Verbal Abuse Is Not A Communication Problem

November 6, 2011 Kellie Jo Holly

Communicating with an abusive person exercises patience at best and destroys your soul at worst. Communication's definition is the imparting or exchanging of information or news. Communicating with an abusive person is not possible because the abuser blocks or argues mercilessly with what you say unless you parrot their experience, ideas, or words. Attempting communication with an abusive person is pointless, especially when you're in an intimate relationship with one.

Communicating with an Abusive Person You Love

Once upon a time, my guardian angel spoke of communicating with my abusive husband. She said,

"Don't . . . restate in another way thinking he didn't understand. He understood."

You bet he understood. He didn't like what I'd said. I mistakenly thought that if I could say the right words, then he would understand (love me again) and our marital problems would dissolve.

What I didn't understand was that communication with my abusive husband was impossible. The only right words were his words; the only correct ideas were his ideas. My ex-husband had no problem continuing a conversation for hours, browbeating me until I didn't care one way or the other how the talk ended, I just wanted it to end.

My experience in communicating with an abusive person taught me many things, but not before I suffered emotional and mental damage. Find out why.For a very long time, I thought the marathon talks/lectures would end if I could somehow make him understand I wanted the best for us and that I wasn't out to do him harm. I believed he was a good man at heart. I believed that it was my fault that our marital problems remained problems. I believed with all my heart and soul that if I could just communicate in a way that helped him understand, he would see how simple our problems' solutions could be.

I believed I could fix our communication problem because I believed I was the cause of it. That was not true. I couldn't fix the problem because he wouldn't accept my ideas (or me) so long as I spoke my truth instead of his.

Communicating With An Abuser Using Typical Advice

When you search online for relationship advice, keep in mind most of the articles written act like a marriage counselor: they assume it takes two to tango, and that both partners intend to cherish one another. Those assumptions do not apply to abusive relationships.

Typical relationship advice only works when there is real communication between two people. Abusive relationships are void of communication. In healthy relationships, communication flows two ways - from one partner to another and back to the first until each understand the issue in its entirety. In a healthy relationships, both partners want a win-win outcome.

Not so in an abusive relationship. In an abusive relationship, the victim seeks communication. The victim is looking for a win-win and will sacrifice until it hurts in order to reach a resolution. The abuser wants to win, and he or she wants the victim to lose. No matter how much the victim gives, it will not be enough until the victim completely complies with the abuser's way of doing things. And after that happens, the abuser continues to abuse to remind the victim of how bad things could be if they stop obeying.

Advice That Won't Work In An Abusive Relationship

1.) Spending more time together does not work. Your abuser's goal is to turn you into a wind-and-go robot, a puppet on a string. The abuser doesn't want to spend more time with you, he or she simply wants to be able to leave you to yourself and be certain you will think and behave as they instruct. The exception to that rule is when your abuser thinks you're getting out of hand and feel the need to reinforce the training. Training reinforcement is time spent together, but it is not pleasant.

2.) During an argument, focusing your attention to the topic at hand does not work. I'm guessing that many of you experiencing verbal abuse have heard that discussing one disagreement at a time is a good idea. I'm also guessing that despite your best efforts, this does not turn out the way the gurus say it will.

Pay attention during your next argument: Who is the one changing the topic? Abusers see every disagreement as an opportunity to WIN. They bounce back and forth between topics in an effort to confuse the issues and divert attention from a logical argument in which you could actually win. And then, in frustration, the abuser will proclaim that you cannot stick to the topic and there is no use talking with you.

3.) Choosing a good time to bring up difficult topics does not work. No time is a good time to discuss an issue that requires your abuser to change their behavior (i.e. empathize with you, understand your point of view, negotiate a compromise). Nothing you can say or do to prepare for this illusory good time to raise your concern will result in a win-win conversation. Sometimes abuse victims find success by waiting until the honeymoon period comes around. But how long were you forced to wait for the right time? More importantly, how long did your success last when the honeymoon period ended?

Tips for Communicating with an Abusive Person

Sorry folks, but there's no list of tips for this section. Real communication in abusive relationships is impossible.

However, there is a solution for you, the abuser's victim. If you communicate with your abuser in this way, you'll become a survivor or a target instead of a victim.

Take to heart my guardian angel's advice: don't restate yourself in another way thinking [the abuser] didn't understand. They did understand, and no amount of repeating your concern will result in anything other than an escalating argument or, at the least, being called a nag.

  1. Voice your concern one time, plainly and simply.
  2. Listen to your abuser's answer. (Reading Control Your Emotions So Your Abusive Partner Can't may come in handy.)
  3. Detach yourself from hoping for real communication. Detach yourself from the abuser's manipulating words that will follow.
  4. Do not defend yourself against anything your abuser says about your motives, intelligence, or anything else. There is nothing to defend because your abuser is using verbal abuse tactics to distract you.
  5. When the abuser is finished talking, walk away.
  6. Pay attention to your abuser's actions. Did your request make an impact on their behavior? Write a note to yourself that says, "I raised X concern and it was ignored (or honored) on (date)." Keep all of these notes hidden. Most abusers don't like to find records of what they've said or done.

Over time, after "communicating" with an abuser in such a way, you will come to see that no matter what you say, your abuser manipulates to do exactly as they please, even if they try (not really) to change initially. If possible, the abuser will emotionally or physically hurt you during the process of change to emphasize how difficult and ignorant (not) your request was. At some point, surrounded by the notes of requests you made that your abuser ignored, you must ask yourself: "Does my partner value me?"

No? Okay then. It's time to value your needs on your own. Since your abusive partner will most likely be angry no matter what you do, you may as well make yourself happy. After a while, the ridiculousness of calling your abuser your partner will probably show you there is no relationship between the two of you at all. You will realize that the longer you stay in the relationship, the more needless mental and emotional damage you will receive.

If communicating with an abusive person results in living separate lives and your partner continuously values their needs over yours, then it's not even a relationship. It is time to leave your abusive partner.

See Also:

You can also find Kellie Jo Holly on her website, Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so please do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.

APA Reference
Jo, K. (2011, November 6). Verbal Abuse Is Not A Communication Problem, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Kellie Jo Holly

November, 17 2018 at 4:16 am

Finally, an article not placing it on the victim to behave differently to appease their abusive spouse.
All the other articles seem to have good advice. The first few times you seek them out. But once you have tried them all, repeatedly, and things only get better for a short while, and then back to the same abusive tactics... it becomes obvious these articles basically are training the abused to figure out how to minimalise and above the least amount of abuse.
Again, catering to the narcissist, which is their whole point of the abuse in the first place, isn't it??
"If only you would nag less," right??

November, 19 2018 at 6:18 pm

Hello Tharon: I agree with you that there is a lot of victim-blaming in our society. For partners of narcissists in particular, I think it can reinforce the abuse that they are already suffering. The abuse is never your fault. I'm sorry you have read a lot of advice that encouraged you to minimize the abuse you have suffered, and I'm glad you have been wise enough to see it for what it was. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

July, 5 2018 at 3:35 am

This article is exactly how I feel. My feelings, thoughts, and emotions are met with avoidance and silence. I've tried for yrs to pick the best timing, best words, rephrasing, and explaining. Only to be shrugged off, back turned, or just straight walking away. Every..... single.... time. Stuck in a shallow marriage. My husband just wants me for his ego. A trophy wife of sorts. In a constant cycle of him always being too tired or busy to communicate at all or do anything else besides work or working at home. He only comes around and gives me attention when he wants something. He denies all of it. Comes across as a genuine, smart, quiet guy in public. After 10yrs of marriage 13 in total our marriage has continually spiraled. If it does not benefit him than he wants nothing to do with it. Wants to only communicate about his work, the weather, house projects, shallow topics, the days schedule and that's it. He looks pained and bothered by any other communication or thoughts from me. As if he just tolerates it. Never a discussion or word from him. That's at best, otherwise he turns and walk away in med sentence, with excuses 90% of the time. I feel so disrespected, alone, and ignored, with someone who thinks they care, but just not enough to care about anything I say. Like a bird in a cage. Just their to talk to a wall, depressed, withdrawn, and overwhelmed by this marriage of mine. I'm exhausted with all of it and losing my identity is the saddest part.

July, 8 2018 at 4:31 pm

Anonymous, my situation was very similar to yours. My husband and I have been married 8 years, together 15 years in total. Even though I always attentively listened to him talk about his work, he couldn't spare one minute to hear about my work/interest areas and basically ignored me or got annoyed when I'd try to talk about it. As a result, I emotionally disengaged from him and started getting together with friends once or twice a week. I felt my identity coming back and blossoming and he noticed. As a result, he became increasingly hostile to the point that in the past few weeks, he has become irate at times, punched walls, and destroyed an object. I've finally admitted to myself that because my needs haven't been met for years and I may even be in physical danger, I need to divorce him. In calm moments, I've told him as much, but haven't taken actual steps in the divorce process because I'm afraid he'll get volatile again. I have no sage words of wisdom, but I guess I just wanted you to know that you're not alone in your misery and this stranger on the internet knows how you feel. I'm so sorry you're going through it. I finally opened up to friends and family about our situation and luckily, they've all been incredibly supportive. If there's someone in your life you feel might listen to you and validate you, I'd urge you to talk to them as a first step.

January, 10 2019 at 5:17 am

I can really relate to how you feel! It feels like a living hell. For a long time I couldn't grasp the idea of what was happening and kept thinking of ways I could change in order to feel like the relationship could work and be more like I know it should. But I know the problem is him. There have been too many warning signs over the years, and although I have always been aware of them and felt the pain and everything else that comes, I have also let him talk me out of ending the relationship and listened to the emotional blackmail, pleas and all the rest of it. I'm too tired to even try anymore, living in misery is not for me or my children. Its a hard process to be going through and because of his ridiculous behaviour at the best of times, I know this process is going to be difficult but it has to be done. I look forward to a life of peace and happiness with my children and am so happy I have the strength to go though this process .

November, 15 2021 at 9:00 pm

My marriage was like this for years. One time I looked at him after months of no talking, no connecting. And I said, you wouldn’t care if I lived or died would you? And he just stared at his phone. He said nothing. Get out while you can sis. It’s not worth it.

April, 7 2018 at 2:23 pm

My fiancé will not seek me out to be verbally abusive but if I have the nerves to get mad because I repeat non stop about picking up after himself, etc.. he gets so abusive verbally that it is scary! All the name calling, f* bi*ch and the c word, useless piece of s.., and that he’s an angel and I’m just a nag! He never acknowledges any of the things I rightfully mentioned in my “nagging” period though.. I’m sure if I didn’t accuse or approach him with my discontent about him never cleaning, laundry, cooking, errands, even though I work full time and take care of all the share of financial responsibilities, he would most likely never raise his voice at me, but am I supposed to be his maid and servant without saying a word so I don’t get verbally abused and yelled at so loudly that he gets purple in the face? I’m over it, but we bought a house together and my saving is all tied up in this house..

July, 27 2015 at 2:55 pm

After a 27 year marriage of emotional abuse and adultery to me, I, a co-dependent, married a secret alcoholic and forgiven sexual offender now for 14 years. He has turned even more angry and controlling, getting off anti-depressants and cold-turkeying alcohol, now perncious anemia and other low minerals and B-12, etc. He cannot see it and I can't seem to gather enough support as a disabled 64 yr old to leave and function. I did enjoy your writings and am reading about myself as well as his control issues that pervade.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Jo Holly
July, 29 2015 at 6:20 am

It's never too late to seek a peaceful life, Mary. I hope you find it.

February, 21 2015 at 12:03 am

I love my husband. Period.
My concern is we operate on such different wavelengths and it takes him such a long time to get in gear...of course, timing, deadlines, I end up with the bulk of the work or the arduous task of making reminders or eventually doing it myself.
I have MS, just getting from one end of a room to another means banging into or holding onto walls. Despite this I want to create a safe harbour for this hard working man. Just wish someone were thinking the same way for me,
Seems that my expressed concern about one-sided communication - my ideas, plans, dreams has made me tired. I feel a love from him that is unfortunately laced in apologies and or excuses. I do make the mistake of harping on about past remind him not to do them again. That is...moving home should not be left to the one person in the home who actually has difficulties. Should I stop asking and hoping. It is hurting both of us.
Words are of great import to me and despite being an avid reader my husband chooses not positive but mostly "cannot do" or negative forms of expression. If someone could help me step away from the pain and help us both to fix this damage it would be most appreciated.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Jo Holly
February, 28 2015 at 5:51 am

Detaching from the pain and taking responsibility for ONLY your emotions will go a long distance in helping you change things. Give up the idea of changing him. Change yourself. And I don't mean to "make yourself a better person". YOu are already a great person. But learn to change your reactions to his abuses and commit to doing only what you can to keep yourself healthy.
I know you love him. We all do (or did). But you're wrapped around his axle right now and need some time to unravel yourself from what is him versus what is you.
Research detachment. It comes up a lot on Alcoholics Anonymous, Narc-Anon and especially Al-anon sites. You didn't mention alcoholism, but the programs I mentioned can help you anyway.

November, 17 2014 at 11:03 am

Wow. I just got accused by my ex-husband's lawyer that I have a "communication problem" with his client. I don't have a communication problem. My ex-husband has an abuse problem. Thank you for the article. It was helpful.

June, 10 2012 at 12:06 pm

my communication efforts/abuse was in majority of the time mental/emotional abuse where when I spoke it was like "I was talking to myself or the wall" with no response from him sitting right next to me - he acted like all he did was "listen" to me like a "good/understanding" husband (this was my honeymoon period) until he decided to start the abuse cycle again. Then it was the silent treatment unless I responded so then verbal abuse, very rarely was there physical abuse but there was potential if we remained together longer. Our relationship would have looked like the "they will kill each other one-day" type. My escape was when he left for work (he loved work & his colleagues cos he could always talk to them) I felt I could then breathe and go out to clear my head and pamper myself to keep my sanity. I did not tell him about my "outings" as he would have used that as ammunition. Many times I spoke/"had conversations" to him only to help make the "fake" marriage feel "real" to me - giving me an excuse to stay with him.

June, 9 2012 at 2:47 pm

suffered all 1,2, & 3. I thought it was a communication problem - followed all the Marriage Counsellor website advises and realised exactly what the article explains that abusive relationships are 1 way only that's when I detached myself from the abuse when "communicating methods" didn't work and made "mental notes of dates" when there were too many dates I started to wonder if the abuse was worth putting up with in the hope of a change of heart unlikely to ever happen until he truly "listened" to me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Kellie Holly
June, 9 2012 at 3:41 pm

It was similar for me, Anon. When it got to the point that I needed to leave my home (way too often) to avoid his abuse, I began asking that same question. If I can't have a civil conversation or feel safe in my home, then what kind of relationship did we have? It wasn't worth sleeping in the car or driving to town for a coffee one more time so that freakin' CHILD at my home could calm his butt down. It was ridiculous.

March, 25 2012 at 8:14 am

That is very much how things went when we discussed his drinking. Now that he has stopped drinking and partying like a teenager, things have improved greatly between us. Not so for everyone, though. I think ours is a rare circumstance.

December, 13 2011 at 7:52 am

I felt exactly as you described when I dated my ex. I am still heartbroken over him and feel like i will never love again. It sounds crazy, I know. I can't really talk to anyone about it because they think it sounds absurd. He has tons of friends. It's hard for me to understand how they can all think he's so great, but they don't know the side of him that I knew. Then I start to think maybe I am the one with the problem.
I always thought that if i rephrased something and found the perfect way to say it, he would see how much I care about him. But if I brought something up for a second time, usually he would just get angry and tell me we would not discuss it again. I always felt guilty and that I had done everything wrong. I still think that sometimes. It kills me to think about him going on to love other people.

November, 14 2011 at 7:47 pm

I can personally vouch for numbers 2 and 3 above. We do spend a lot of time together already so we don't need 1 even if it would work. When she gets going I have stopped getting sucked into defending myself or my family for things I haven't even done. Or, what my motives were for doing something. It's just silly. As far as 3 goes, there are no good times. that's why I tell my wife things on a "need to know basis" only. That's because If I tell here things didn't go well at work or I almost got in a traffic accident or whatever, it's my fault and I deserved and it wouldn't happen if ... But it's my personality to chit chat and yuck it up, so it's hard. When it gets bad I ask why I'm putting up with this? But when it ends I think it's not so bad. I'm in limbo on this. Leaving would be painful and hard.

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