aren’t your fault.

7. Judging and Criticizing

Abusers may undermine your self-esteem by making negative comments about your personality or behavior. For example, they may criticize how you look, dress, or act. This can make you feel like you’re not good enough or need to change who you are to please them.

8. Name-Calling

The abuser may frequently use derogatory names or labels to define you, such as insulting your intelligence, character, or appearance. This can be particularly damaging and hurtful coming from a family member or intimate partner.

9. Demeaning and Patronizing

An abuser may use demeaning or patronizing language to belittle or embarrass you. They may act condescendingly and treat you like a child or talk down to you, making you feel disrespected.

10. Threatening

An abuser may make threats, either direct or indirect, by using coercive control or intimidation. They might threaten to harm you or someone you care about, or they may threaten to leave you if you don’t do what they want. This can make you feel like you’re in danger, leading to feelings of powerlessness.

(Alex Green / Pexels)

What To Do if You’re Being Verbally Abused

Now you know many common patterns that abusers frequently use and can recognize even the most subtle signs. However, you must approach the situation carefully. Leaving the situation could be dangerous. So, you’re probably wondering, “Okay, what SHOULD I do if I think I’m being verbally abused?”

First, know that verbal abuse is never okay, and you don’t have to tolerate it. Second, it’s important to note that verbal abuse can be a precursor to physical abuse, so it should never be taken lightly. Lastly, staying in verbally abusive relationships can have long-term effects on both your physical and mental health — just as powerful as physical abuse.

Verbal abuse can cause the following long-lasting effects:

  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you’re experiencing any type of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, or any other form of abuse, it’s crucial to seek help immediately. While speaking to a trusted friend or family member is encouraged, consider contacting a domestic violence hotline to talk with an abuse specialist. They can provide valuable resources to help you heal from the trauma, such as therapy, support groups, and other forms of treatment.

National Domestic Violence Hotline

  • Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or TTY 1.800.787.3224 for hearing impaired
  • Text “START” to 88788
  • Chat online at

You can also browse domestic violence resources by location to find a provider near you. These resources include everything from domestic violence shelters and protective assistance to emergency financial assistance and counseling.

Remember that you’re not alone, and there are many resources available for you. No matter what anyone makes you feel, you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. It’s not always easy to take a stand against someone you love, but you have the power to take back control of your life and well-being. If you’re looking for providers and resources that cater to the Black community and relationships, consider this list of Black mental health resources.

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