“Verbal abuse is a violation, not a conflict.” – Patricia Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond
I know I must write author Patricia Evans into my top 40 list, and her books are significant. But—and I rarely use the word but—I’m also afraid. In fact, I’ve already written this post in my journal, and am only transcribing it now, but I yearn for a shot of tequila, a bit of self-medicating. I’ll resist, because I know my fear from writing about this topic comes from both old scars and concern that me naming this personally will cause harm to people with whom I once shared life and dreams, and have a different experience than mine. So I must be very brave, and do it anyway. Simply because until I knew what verbal abuse is, I didn’t know. And that may be true for you, or someone you know.
I knew something was wrong, for a long time. I felt like I was suffocating. There’s a story in this book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond, about a frog and pot of water. In the story, the frog who is placed in the pot of room temperature water, and slowly brought to a boil, dies, unaware of the increasing heat and danger. In contrast, the frog who is dropped into a pot of boiling water leaps out, aware this is not a good place to be. In 2008, I realized I was in a slow boil, and books from Patricia Evans, a great local therapist, and a few compassionate friends gave me the courage to leap.
When I began reading the pages of this book, my world collapsed. I recall sitting in the chair next to my husband with some television show on, reading. I ended up staying up all that night, nearly finishing the book, heart pounding, in tears. Finally, someone described my feelings and experience—there wasn’t something wrong with me after all. I wasn’t imagining, and I understood what previously, I could not.
“The effects of verbal abuse are primarily quantitative. That is, they cannot be seen like the effects of physical abuse. … My primary purpose is to enable you, the reader, to recognize verbal abuse. Since verbal abuse is experiential in nature, this book, as a whole, is about experience. Significant facts which add perspective the material in the book are these:
Generally, in a verbally abusive relationship the abuser denies the abuse.
Verbal abuse most often takes place behind closed doors.
Physical abuse is always preceded by verbal abuse.” (19)
A light bulb in me clicked when Evans described two types of people—those who live in the world with an orientation toward Power Over, “manifested by dominion and control,” and people with Personal Power, manifested by, “mutuality and co-creation.” Because I orientate and root in personal power, I seek connection and mutuality and assume everyone else seeks this same thing. This isn’t true. And for a person like me who lived with a kind person orientated toward power over, it was crazy making. Confusion is constant, as too is second guessing, and figuring out how to express oneself in order to be understood and heard. I got good at trying and internalizing.
I don’t want to write much more about my own relationship(s) right now, but am open to facilitating groups or speaking one-on-one. I may write more one day. For now, suffice it to say, I have been alone for several years, somewhat purposefully. Why? I read this book in 2008, and wept. I began meeting with an excellent therapist in early 2009, on my own life journey and psychology. I met with a separate therapist and my husband for couples therapy. Sadly, although my husband wanted to change, he didn’t understand what I was asking for and expressing. I was drifting, grieving, terrified, and very much alone—though on the surface, no one probably had an inkling unless I revealed it. Something deeper in me flickered, choosing to fight for my life, my unlived life, and my future. I asked for a separation in 2009, and for the next year sought healing and integration in hopes that I could live into my no matter what marriage vows. I could not. Too much had passed, and I’d kept quiet—mostly to myself—for far too long. In the fall of 2010, on an incredibly poignant day, I told my husband it was time for me to go. It’s one thing to grieve a child who has died—I couldn’t change that. It’s quite another, I told my therapist, to know I was causing harm, by full and deliberate choice, to a person I loved, but could no longer live with.
Some patterns of verbal abuse that Evans describes include: interactions rarely seen in public; the interaction “which upsets, hurts, or confuses” is unexpected and can occur when someone is feeling happy, enthusiastic, or successful. The interactions become familiar. The partner may “communicate distain for her interest,” and the mate “does not seem to seek reconciliation or even be bothered by the incident.” Between the interactions which “upset, hurt or confuse” the relationship “seems to be functional. Often the person becomes isolated, and the mate defines the partner “in a way that is very different from his partner’s experience.” Finally, truth isn’t spoken. The partner “does not say to the abuser what she hears him say to her” (75-76). *Note, this book is primarily written for women about male abusers, thus this gendered language.
The type of verbal abuse I experienced was subtle. Friends to whom I’ve recommended this book have replied to me, “this isn’t verbal abuse, this is normal.” I disagree. We all recognize outright nasty verbal abuse like name-calling and so forth. Evans goes deeper, describing categories being, “withholding, countering, discounting, verbal abuse disguised as jokes, blocking and diverting, accusing and blaming, judging and criticizing, trivializing, undermining, threatening, name calling, forgetting, ordering, denial, and abusive anger.” She writes at length about each of these.
The bottom line is that verbal abuse prevents rich, meaningful relationships and an ability to engage or respond to a partner. Verbal abuse is psychologically damaging and violent, and defines another person’s reality for them.
This is an in my head, cognitive reflection, and I want to include this description of recovery which describes much of what I’ve lived the past few years. I am emerging again, ready for new beginnings and possibility as so many parts of me come alive, healed, whole, and full of potential and self-respect. I’ve learned to hold onto myself, not fuse with someone emotionally, and will never again, as described in the book Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, be in a crucible where my partner or mate “can always force you to choose between keeping your integrity and staying married, between ‘holding onto yourself’ and holding onto your partner” (47).
My journey since my divorce in 2011 has included recovering my spirit, which had been fractured even before my marriage. Evans describes, “Part of the recovery is the grieving of loss, and part of the grieving of loss is the recovery of the spirit. In life, much of what one grieves, one never had. For example, the partner may realize she was never accepted by her mate because of his overwhelming need to control and dominate her. Her grief would be acknowledgment that a human need was not met—a value not attained. She could not feel this kind of loss—the loss of what she never had—unless her spirit knew its needs and rights” (157).
I am so grateful for the loving God I know—even if that God is so completely mysterious and genderless and indescribable now. What I do know is this—I orientate toward life, and some part of me was very brave and courageous to stand for life, healing and wholeness, and my needs and rights. I’m embarrassed I didn’t understand what was happening to me, and I know that we only move as fast as the slowest part of ourselves. I am grateful for my former husband, and he is a good man who has a rightful place as my first husband.
Patricia Evans has written several books. I have all of them, and extras of a few of them if locals want a loaner. My personal copies are highlighted with writing in the margins, thus very personal. If you, or someone you know suspects verbal abuse, please take time to learn about it.
ps: Music heals and brings me delight and courage. I discovered this song, Brave, last week on Josh Groban’s newest CD, All That Echoes. Perhaps you too might like it, a lot.