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The Invisible Line Between Verbal and Physical Abuse

When it comes to verbal and physical abuse, can words hurt us the same as a fist? Sticks and stones . . . are broken bones worse than a broken soul?

The distinction between verbal and physical abuse is something I have questioned ever since my abusive relationship ended. My ex-partner shoved me, pushed me, kicked me and forced me out of his way when we argued. He raised his fist and made threats, but never actually hit me. Does this mean I was verbally, physically abused or both? I think the answer depends on where we, as individuals, draw the line.

For me, the line is so blurry it’s practically invisible. Sure, he never hit me, but what he did was worse. When I had the flu, he snatched the bed covers off me and refused to get me any medicine. He threatened to throw all of my books in the trash. He called me a c**t and accused me of sleeping with other men. He told me he hated me more times than he told me he loved me. Not hitting me became his only line of defense, as if that excused his abusive behavior. There was a line he would not cross, and if he crossed it, I assured him I would leave for good.

Reaction to Verbal and Physical Abuse Is the Same

I have no way of knowing whether I would have upheld that promise, but my guess is not. My guess is that events would have transpired the same way they did when he verbally abused me: he would say I provoked him, that it was my fault, and I would end up apologizing. Or else I would threaten to leave, only for him to break down and persuade me it would never happen again, that he was really trying to better himself and I should do the same. Either way, I would somehow end up shouldering all of the blame. Either way, I would still suffer the effects of abuse. 

It’s a terrible thing to admit, but there were times I wished my ex would hit me. At least that way there would be evidence of the damage he was inflicting. When the bruises are invisible, no one knows you’re suffering. Nobody can see the scars under your skin.

But comparing someone who gives you a bloody nose with someone who withholds affection and criticizes your every move is pointless. They are both out to control you, one way or another; and sooner or later, a person who is guilty of one of those offenses will commit the other. Verbal abuse is no less dangerous than physical abuse. In fact, it can have more severe and long-lasting implications. So does it even warrant a separate definition, considering verbal abuse is often considered a gateway into physical violence?

Drawing a Line Between Verbal and Physical Abuse Is Harmful

In my opinion, drawing a line between verbal and physical abuse may be doing more harm than good. We only ever hear about physically violent relationships on the news because someone ends up dead. But how many of those relationships began with verbal abuse? There is so little awareness of psychological violence that someone like me just doesn’t see the signs, even when they are blatant. The line I drew between physical abuse (unforgivable) and verbal abuse (forgivable) stopped me leaving my abuser, and I’m sure it’s the same for many others.

Verbal and Physical Abuse and the Law

In 2015 a “coercive or controlling behavior offense” came into force in the UK, carrying a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. This means that people like me who have experienced psychological abuse can bring their perpetrators to justice should they choose to go to court. It’s not the perfect answer, but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s the start of society recognizing that abuse is complex and appears in many different forms. It’s hopefully the beginning of a universal acceptance that physical pain is not superior to emotional suffering.

In the meantime, we must keep in mind that verbal abuse is just one tactic employed by an abusive person, and it often goes hand in hand with physical, financial and sexual abuse. For some abusers, there is no distinction, and they’ll play every hand in their deck.

Abuse is abuse.

Author: Emma-Marie Smith

Find Emma-Marie on, FacebookTwitter, and Google +.

4 thoughts on “The Invisible Line Between Verbal and Physical Abuse”

  1. I’ve experienced abuse from key males pretty much all my life. Abusive step father, husband, mostly verbal. If only I could have read your very well written article during those times. Thank you for your part in opening eyes to reality.

    1. Hi Zeff,

      Thank you for your comment — I’m so glad you found the article helpful. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences. It takes a great deal of strength and self-awareness to recognize patterns of abuse that date back to childhood, doesn’t it? You might find my last previous article, Easy Targets for Verbal Abuse: Why Me?, interesting as it looks at the effect our early relationships have on our adult relationships. x

  2. I’m certain for some abusers there is no distinction, which for me is hard to fathom, although education and a person’s upbringing likely has to do a lot with that. Neither is ok. Neither leaves a person unscathed. As you’ve said, where do you draw the line, or is there a line? Obviously with law enforcement, there is a line. A line that shows evidence of proof. Unfortunately, I believe, in my own experiences that if there’s verbal abuse, to the degree you’ve mentioned, it’s like a bomb waiting to blow as to when the physical abuse accompanies the verbal. Abusers are nearly always feeling they were somehow “forced” or “pushed” into doing such a thing.
    We’re ALL responsible for our own actions as adults and to me that excuse is unacceptable. Unacceptable as any excuse when striking someone with intent of physical harm, of which many know the intent is there or they wouldn’t proceed.
    Thank you for this story. It’s important because many women don’t know they have a right to NEVER be beaten or verbally abused. If this helps one person to get away from their abuser, you’ve done great things. Thank you.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thank you so much for your comment. Like you say, there will always be reasons why one person abuses another, but there is never an excuse. No men or women should ever be in a situation where they are living in fear of their partner, but sadly it happens all over the world. We’re still not talking about it enough, which is why so many victims don’t recognize the danger they are in until it’s too late.

      I’m really glad you found the article helpful, and if there is ever a topic you’d like me to cover in a blog post just let me know. Emma x

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