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Sarah asks: Is verbal abuse really abuse?

Originally posted September 15, 2019.

It was a few months before Sarah felt she trusted me enough to reveal what she felt was her deepest internalized shame.

Initial consultation

We began with an initial consultation. Her primary care physician (PCP) suggested she seek counseling in order to help alleviate her symptoms of anxiety. He had prescribed an anti-anxiety medication and also suggested she find a therapist. She told me she was feeling very anxious, found herself on the verge of tears several times a week, was increasingly irritable and was working to control angry outbursts. She also said she was not sleeping very well ….for “no reason.”

I asked how I might help her. I asked Sarah what her thoughts were about her current life situation that might be contributing to her emotional state.

Sarah started by saying she was happily married. Overall, she said her husband was respectful and had a good job. She and her husband wanted children, but they had not yet begun their family.

We also discussed her history. Sarah grew up in a household with alcohol and marijuana addictions. Also, she had been the victim of a date rape in college, where the perpetrator had “roofied” her drink.

She said she had acute awareness about these issues, thought about these situations often, but had not processed them in counseling as of yet.

Structure of therapy

Sarah decided she felt comfortable enough with me to move forward with therapy. I described the therapy as consisting of talk therapy incorporated with Somatic Experiencing® work. These tools allow access to the younger self’s feelings of abandonment and fear via non-verbal body memories. Once accessed and explored, these insights could be felt and verbalized, and integrated into the container of her present adult self.

Content of therapy: Past issues – neglect and shame

In the first sessions, we talked about her family of origin, her mother’s addiction and angry emotional outbursts, verbal belittling and general neglect. As a young child, Sarah often had to fend for herself for food. She recalled having to scrounge up rides to and from school events and often being scared and walking long distances after being left somewhere unfamiliar without a ride home.

Her parents were so wrapped up in their own problems that sometimes neither one went grocery shopping and there wasn’t food in the house. So, she sometimes went to school hungry, without breakfast. At least once or twice a month, she wouldn’t have lunch money and she’d go hungry the entire day. Her parents weren’t involved enough to sign up for the school lunch program that was available for families in need. She’d witness huge fights and run up to her room to hide to get away from the angry voices.

Other layered issues – trauma and shame from date rape

In subsequent sessions, we then explored the traumatic memories and feelings of shame around the rape incident. Sarah described how naive she was, at the age of nineteen. She was a freshman, living at her college dorm. She had been at a party in her dorm and was with two friends. She went with them to a mutual friend’s room, another boy, to wind down the evening and talk and rest.

However, this person manipulated the situation so that she was alone with him in his room, where he put a roofie into her water bottle and raped her. While she was in the room alone with him, her two friends became concerned, knocked on the door and called her name. They assumed she was ok as she wasn’t calling out and left to go back to their dorm.

Sarah woke up a few hours later in bed with him. He said to her, “Hi! Don’t you remember what happened? You came back here with me…” She had no memory of what happened, but her clothes were all off. She was shocked and scared. He behaved as if it had been consensual. Confused and ashamed, she wondered if she had, indeed, come to the room and consented to sex.

Sarah said she was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened. She felt as if the whole incident was her fault. she lost confidence in the good nature of people and felt no one could be trusted. The world seemed a terrible, lonely place. She became depressed. Her grades suffered. Eventually, she went to the college campus counseling center for help. She stopped out of college for a while, went back home and started commuting from home to get her degree on a part-time basis.

She never shared this incident with her family or with any of her friends. Her home was still unstable. But, as an adult, she had a place to live. She coped by avoiding the house as much as possible. She could work part time and get her studies done part time. We processed the incident on and off, at her own pace.

Slowing things down in therapy

A solid therapeutic relationship had formed. Sarah was more and more comfortable about sharing the incidents of her life that felt shameful to her. She found she wasn’t judged. But her anxiety was still interfering with her life. However, long term anxiety can take a long time to abate, and she had a lifetime of events to process and shed guilt over.

Present day issues

One day Sarah came in more anxious than usual. She was on the verge of tears. Haltingly, she described what happened at home. She said that she and her husband had gone out with another couple for dinner. At the dinner, her husband had needled her about her housekeeping. He made several veiled references to how she didn’t vacuum often enough and left her clothes around the house.

What is this insidious behavior – is it really abuse?

When they got home, she asked him why he had brought things up like that in front of their friends. He laughed at her and started calling her names, i.e., stupid lazy bitch. She was like, don’t call me that, and laughed some more and then said, “Oh, Sweetie, I’m only kidding, I just wanted to see your reaction.” Then he started kissing her neck and guided her onto the bed. She felt this what love is supposed to be, she asked herself…? She felt uncomfortable and kind of numb, but eventually acquiesced.

Sarah slowly revealed bits and pieces of what her daily married life was like. Somehow, she said, she gets blamed for everything. Sarah said that she felt like something was wrong, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was. She felt like she was trying to be good enough to make her husband approve of her, but whatever she did, it wasn’t enough to get him to approve of her.

Is this normal? Is this healthy?

Sarah wanted to know if this pattern in marriage relationships was normal.

I gently told her I thought what she was describing was verbal and emotional abuse. I said that it was possible that other relationships could be different and that she herself actually deserved to have a better marriage relationship. And maybe a good way to look at the emotional patterns in her relationship might be “Is this a healthy way of being?”

We went through a list of some behaviors that are sometimes difficult to identify, but actually are considered verbally abusive behaviors. These behaviors overlap. The goal is power and control in the relationship.

Three patterns of verbal abuse:

Pretending it was a joke

“Oh, I was just joking, you’re too sensitive.”

Sarah’s husband would habitually belittle her in front of other people. When she would ask him about it later on, he would backtrack, and say he was just joking and she was too sensitive. And then teasingly use sex to change the subject. He was conflating humor, affection and sex in an emotionally confusing mash-up. He was establishing power and control in the relationship and building himself up at Sarah’s expense.


“I never did that..You’re imagining that.”

Gaslighting is a major way to manipulate and maintain power and control in a relationship. Sarah’s husband would make plans for them to go out to dinner or even plan a vacation, then act as if he never made those plans with her. She would be ready to go out to eat, or even make plans at work to take time off, and he would act as if he never made those plans. He would actually say to her, “I never said that” or “You’re imagining that. I didn’t say I wanted to go to Maine the second week of July. Why would I do that?” Sarah would then be thrown off kilter and doubt her own perceptions.

The term gaslighting is taken from the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” wherein a criminal marries a woman for her extensive jewelry collection. With the goal of eventual theft of the jewels, he covertly manipulates the lighting and their belongings, causing her to severely doubt her perceptions.

Discounting Your Thoughts and Feelings

“You don’t know what you are talking about.”

Sarah’s husband would subtly put Sarah down when she brought up almost any issue. He opposed her about everything. Discussions about diet, fat, vitamins were frustrating and she always felt put down and shut down. His way or the highway. Political discussions were particularly difficult. But Sarah was at a point in her life where she felt she needed to become a more informed voter. Starting with local elections, she researched the past two years of voting records and multiple stances of the candidates in her county and state. She was proud of her self for taking the time to read in-depth articles and actual voting histories, available online, of the people running for local public office. One evening, she brought up her preferences. Her husband slammed her opinion quickly, saying “You don’t know what you are talking about.

Instead of shutting down as she usually did, Sarah calmly came back at him, citing the valid research material she had read and the points she formulated from the material. She stated whom she supported. Then she asked him for his reference materials. He, of course, had none. He huffed, said he didn’t agree with her and ended the conversation.

Gaining personal power

Gaining personal power

But Sarah had actually gained some personal power in the relationship.

After noting the patterns appearing consistently in her husband, Sarah outlined the above behaviors to him. He was taken aback, but did admit that he might sometimes go too far. He said that he wanted to salvage their marriage. They agreed to try marriage counseling.

Stay tuned for the results of this work in progress!


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