The Difference Between Arguments and Verbal Abuse

July 11, 2017 Emma-Marie Smith

There is a clear distinction between arguments and verbal abuse, but it's hard to see it in the moment. Are you arguing or being verbally abused? Find out here.

There is an important difference between arguments and verbal abuse. Have you ever heard the expression, "You can't see the wood for the trees?" That's how a verbally abusive relationship made me feel. I spent so long trying to unpick my partner's behavior that I became blind to it, all the while thinking that if I could somehow do better, be better then the abuse would stop (Do You Abuse Yourself with Self-Blame?). I was in denial. I told myself that all couples argue. But I now know there is a clear distinction between normal relationship arguments and verbal abuse.

Verbal Abuse vs. Arguments Is About Intent

The difference between an argumentative partner and a verbally abusive one is his intent. When a couple in a functional, non-abusive relationship argues, it is with the view of reaching a mutual agreement over a particular situation such as chores or communication problems. What both parties want is for their feelings to be heard and understood. This doesn't mean to say their disagreements are always amicable or reasonable, but most of the time they arise because the couple is striving to make the relationship better.

However, an emotionally or verbally abusive person aims to diminish the self-worth of his partner in order to establish his own dominance, which has a very different effect.

Bear in mind, a verbal abuser doesn't have to act this way all the time in order to be classed as such. There were times when I felt safe with my ex-partner. There were times when he was there for me emotionally, paid me compliments and was kind to my friends and family. But there were also times when he told me he hated me or insulted those very same loved ones. On other occasions, I genuinely feared for my safety in his company. This is a classic example of the kind of emotionally abusive cycle that destroys our sanity by causing us to question our interpretation of events -- surely someone we love could never be this cruel?

Is Your Partner Verbally Abusive or Just Argumentative?

Here are some examples of normal relationship conflict:

  • "Argh. You infuriate me sometimes."
  • "I feel like you never listen."
  • "I don't think you should have bought that, we're really strapped for cash."
  • "You're always working. I feel like you don't have time for me anymore."

And here are some examples of verbal abuse:

  • "I don't understand why you would clean the whole bathroom but not mop the floor. That's just you all over isn't it? Doing everything in half measures. No wonder you dropped out of university."
  • "Get out of bed. You're not ill, you're just pathetic."
  • "Move out of my way or I'll hit you."
  • "Don't spend your money on that. Put your money into my bank account and we'll spend it on something we both want. I don't want you making decisions without me."

Both sets of examples stem from personal experience but there is a big difference between the two. You might be wondering how I ever could have overlooked this kind of behavior or why I stuck around for so long when I could have just walked away. But abuse surfaces gradually in a relationship, chipping away at our self-esteem and slowly affecting our ability to think for ourselves.

As women, we grow up believing that boys are cruel because they like us. Throughout history, romance novels from Wuthering Heights to Fifty Shades of Grey have done nothing to discourage this notion. Similarly, I know men who expect women to "treat 'em mean" or "play hard to get" rather than show them genuine affection. All things considered, is it any wonder we have a hard time distinguishing between a healthy relationship and an abusive one? Leave your thoughts below.

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2017, July 11). The Difference Between Arguments and Verbal Abuse, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Emma-Marie Smith

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September, 30 2021 at 9:35 pm

It's not always the man. I know because after 41 years of marriage my wife has left me. I love her, but that means nothing to her. So now I am looking for a good woman. Life sucks sometimes and I know that I am a decent good man, Christian, retied cop, I love my children and grand children. But my wife is acting strange,,,,mid life crisis? I don't know except that I have had enough, please Lord send me a good woman!! I will love her and treat her like a favored daughter of yours. I am too old, 71 yrs, to go through this crap.

Roger M.
November, 29 2022 at 12:56 am

Sorry, friend, but I can see right through your attempt to disguise your narcissism and misogyny (contempt for women).
In general, males hate anything they can't control, and since females have the ability to think and make decisions on their own, guys are infuriated at women from the get-go because they can't fully control them to feed their narcissistic wants.
Your comments show you feel a strong sense of entitlement in your relationship because you are a man and your wife is a woman, eg, how dare she disagree with me!
Frankly, your wife is patient to a fault and doesn't realize that you are gaslighting her to manipulate her into doing what YOU want and sacrificing her own needs and wants.
Straighten up and fly right, buddy, and quit thinking the world revolves around you.

Franc W
April, 23 2023 at 7:33 pm

Wow Roger. I'm a bit shocked at the rush to judgment. Seems rather cruel to me.

November, 1 2018 at 6:34 pm

Yeah been called all names under the son because another person has spoke to you , or you start the washing machine because he pays for electric or complain your cold cause he pays for heating , but you pay for food telly license and he don’t limit the amount on that

October, 14 2018 at 1:06 pm

i agree when they start making personal attacks thats way out of line and also one personnal attack is never in my experience something someone ever gets over.

Mr Man
June, 20 2018 at 7:42 am

This is a very good article on such situations.
However it does appear to offer the assumption that only men exercise such behaviour.
Pleaae be aware that abuse is not dependent upon a person's gender and please research the sudject if needs be.
Thanks for the best wishes of the article though, much appreciated

June, 20 2018 at 9:46 am

Hello, thanks for your comment. I'm sorry you felt that way. I usually include a disclaimer in my articles that states that the pronouns "he" or "she" are only there for clarity or because they demonstrate my own experience, but it seems this must have slipped through the net here.
I know that sadly, both men and women are capable of abuse. Just the same as there are both male and female victims. Statistics do show that the male abuser/female victim scenario is most common, but perhaps this is because not as many men come forward -- what do you think?

July, 24 2018 at 3:46 am

C’mon !!!! If your here reading this I think we ALL know it’s NOT gender specific.
I’m not trying to sound mean...but was this your very first article on verbal
abuse ? Because out of a 1,000.....
998 of them state “An abused victim can also be a man , no one is safe from meeting someone with this potential down the line...... I was just wondering ? Cuz yeah,’s not gender specific.
I think since so many of us here are going through this and there is a large mix of women AND men commenting,
by the time your on these types of websites doing some research....your pretty much aware there’s no one , male or female that can’t end up in this situation.

April, 26 2018 at 3:48 am

I am currently in a relationship with a man I believe to be verbally abusive. I found reading this article really helpful and gave me great clarity. I am daily told I 'create problems' and am ' the most argumentative person' he has ever met, I have lately began to question whether this is true. However I don't start these conflicts and I don't know how to defend myself without being told I am looking for problems! I am upset alot and told I am over sensitive and need to get over it , because he 'was just angry I didn't mean it, move on'. They are very damaging personal remarks however and speaking honestly, my self esteem is pretty low now. The worst part is he 'flashlights' me to his friends (twists the situation to make me sound crazy). I know family and friends think I should leave him and can't understand why I don't, but for some reason it isn't that simple like you say. My one glimmer of hope is that he has agreed to go for counselling - he does see he has a temper and wants to resolve it, which I respect. Does anyone have any experience of their partner improving behaviour with counselling??

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 27 2018 at 1:12 am

Ellie, Hi, thanks for reaching out. It sounds like you may be experiencing some gaslighting. I'm going to attach an article about it, I think it may be very illuminating. Also, I think counseling did wonders for me in my life and I think it's definitely a great tool to utilize, but of course it's what you make of it and you have to make a big effort for it to work. Please continue reaching out and best of luck to you. Thanks again, Emily
Gaslighting, Emotional Abuse and Manipulation
How to Respond to Verbal Abuse

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 24 2018 at 3:36 am

I did not...and it was his suggestion to
go !! Therapy is a safe place WITH a mediator to help you talk about your feelings and anger etc.
BUT........ OH boy !! Once we got home, the rest of the day was about “how dare I say this or that..... and near the end , it became VERY focused on me and my “mental health” “Possibly I should go to a rehab for a bit and get my mind straighten out.... “
I had to tell my best friend (who knows him for 23 years well ) that IF I should be admitted somewhere he has pulled his last manipulation finally . Please come to get me out as I am neither a drug addict nor mental !!!! How come I can travel all over the world, meet perfect strangers, or meet with past friends, and have very enjoyable mutual conversation. Even if we agree to disagree. No one tells me “Your mental dude !” “ Your a button pusher !” “ That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard...why would you do....
(fill in blank)
Ahhhhhh well, until I can obtain some finances,,,,,,,,Then I’m out. Down to the Keys to be an artist at Mallory Square, and never have to be involved with someone anymore, if I choose.

Theresa Willey
January, 9 2018 at 12:38 pm

Does being attacked or abuse feel someone like “sulking” or “feeling sorry for myself” it this feeling makes me feel cowardly or small. I was mistreated by my Dad most of my up bringing and l get confused with those maybe unresolved feelings. He does insukt me and has hatred/disgust on his face and speech . I argue back to try and stand up for my opinions or defend myself but that just angers him and makes it worse.

August, 25 2017 at 7:16 pm

I always thought they were arguments and that I was having difficulty expressing myself and standing up for myself when faced with conflict. Then one day I realized the "arguments" were all one sided. He did ALL the talking and I could barely get a word in edgewise. If I actually managed to get a statement in, he would abruptly change the direction of attack. Arguments have two sides, two people with two points of view. Attacks have one side, one person attacking the other.
I also finally realized that I wasn't getting anywhere with the arguments because I was seeking to resolve a problem, while he was only seeking to dominate me. He wasn't at all interested in actually solving the problems he brought up. He was using the "problems" as weapons. If I attempted to deflect (solve) one, he'd just hurl a different one at me.

Keri Cameron
July, 30 2017 at 7:35 am

I'm with a man who is verbally abusive who blames his previous marriage for bringing the disrespect to our current relationship. I think it's an excuse and I feel he intentionally tries to bring me down. It's unnecessary and unacceptable. No one should tolerate that kind of disrespectful behavior. I am planning to leave the relationship. Thank you for this great article.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 30 2017 at 8:18 am

Hi Keri,
Thank you so much for your comment -- I'm glad the article has helped you in some way. There may be reasons why a person is verbally abusive, but there is never an excuse. So glad you've realized what's been happening and know that you deserve better. Best of luck!

July, 12 2017 at 2:58 pm

Hi Emma-Marie :) Welcome to HealthyPlace. I love this post and it holds true for my experience, too. We were constantly 'arguing' -- which was another reason for him to berate me as 'impossible to like.' He insisted we argued because of me, that he was easy to get along with everywhere except at home. Of course he was easier to get along with everywhere but home! He had his good guy image to protect. Anyway, great job and I can't wait to read more from you.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 14 2017 at 3:31 am

Thanks Kellie — I have enjoyed reading your posts too :)

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