hen my mother got angry or was displeased, she would act as though I wasn’t there. It was like I’d become invisible like a ghost or a pane of glass. When I was small—say six or seven—I would melt under the heat of her glare, crying and begging for her to say something but she wouldn’t. Of course, I tiptoed around her all during my childhood, afraid. You know, it was like being locked in an attic as a punishment but it was more confusing and subtle. I didn’t understand it as abusive until I was in my forties.
This woman is not alone; children who grow up around verbal and emotional abuse usually normalize it, believing wrongly that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere. Not altogether surprisingly, there’s a lot of cultural confusion about what exactly constitutes abusive behavior. While most people are quick to condemn physical abuse—the kind that leaves visible bruises or breaks bones—many don’t understand where the inability to manage emotions like losing your temper stops and abusive behavior begins. Is it intention that separates one from the other—the effort to control or manipulate another person—or is the victimizing effect that pushes it over the line? The short answer is both.
Contrary to the public muddle, research is very clear on what emotional and verbal abuse does to the child’s developing brain, literally changing its structure. These children grow up to be adults who mistrust their perceptions and have difficulty managing their emotions; they develop an insecure style of attachment which can make them detach from their feelings (avoidance style) or make them highly vulnerable and rejection sensitive (anxious style). Because they tend to normalize verbal abuse, they may end up in adult relationships with those who are abusive.
When most of us think about verbal abuse, we imagine screaming and yelling but the truth is that some of the most pernicious abuse is wordless and quiet; just re-read the story which begins this post and note that it’s the mother’s silence that is the weapon of choice.
Wordless abuse: What it is and how it damages
Here’s what Leah,38, wrote me about her first marriage:
I would become a pathetic creature, begging him to tell me he still loved me after a fight and he wouldn’t answer. I would beg some more, crying, and he would sit there on the couch, his face like stone. Then I would apologize even though he’d started the fight and I’d done nothing wrong. That’s how scared of his leaving I was. I didn’t recognize his behavior as abusive and controlling until I went into therapy at 35. I lived with this for 12 years and never once thought that this was not okay.
Leah’s story isn’t unusual in that she normalized her husband’s behavior for years. This kind of quiet abuse is relatively easy to rationalize or deny: “He didn’t feel like talking,” “She was actually trying to regroup,” “It’s not like he deliberately tried to hurt me” or “Maybe I am too sensitive just like she says.” As I explain in my book Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, children internalize not just the messages conveyed by the articulated kind of verbal abuse but also form their expectations and understanding of how people behave in relationships from the quiet kind.
Among the kinds of quiet abuse are stonewalling, ignoring, displaying contempt, and withholding. They all share the goal of marginalizing the person, making the person feel terrible about him or herself, and facilitating control.
Stonewalling or Demand/Withdraw
Widely recognized as one of the most toxic patterns of relationship, this behavior has been studied often enough that it is has its own acronym: DM/W. Stonewalling effectively ends the possibility of dialogue, and is meant disempower the person who initiated the conversation. When a parent does this to a child, he or she effectively communicates that the child’s thoughts and feelings are absolutely of no value or concern; since the child needs a parent’s love and support, he or she will absorb that lesson as a supposed truth about the self. When an adult intimate partner does it, it’s a power play pure and simple, but effectively sends the following message: What you want, what you think, what you feel don’t matter in this relationship.
The silent treatment or ignoring
Pretending that you neither see nor hear someone is especially poignant for children, especially if served up as a punishment. A young child may feel as though she’s been banished or abandoned; an older one may feel the pain of rejection but may also experience deep anger, as Ella explained:
My father would systematically stop talking to me whenever I disappointed him which was often. The infraction could be something like not getting a good grade on a test, missing a goal in field hockey, or just about anything. He was always saying things like ‘You need toughening up. You’re too sensitive and only the tough survive in this world.’ My mother went along with it too. By the time I was a teenager, I was angry with them but, of course, I also thought I was somehow to blame for disappointing him. I was an only child and had nothing to compare it to. Long story short, I fell apart when I went to college and luckily, a great therapist saved me.
Intimate partners also use the silent treatment to marginalize and demean, as well as to make his or her partner fearful or off-balance. It’s a way of making someone feel vulnerable, banishing them to an emotional Siberia, and is intended to make them more malleable and less resistant to control.
Contempt and derision
Laughing at someone, deriding him or her with facial gestures of disgust or eye-rolling, can also be tools of abuse, meant to marginalize and demean, and don’t require words. These gestures, alas, can easily be deflected or denied by the abuser who’s likely to say that you’re too sensitive or that you can’t take a joke or that you’re reading in.
Make no mistake: this is abusive behavior. You don’t need words to tell someone they’re stupid or worthless.
This is perhaps the most subtle form of abuse, especially when it involves a child: Deliberately withholding the words of support, love, and caring that a child needs in order to thrive. Of course, a child doesn’t know what he or she is missing, but recognizes the loneliness that fills the empty space in his or her heart. But it’s only slightly easier to see when you’re an adult in an intimate relationship because having your emotional needs denied only serves to make you even more needy and, sometimes, more dependent on that partner. It’s counterintuitive, but true. Withholding is the ultimate tool of people who crave power and control.
Abuse is abuse. If someone is using words or silence to make you feel powerless and worthless, that person is behaving abusively. Keep it simple.
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