It is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
[from a Maskil of David, c. 1000 BC]
My memories of elementary school are fragmentary, and mostly negative. School yard bullies found me an easy mark, and always seemed to find me. Only rarely did physical violence transpire. I don’t remember being beat up; I do remember being shoved, Napoleon Dynamite style, into lockers. What flew mostly in these encounters were not fists but words. Only words, but they were powerful. Powerful to hurt, to cause shame, to instill fear, to wound so deeply that being beat up seemed preferable. It’s simply not true that words can never harm you. Some can tear at the fabric of your soul.
Power is never distributed completely evenly. Throughout the day, in various settings and relationships the equation shifts. At times by personality, expertise, age, size, or position we hold the greater balance of power. How we use it is a measure of our character. Sadly, in a broken world, we can misuse the power we hold. In such settings, when words are thrown, intentionally or not, to coerce or control or shame or belittle, it’s called verbal abuse.
It can be hard to take words all that seriously. For one thing, sarcasm is fun. For another, our cynical age so echos with the highly charged rhetoric of talk-show hosts, evangelical pundits, and political commentators that it’s easy to think words don’t matter all that much. The apostle James, however, would not agree. He describes the tongue and the power of words to harm and abuse in terms that are worth reflecting on with care:
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men [and women], who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers [and sisters], this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers [and sisters], can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:2-12).
If that sounds melodramatic—our tongues a fire set on fire by hell—it only proves how far we are from seeing the power of words realistically. Words that harm can wound hearts, kill dreams, fragment homes, extinguish hope, subvert love, poison a person’s view of covenant relationships, wreck community, and shrivel souls.
Verbal abuse can occur in any relationship. In a small group Bible study I can add to the discussion or I can subtly manipulate people to accept what I say (“It’s obvious…” “The very best commentators agree that…”). Instead of simply requesting help I can remind someone of how I’ve helped them, using guilt to get my way. Or I can use humor to embarrass someone and when they are hurt reflect the criticism back on them (“It was only a joke, for goodness sake; you’re too thin-skinned”). As if the problem was in them.
Of course, among good friends who are equally adept at the fine art, a well-crafted insult can be cherished like a prized memory. Literature and the media are full of classics, old and new.
“There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.” (Shakespeare, Henry V)
“[Thou] appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
“Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!” (Shakespeare, Timon of Athens)
“[Thy] kiss is comfortless as frozen water to a starved snake.” (Troilus and Cressida)
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” (Groucho Marx)
“If you ever become a mother, can I have one of the puppies?” (Charles Pierce)
“You’re a good example of why some animals eat their young.” (Jim Samuels)
Though verbal abuse can occur in any relationship, special concern needs to be given to its appearance in the home. The family is of vital importance both in the life of every individual and for the health of the wider society. Fathers who use words to harm help shape an unhealthy picture of God in their offspring. Women and children are easily abused since they are generally less powerful than men. And abuse in the home occurs behind closed doors, where it can be kept out of sight.
Christians who desire to be faithful as agents of reconciliation and healing in this sad world need to be aware of verbal abuse. We need to carefully consider how we use words, being sure our tongues are used to heal and not to harm. We need to know that verbal abuse occurs in the homes of Christians as well as in the homes of non-Christians. (In fact, studies show the rate of abuse is virtually identical in both categories.) And we need to make sure our living rooms are safe places for people who have suffered patterns of verbal abuse to share the pain they struggle to understand and perhaps are embarrassed to name.
A good place to begin is learning to identify, to name the types or categories of verbal abuse so we can recognize them for what they are.
Categories of verbal abuse
In The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans identifies 15 types of verbal abuse.
1. Withholding. The abuser uses silence, or a refusal to talk as a way to keep intimacy and communication from deepening. It is, Evans says, “a choice to keep virtually all one’s thought’s, feelings, hopes and dreams to oneself and to remain silent and aloof towards one’s partner, to reveal as little as possible, and to maintain an attitude of cool indifference.” Statements like “There’s nothing to talk about,” or “What do you want me to say?” effectively end meaningful conversation.
2. Countering. The abuser finds ways to counter the ideas, dreams, or beliefs of the other person, constantly insisting on an opposite perspective. It’s not cold but cool, the colors don’t match but are off, critics would agree with me that the film isn’t well made. These are not honest differences of opinion honestly discussed, but statements to end conversation, assertions that merely counter what the other has said. Attempts to sort it out are often met with, “You’re just twisting my words around.”
3. Discounting. This form of abuse “denies the reality and experience of the partner and is extremely destructive,” Evans says. The statements used to discount are common enough. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “You’re too sensitive.” “You take things too seriously.” “You take everything the wrong way.” Rather than address the difference in perspective, the abusive statements dismiss the person as incapable of having a perspective worth addressing.
4. Abusive jokes. Bringing up embarrassing moments or the unfortunate mistakes of someone might end an argument or produce a laugh from friends, but it can scar the other person. “It cuts to the quick,” Evans says, “touches the most sensitive areas, and leaves the abuser with a look of triumph.” If the partner is hurt, the abuser simply responds, smugly, “You can’t take a joke,” which only twists the knife. This form of abuse is doubly tempting, because humor can be redemptive (though abusive jokes never are), and because in a cynical age such comments seem like second nature.
5. Blocking and diverting. Here the abuser refuses to truly communicate and finds ways to control what is discussed and when. “Just drop it!” and “You always have to be right” don’t resolve anything but they effectively end meaningful communication. Or the conversation can be diverted by switching the topic, raising unimportant issues, or making irrelevant comments designed to elicit a response. It can be hard to talk through hard things, but this sort of rhetorical manipulation is unkind and never helpful.
6. Accusing and blaming. Since we are all broken people, it is easy to find something in the other person that is wrong, but here the point is not to help someone grow but to wound them or control a conversation. Our anger is blamed on them, though the responsibility is ours. They are blamed for our failure though the fault is ours. “If you had made dinner on time we wouldn’t be in this mess” isn’t a way to express love or an excuse for my irritability.
7. Judging and criticizing. We all know these are potent weapons, and chances are have felt the sting of the abuse. “Your problem is…” “If only you had…” “She’d lose her head if it wasn’t attached.” The Scriptures teach us that the law kills, so Christians should know how such statements are always abusive. Being judged or criticized by someone we love can be extremely painful, especially if the judgment is expressed harshly. Words like that can be impossible to forget.
8. Trivializing. The abuser lets the other person know that whatever she is, knows, or does, is insignificant. It may be expressed overtly (“Can’t you do anything of value?”) or cynically (“Oh, isn’t that nice!”) or subtly (“Wow, am I impressed!”). Finding ways to belittle a person makes the abuser feel both powerful and significant, but the self-esteem achieved is pure wickedness. A person made in God’s image has been trivialized, which is nothing less than trivializing God himself.
9. Undermining. Statements of disgust or other forms of put-down (“It’s over your head,” or “Whom are you trying to impress?”) effectively undermine the person’s self-esteem and equality. Interrupting them undermines them as well as controls the interaction. “Who cares?” is easy to say, but it’s meaning cuts deep. It suggests the partner is out of their depth, and unworthy of careful attention.
10. Threatening. The threats will vary, since they will always be fine tuned to strike fear in the heart of the one being threatened. It might be a threat to leave, or to be hurt, or to be angry, or to be disappointed. In the home such threats are profoundly manipulative because wives and children realize instinctively the covenant nature of the family must not be broken. Thus on top of fear, guilt for threatening the relationship is born—when in reality the threatened person is innocent.
11. Name calling. It’s not just school-yard bullies that assign hurtful nicknames, and even sweet names can be said sarcastically. I know of a 12 year old boy who came home with a large black and blue knot on his forehead. He had been playing basketball and collided with a team mate in the rush to the basket. His father asked only “Did you cry?” and when the boy admitted he had, “sort of,” the father snorted, “Real men don’t cry,” and went back to his study.
12. Forgetting. “I don’t know what you are talking about” and “I never agreed to that” are designed to control, to deny, and to manipulate. Since we do all forget things, this form of verbal abuse is especially effective since it raises doubts about what really did transpire. It’s also very convenient for the abuser, since it can be difficult to prove them wrong.
13. Ordering. Parents and spouses have all sorts of loving ways to ask someone to come to them without having to say, “Get in here!” This is not to deny that parents have a proper authority which should be exercised to save a child from their own worst tendencies. But some men have a pattern of ordering their family around—and in Christian circles such abuse is even defended at times with appeals to the Bible.
14 Denial. “I never said that.” “You’re getting upset about nothing.” “I don’t where you got that.” “You’re making that up.” Such statements end civil conversation by contradicting someone in the strongest possible terms. Done frequently enough, it can make the recipient wonder if they might not be crazy.
15. Abusive anger. Some men hold their wives and children hostage to the possibility of their anger and disapproval. It need not take the form of physical abuse—ranting, shouting, cold silence, and a look or glare of accusation all can be equally effective. What is so wicked about the exchange is that the abuser can feel pleased and self-righteous about the exchange, while the abused feels guilty for once again having failed to live up to expectations.
Dr Barbara Schaffer, a therapist with long experience with abused persons adds a 16th category:
16. Bible guilt-tripping. Scripture, God’s loving self-disclosure of grace in Christ can be twisted and used as a weapon. Verses are quoted to make someone feel they don’t measure up, or to manipulate them into agreeing to believe in or do something. This is especially corrosive when the person being abused really does want to follow Christ.
There may be other ways to categorize verbal abuse, but these 16 categories are a good place to begin. They are ways that words can be used to harm. They can be used on a schoolyard or in the marketplace, though when they become a pattern in the relationships in a home they are especially destructive.
“If anyone considers himself religious,” James writes, “and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (1:26). All of us Christians who take our faith seriously will want to take note.
Questions1. Identify the relationships of your life, both significant and extremely occasional, in terms of the power distribution involved. In which ones are you (relatively) powerful? Less powerful? Entirely powerless? Have you considered them in this light before?
2. What forms of verbal abuse have you suffered? How have they affected you?
3. What forms of verbal abuse have you witnessed? Where?
4. Which category of verbal abuse are you most tempted to use? In what situations? With whom?
5. Who do you need to approach to ask forgiveness?
6. Do you know of someone safe to talk about such things? Are you safe for people to talk to?
7. Whom have you known who consistently models a tongue that heals instead of harms?
8. How can you grow to be more like them? Since rules (the power of the law) will not tame our tongue, what power is sufficient? How can the grace of God be applied to our use of words? How can we grow in this area without getting discouraged? How can we practically help one another?