Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is also known as “verbal bullying” because it is the act of directing negative statements toward someone, causing emotional harm. Verbal abuse consists of behaviors that are non-physical, but which can still be rather damaging, such as being threatening, insulting, or humiliating toward someone. Those who are verbally abusive tend to be so because they believe it will give them more power and control in the relationship. To explore this concept, consider the following verbal abuse definition.

Definition of Verbal Abuse


  1. The repeated improper and excessive use of language to humiliate someone, or to undermine someone’s dignity.


20th century     Americanism

What is Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is a form of emotional abuse. People have suffered verbal abuse from their bosses, their loved ones, and even perfect strangers. Just because verbal abuse does not leave a physical scar does not mean that it did not deeply hurt the victim. Verbal abuse can also refer to what is not said. A lack of response from an abuser to something the victim has said makes the victim feel as if he or she does not even exist, or does not “deserve” an answer.

An abuser may make his victim feel bad for enjoying things independently, or with friends – things that the abuser does not also enjoy, or in which he is not included. Additionally, verbal abusers commonly make their victims feel bad about his or her feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and expressions of emotion; even trying to convince that person that he or she is a bad person.

For instance, Stephanie enjoys Top 40 pop music, and she listens to it regularly in her car. However, when her husband Joe, rides with her, he belittles her for her taste in music. Joe does this because he has low self-esteem, and wants to prop himself up by bringing Stephanie down. Misery loves company, as the saying goes, and Joe wants Stephanie to feel like she is a terrible person for her personal choices.

Verbal abuse tends to get worse over time, and can have long-term mental and physical effects on the victim. However, verbal abuse is often not taken as seriously as physical abuse, because an abuser may act like a completely different person in public than he or she is at home. Further, it may be difficult or even impossible to prove that someone is being verbally abused. Children who suffer verbal abuse from their parents can grow up to develop psychological issues that last their entire lives.

Any of the following actions can be considered forms of verbal abuse:

  • Accusing/blaming
  • Name-calling
  • Ordering the victim around
  • Judging/criticizing
  • Abusive anger
  • Discounting or minimizing the victim’s experiences
  • Threatening

Signs of Verbal Abuse

Sometimes, a simple eye roll, a grunt, or a sigh that is made after a victim says or does something, can actually be emotional abuse. If it is part of an ongoing pattern of words and actions that are intended to demean another person. Understanding just what emotional and verbal abuse are makes it possible to spot signs of verbal abuse.

For example, a wife who regularly puts her husband down about his job, his role in the home, or the amount of money he makes, is being verbally abusive. A husband who regularly criticizes or yells at his wife while they’re out in public is being verbally abusive. Signs of verbal abuse are often obvious to everyone but the victim.

Unfortunately, many victims can only recognize what is going on once they take it upon themselves to learn what to look for. Signs of verbal abuse that should alert a victim, or a friend or family member, to the situation include:

  • Shifting of Blame – The victim being made to feel like he or she is the one at fault in every argument, even if the abuser is the one who is at fault.
  • Previous Accusations of Abuse – The abuser has been accused of abusive behavior in the past, but shucks off those accusations, calling his accusers “crazy,” or otherwise dismisses them.
  • Guilt – The victim feels guilty for his or her actions, or participation in activities, for which he or she is berated
  • Split Personality – The abuser shows a different side of his or her personality, depending on the situation (a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” complex)
  • Threats of Suicide or Violence – The abuser threatens to commit suicide or to harm the family pet if the victim expresses a desire to escape the situation (whether it’s a wife threatening to leave her husband, or a child threatening to live with the other parent in a divorce situation)

Additional information on recognizing the signs of verbal abuse can be obtained from the Office on Women’s Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Examples of Verbal Abuse

Generally, verbal abuse can be defined as behavior that is meant to make someone feel uncomfortable, or otherwise bad about himself. Some people may not realize that they are in verbally abusive relationships, as they are constantly blamed for the discord in the relationship, whether a romantic relationship, family relationship, employer/employee relationship, or other relationship.

The following are examples of verbal abuse, that are the most common in many relationship types:

  • Insulting comments about a particular gender, career, religion, etc. to which the victim may belong
  • Insulting comments about the victim’s ideas, behaviors, and/or beliefs
  • Insulting comments about people, places or things that are dear to the victim
  • Talking down to the victim, or treating the victim as though he or she is “stupid”
  • Arguing that the victim is “too sensitive” if the victim tells the abuser that his or her remarks or actions are demeaning or abusive

Those who find themselves subjected to these examples of verbal abuse should leave the situation, seeking help if needed.

Effects of Verbal Abuse on Adult Victims

One of the effects of verbal abuse is that it makes victims feel like they are walking on eggshells around their abusers. Even when their abusers are in a good mood, they’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, because they can’t trust that the happiness will last long. Victims are constantly aware, always watching and listening for clues as to when they should prepare for another round of abuse.

One of the most common effects of verbal abuse is fear. However, many victims either deny having any feelings of anxiety toward their abusers, or they simply do not realize that they are actually feeling this way and that, if given the chance, they would gladly escape. Additional emotional effects of verbal abuse include feelings of being misunderstood and unimportant.

In addition to emotional effects, verbal abuse can have physical effects on victims. This is because the victims tend to keep their emotions inside, rather than express their feelings to their abusers, which risks even more abuse. It is not uncommon for victims of verbal abuse to experience everything from depression and anxiety, to migraines and chronic pain, to indigestion and even heart conditions, caused by the stress they suffer.

Verbal abuse is known to cause such psychological issues as:

  • Fear/anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alcohol/drug addiction
  • Anger-related issues
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Memory disorders
  • Issues related to sleeping and/or eating

In the most extreme case, victims may even attempt or commit suicide as a way to get out of the situation, when they see no other means of escape.

Effects of Verbal Abuse on Children

Children are especially sensitive to verbal abuse. Typically, the more verbal abuse a child suffers, the more problems the child is likely to develop as a result. It does not matter how old the child is when the abuse occurs for it to have a damaging and lasting effect, nor does the economic status of the family or the gender of the child matter.

Parents who repeatedly tell a child that he is “stupid,” “worthless,” “useless,” or other such insults end up raising a child who believes these things are true. As a result, the child is more likely to suffer from issues related to substance abuse, physical aggression, and generally acting out. Many of these children eventually end up in legal trouble.

Verbal Abuse Example Involving Stan Lee

As a rather surprising example of verbal abuse, it was reported in August of 2015, that Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee had been accused, by one of his former assistants, of engaging in “severe and constant” mental and verbal abuse. Shawn Lukaszewicz claimed that, during his brief employment with Marvel (October 14, 2014 until his firing in June of 2015), he received regular insults and threats from Lee and his family, to the point that it caused him emotional distress.

According to the Court papers, Lukaszewicz was tasked with driving Lee to meet the famous boxer, Manny Pacquaio, in April. Pacquaio ended up missing the meeting, because he had to catch a flight to Vegas for a scheduled fight with Floyd Mayweather. According to Lukaszewicz, Lee turned on him then, screaming that he was a “f—ing idiot,” and that “everyone at the office thinks you’re a f—ing a—hole.” Lee then allegedly threatened Lukaszewicz with termination, saying he would blame him with the “kidnapping of Stan Lee” as the cause.

Lukaszewicz claims other incidents of verbal abuse as well, such as when he had to deliver the mail to Lee at his home. According to Lukaszewicz, Lee responded with “get the [f—k] out and never ring my damn doorbell again.” Lukaszewicz also cited an incident in which he was required to set up a booth for Lee’s 2014 Comikaze convention, and was ridiculed on how “embarrassing” it looked.

Lukaszewicz alleges that the abuse did not stop with Lee, but extended to Lee’s family, with Lee’s daughter, JC, regularly cursing him out, particularly when she called him while drunk. Lukaszewicz said that he was repeatedly reminded of who he was working for, and that he should have been glad that he even had the job, and should just “man up” and take the abuse. He also claims that he was not paid for all of the hours that he had worked for Lee. In this example, Lukaszewicz has claimed he was a victim of verbal abuse in his employment, and he has exercised his right to file a civil lawsuit against the people he feels have abused him.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Criminal Trial – The trial of an individual formally accused of a crime.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.