She didn’t push you. He didn’t hit you. There are no bruises. No cuts. No wounds. No scars. But the absence of a bloodied nose and broken bones doesn’t mean you are well. It doesn’t mean you are cared for or safe, and it doesn’t mean you haven’t been abused. Why? Because abuse can take many forms. From putdowns and neglect to character assassination and emotional manipulation, it can wear many faces, and while the signs of emotional and verbal abuse are harder to recognize, that doesn’t make said abuse any less detrimental or dangerous.
Emotional and verbal abuse can have both short- and long-term effects.
“Staying in an emotionally or verbally abusive relationship can have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental health,” the Office on Women’s Health explains. Chronic pain is a frequent reaction to emotional and/or verbal abuse. Mental health-related issues, like depression or anxiety, are also common, as are self-esteem issues and feelings of guilt, fear, or shame. Some individuals who have been emotionally and verbally abused will turn their pain and anger inwards, injuring or harming themselves, and some will have suicidal thoughts.
When I was in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship, I made the first of several suicide attempts.
But before I get into the effects of verbal and emotional abuse, I should talk about the signs – the all-too-common indicators you are in an unhealthy relationship. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are demeaning and demanding. They speak to you in an aggressive way, one which diminishes your voice and sense of self. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are controlling. They tell you what to do or wear. They want access to your computer, phone, and friends — if they still “allow” you to have friends. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are insulting. They call you names, such as “stupid” and “disgusting” and “worthless.” They constantly put you down. Those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive are manipulative. They coddle you and apologize before hurting you, again and again, and those who are verbally and/or emotionally abusive gaslight you.
They make you believe you are bonkers, or at the very least, overly sensitive. Your account of events is (almost) always wrong.
But that’s not all: Some verbal and emotional abusers yell and scream. They use their voice to instill fear and make you feel small. Some are neglectful and dismissive. They ignore you, dehumanize you, and shut you down, but most abusers are a combination of all of these things, as was the case with me. My abuse started slowly, subtly, with coercion and manipulation.
“You don’t want to hurt me, do you? Stay with me. Don’t leave me. I need you.”
It morphed (somewhat quickly) into something deeper. Something darker. Something more cunning, hateful, and insidious.
“You’re nothing without me. You’re helpless and hopeless. Stay. You cannot make it on your own.”
And when I was mentally beaten into submission, my abuser’s tone changed. There was yelling. Cursing. Screaming. I was put down on a constant (and chronic) basis. They “loved” me, overtly and covertly — keeping me from friends and family. I was manipulated in ways I didn’t understand, and both the short- and long-term effects were damning. My self-esteem has been shattered. I often feel I am worthless and broken beyond repair. I also struggle with mental illness; anxiety colors my days, and depression consumes most nights.
That said, I am not alone. Millions of individuals have experienced the effects of verbal and/or emotional abuse, individuals like Sara — who survived an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship — and Brandie, who survived an abusive marriage.
“When I was in an abusive relationship, I questioned everything,” Sara said. “I hated myself and felt like I was an awful person. Like I was going nuts.”
Brandie tells Scary Mommy she “didn’t recognize” herself anymore. “I stopped showering, stopped brushing my hair, and didn’t care what I wore,” she says. “I also NEVER smiled in pictures… because I couldn’t. It hurt too much.” But the long term effects have been particularly damning — for myself, Sara, Brandie, and all of the individuals I spoke with.
“I have beyond low self esteem,” Brandie says. “I question every decision I make and put myself down.” One woman, whose name we’ve withheld at her request, echoed a similar sentiment.
“It’s been over three years since my relationship ended, and a bit over two years since I last saw him in person… but I still feel unsafe and violated,” she said. “I still feel worthless.”
Why? Because while bruises fade and wounds heal, the pain of verbal and emotional abuse — scratch that, the pain of any form of abuse — remains. Events like these shift your mind. Your character. They alter who you are. According to the Office on Women’s Health, many survivors of abuse struggle with shame and guilt. They also feel helpless and hopeless. They struggle to feel safe and secure in their body (and their voice).
The good news is, there is help, and hope. You do not have to be hurt or victimized any more. This isn’t your cross to bear. It is not your lot in life. And while walking away sounds easy — while overcoming, rather, undoing the effects of said abuse seems easy — I’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t. Leaving an abusive relationship is hard, and undoing the toxic tapes is damn near impossible. But you can do it. You can get out, and I promise you: There is light on the other side.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. If you aren’t in immediate danger and/or you have an opportunity to reach out, do. Confide in a trusted friend, family member, therapist, and/or volunteer with an abuse shelter or call a domestic violence hotline.