The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part I)

Verbal abuse can be many things, it can be obvious – yelling, name-calling, criticizing, threatening – or it can be hidden behind “being helpful” or “joking”.  All abuse leaves behind scars – visible or not.

“Sometimes, child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.”ANAR

The verbal abuse of my childhood have become the negative tapes I play in my head as an adult.  Continuing to believe that words do NOT hurt and that the problem lies solely with the person in pain is valiantly negated by applied psycholinguistic expert, Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.

I recently read one of her books on verbal abuse and another on manipulation as the two are often linked:

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.: “You Can’t Say That to Me!” (verbal abuse)

Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D.: “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” (manipulation)

Both books focus on the mechanics of verbal abuse and manipulation and offer a practical guide to dealing with both.  There is little to no focus on dealing with the emotions (guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, etc.) evoked by VAM and how that plays into deciding the right solution for the reader.  However, both authors recognize that the advice is limited when dealing with verbal abusers* and/or manipulators with genuine psychological problems.  They yield to the fact that the solution may be to withdraw from the relationship.

Overall, I found their information helpful for improving my communication and dealing with difficult people in general, not only narcissists.  The book by Elgin came to me at the right point in this journey and I thank Kitty for the recommendation.  Here is what I learned (part 1) and the methods Elgin discusses in her book (part 2).

The Purpose of Verbal Abuse and Manipulation (VAM)

The purpose of verbal abuse and manipulation is NOT to cause pain.

The purpose of the response to VAM is to alleviate pain.

VAM are not designed to hurt.  They are about:


Elgin and Braiker taught me that understanding these opposing purposes is key to dealing with verbal abuse and/or manipulation.

In verbal abuse, the purpose is to demonstrate power by attracting and holding the attention of the person being spoken to (receiver) and then provoking an emotional reaction (ER) that validates their power.  In manipulation, the purpose is to feel powerful (superior) and control what you do for them – a certain task (“work”) or a specific response.  The control over the receiver does two things: 1) provides a feeling of being in control and 2) further validates the manipulator’s power.

None of these purposes are a part of healthy conversations/interactions.  In healthy conversations, the purpose is to inform, share, comfort, pass the time, etc.  And in healthy interactions, the purpose is to be considerate of both parties (boundaries) in an open, honest manner.  

Elgin on Verbal Abuse (VA)

Elgin highlights the fact that VA can look and sound like healthy conversations especially if the verbal abuser is skilled.  But the crucial difference remains: chronic verbal abusers** are only interested in serving their purpose.  

The opposing purposes between the chronic verbal abuser (CVA) and the intended receiver ultimately reveals that:

The verbal abuser is NOT interested in the response to a question or statement.  

When dealing with someone who chronically verbally abuses, Elgin claims that the common methods we use are not effective.  The following are legitimate methods in human communication but when it involves chronic verbal abuse, they become ineffective:

  1. Pleading: asking them to stop in an emotional and serious way
  2. Counterattacking: responding in an abusive manner which includes using verbal abuse, leaving the room*** or ignoring the attack
  3. Debating: reasoning with them using logic, evidence, facts, etc. (I include JADE – justify, argue, defend, explain)

All of these fulfill the CVA’s purpose: to keep the attention on them and to provoke an emotional reaction (ER) demonstrating their power.  I was surprised to learn that all these reactions are satisfactory to the CVA.  The most desirable being pleading and to a lesser degree the subsequent ones but ALL feed verbal abuse.  As long as we respond in a way that serves their purpose, the CVA will come back for more.

Personally, I found this list to be helpful in two ways: 1) What to Stop Doing with CVAs and 2) Signs of Potential Chronic Abuse.  How a person responds to any of the above behaviors could be telling of the degree of chronic abuse one is dealing with.  If one pleaded, a non-CVA would stop.  If one counterattacked, a non-CVA would take notice that the conversation ceased.  If one debated, a non-CVA would continue the debate and it would develop into a healthy conversation about an idea/concept.

Sticks and Stones do Hurt, as do the Words we Blurt

When I thought about my FOO and in-laws while reading this book, I began to notice how language is used in my environment.  The way I learned to speak came from my FOO together with culture and my environment.  It is something I had never thought of until I was faced with my own misery.

By the end of the book I realized that how my FOO/in-laws and I use language is unhealthy and the definition of verbal abuse could be expanded to:

any manner in which the language (word choice, inflection, decibel, etc.) is used that does NOT serve to engage the other in a healthy conversation or interaction

Example of word choice misuse that does not engage in healthy conversations are mentioned at PWN (post: Negative Control and the Narcissist’s Use of It).

It is often word choices and small variations in the language that skilled CVAs use.  In the follow-up post I will discuss the methods that Elgin recommends.


Further Reading 

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D: Frequently Asked Questions about Verbal Abuse and Verbal Self-Defense

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D: How Verbal Defense Works (article summarizing key principles from book)

*Elgin does address the fact there are different types of verbal abusers – ones that are not aware of the language they use to the other extreme where there are deep psychological problems (disorders,etc.)

**The term verbal abuser is used to refer to a person who frequently and consistently uses verbal abuse to communicate – the chronic abuser.

***The response is not referring to estrangement or low contact or no contact.

17 thoughts on “The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part I)

  1. Interesting, though I don’t agree that verbal abuse is not intended to hurt. I agree my NM wants the attention, but often her verbal abuse is to punish me. That’s when one of those narcissist cues comes in handy: The tiny smile she can never hide right before she says something she knows will hurt me. When my EF says nasty things to me it’s also to “get back at me” for saying or doing something he didn’t like… Thinking of my own communication and yes, verbal abuse, because I did, after all, learn the lessons well… when I say something nasty, it’s usually with the intent to “get them where it hurts.” I don’t like that about myself and work to not do that. I’ve apologized on many an occasion for saying something nasty. I endeavor to keep those kinds of comments to venting to someone safe. Thanks so much for sharing, TR. I’m curious what your other commenters will say on this.


    • The tiny smile, that is adding salt to the wound. I often saw my mom smile after I was hurt too. I don’t like what I learned either. I also find that the way we speak and what we think are ‘nice’ phrases to hear are based on the fact it has developed so – culturally or within a family or a group of friends. Often, I didn’t really think about what it meant, rather that was what one says in response to certain phrases.

      Regard to the mechanics of VA. Elgin addresses the intent to hurt the receiver. It is part of the total mechanism. She uses the word purpose to refer to the ‘why’ they do it as in their final goal. To achieve their final goal they use the tool of evoking our emotions (whether it is shame, guilt, fear, etc. depends on the receiver’s buttons or what has worked for a long time) to get what they want. So the phrase is said to hurt us or fear us so that they get their final result – power or control. When Elgin describes the mechanics like this I was a bit lost and then I had to really think about it and re-read it several times. Our emotions are the tools they use to serve their purpose. Elgin does not go into verbal abuse to punish however in the manipulation book Braiker talks about punishment as a form of manipulation – this could be carried out with verbal abuse. xx


  2. Hi TR,
    This is a brilliant post. I particularly liked this point:
    “the crucial difference remains: chronic verbal abusers** are only interested in serving their purpose. ”
    and this:
    “The verbal abuser is NOT interested in the response to a question or statement. ” They both explain my brother’s style of communication perfectly. The last contact I had with him illustrates both these points:
    Him: “Is the climate better”
    Me: ” So, so”
    Him: “How’s DH?”
    Me: “Fine”
    Him: “And you?”
    Me: “Fine too. Painting the living room. Yourselves?”
    Him: “Enduring…”
    So there you have it: he wasn’t interested in my response, his whole communication is designed to direct the conversation to talk about HIM. Well, come to think of it, it’s not a conversation, it’s a fly trap 😉 (When telling other people that I was painting the living room their usual response is “what colour?”) I can see that it’s exactly like you describe: “In verbal abuse, the purpose is to demonstrate power by attracting and holding the attention of the person being spoken to (receiver) and then provoking an emotional reaction (ER) that validates their power.” I did not reply to the “Enduring…” It either puts you in the position of Rescuer or Persecutor depending on how you reply. Not playing that game anymore.
    I’d been so looking forward to your review of this book. I look forward to read part 2. xxoo
    I’ve also noticed with my brother that his conversation is drip by drip rather than asking the questions like a normal person does. I’m sure that is also related to the holding of power and control.


    • Hi Kara,
      Thank you. It isn’t a healthy conversation. When we really look at the dialogue with CVAs there seems to be no purpose to us but to them they are getting the attention. I often say that my in-laws talk about nothing. It feels like a nothing conversation but Elgin helped me see that it isn’t serving a shared purpose so that is why if feels like we are talking about nothing on mine and DH’s end.

      Yes, the ‘enduring’ does put you in the rescuer or persecutor spot and that puts the focus on them and their situation. Well done. Indeed, Game Over 🙂

      What do you mean by drip by drip?



    • Hi guys, I love the analysis of how power dynamics are encoded in syntax itself. Like Kara, the “drip drip” mode of communication was how my NM operated, on email, on the phone. If I didn’t draw her out, I was accused of being “reticent” or “uncommunicative.” We learn as children the power dynamics in syntax, even if we can’t explain why. Bringing it into the open, as Elgin does, helps us see the dynamic that conveys aggression even without any of the “usual” abusive terms or phrases being used. I always saw the complete and sudden changing of the subject as a form of abuse. i.e.: whatever i”m talking about in my life, my father would be silent, then say: “so when are you coming home to visit?’ This was many years ago; but I’d have something interesting to report, and he’d be silent then ask that question. It infuriated beyond belief.


      • Hi TR,
        The “drip drip” is like CS said: they communicate by “drip drip” so as to make you draw them out. Basically, they throw in a question, as an opening and expect you to “carry” the conversation. For instance, my brother could have asked what he did all in the same slot, rather than asking the questions one by one. (i.e. “how are you guys? is the weather still bad?”) But he doesn’t do that, because he’s not interested in the answers. He’s using the questions as an “opening” to be able to tell me about himself. Case in point: when I didn’t reply to his “Enduring…” , a day later he sent another message saying that there is something wrong with his feet (Calcaneal spur) and that they’re painful. I made a brief remark on it that sort of ended the conversation and then he came back with: “The doctor wants to give Jake (his 5 yr old son) medication but we don’t want to give it to him because he’s too little.” I simply replied: “Ok”. Since this was clearly not the response he was hoping for, he resorted to phone me later that day. Except that, alas! 😉 I was making dinner and couldn’t chat. It is well and truly Game Over 🙂
        Thank you for helping me out so much to “unravel” this patterns of communication.

        Kara xx


      • Hi Kara and CS,

        Ah, I get it. Drip drip is common with BiL and SiL and FiL. I love how you put the responsibility back on your brother – making it how it needs to be 50-50.

        I believe you unraveled the patterns all on your own, you have made great progress with handling communication with your FOO.
        Hugs, TR


  3. Thanks TR for this post. I found it very interesting and it is a common form of abuse in my FOO and with my in-laws. I wish I had more to comment, but as I’m a bit ill, my words seem to have fluttered out of my head ;).
    I look forward to Part 2!


    • OK, one more thing to add: I followed your link to PWN and found this interesting:

      “Instead of just saying, “Go outside,” which is positive control, they invert it and make you justify your behavior from the outset: Why don’t you go outside?”

      That point of having to justify your behavior from the outset really struck me. It really puts you in a subordinate position, as all VAM does. Healthy relationships maintain that both parties are equals. I’ve seen this topic explored in various ways (Sweet Violet has a good post on it) and you’d think it would’ve sunk in for me by now. 🙂 For me, it’s a hard lesson to unlearn.

      I can think, specifically of my MIL. Nothing she says is overtly rude (well sometimes it is) but is often in this “round about” way of talking that always seems to put me on the defensive. I always feel I must “qualify” myself to her or “prove” my opinions or even my worthiness. Hmmm. Lots to think about.


      • And I really should’ve finished ready her post before I fully commented, but I noticed another thing. MIL often states her opinions and then says “don’t you think?” or some other thing that forces you to “contradict” her. It instantly sets us up as “advisories” when I don’t go along. It leaves me in a horrible position of keeping quiet (and not looking like I’m “picking a fight” or “being difficult”) or denying my right to have my own opinion. It really has hampered our relationship, as she has never actually gotten to know me for me. She does not allow for me to be my own person or express any interest in my “real” thoughts.

        P.S. Again, sorry this is so disjointed. My brain is so foggy with this cold. Probably should save commenting until I feel better ;).


      • Hi Jessie,

        This is brilliant: “It instantly sets us up as “advisories” when I don’t go along. It leaves me in a horrible position of keeping quiet (and not looking like I’m “picking a fight” or “being difficult”) or denying my right to have my own opinion. It really has hampered our relationship, as she has never actually gotten to know me for me. She does not allow for me to be my own person or express any interest in my “real” thoughts.”

        That is it, it leaves no room for us to say what we think, it becomes about the position – superior vs inferior. I feel like this too with my in-laws. We could never have a healthy conversation and how can we have any sort of relationship without a true dialogue. In good conversation there is room for another person’t thoughts and ideas to be shared. It does, in fact, deny us the room to share it in a very subtle way. Thereby, killing the dialogue and eventually the relationship.

        Not disjointed at all. I hope you are feeling better today. Hugs, TR


  4. Thank you, TR! I read your post and spent the next several hours reading Dr. Elgin’s articles! Yea! Yea! Exactly the next logical step for me, understanding verbal self-defense. I found Elgin’s book on my shelves and it’s going to bed with me tonight. ha! I so appreciate your post because very often, conflicts are based on mis-communication—how I could have handled things better and possibly prevented a full-on cyberwar had I listened better, had I worded my response better, etc. etc. etc..

    I also think that had I known what verbal attacks were, I wouldn’t have been ambushed when the verbal escalated to direct aggression. When I think about verbal abuse, curse words come to mind with a big red screaming face and forefinger shaking at my nose. To see aggression in the way a sentence is STRUCTURED, well now…THAT will be extremely useful. There’s so much to learn.

    Thank you!


    • Hi CZ,
      It is so hard to see what happens in real-time and deal with it effectively when it happens. I have a really hard time with this. After a really horrible visit with my in-laws last April (referring to my recovery of it) I bought a tape recorder and it helped so much. And at that time, DH was really upset with me about it but I was at a loss at what to do because I couldn’t see or understand what was happening in the dialogue. Ironically, Elgin suggests doing so in this book. When emotions are involved, it was so hard for me to see patterns in their behaviors and my own.

      I’m really curious to hear what you think about the book.

      So true, aggression disguised with sugar on top, that is something to learn. Totally agree.

      You’re welcome. xxTR


  5. Pingback: The Purpose of Verbal Abuse (part II) | In Bad Company

  6. Pingback: Dealing with a Frenemy or Narcissistic Friend | In Bad Company


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