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.