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What counts as verbal abuse? We ask a psychotherapist…

Cathy Press has been working as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor for over 25 years – here she shares with us the most concerning red flags in any relationship.

Written by High Life North
Published 07.03.2023

By Cathy Press

It’s common to associate verbal abuse with loud, aggressive and threatening language.

But what if the tone of voice is calm, quiet, moderated, even despairing of you?

When it’s comes to damaging behaviours, it’s often easier to spot more obvious red flags like physically abusive traits and aggressive language. Verbal abuse is trickier to identify, often hiding in plain sight.

All behaviour sits in a context and most people identify verbal abuse as being the first toxic, coercive or abusive behaviours that they noticed, although not necessarily at the time.



It’s not uncommon to experience negging – insults of unkind comments dressed up as a bit of a joke, delivered with a smile or cheeky grin, that leave you unsure as to whether they were genuinely joking or actually being rude towards you.

Something like: ‘if you smartened yourself up and did your hair differently, I might be prepared to be seen with you in public’, for example.

This is not uncommon when you first meet someone or when you’re in the early stages of dating. It’s hard to tell if this is verbal abuse or not, but either way it would have been much kinder to you to simply be nice and pay a straightforward compliment.


Gaslighting can disarm us and make us feel confused about reality.

‘Try not to drink, you know how you get.’

‘You’re losing the plot if you can’t remember what we discussed yesterday.’

‘I told you I’d leave at 8pm to meet you, not be there at 8pm.’

Such statements lead us to question our grasp on our own sense and experience of what’s happening around us.



Sniping comes in the form of comments like: ‘you’re so stupid’; ‘can’t you get anything right?’; ‘not sure why I put up with you’; ‘don’t be pathetic.’

These are designed to make you feel unsure about yourself.


Throwing out comments on how you look, your body, hair, clothes etc. is another red flag to be wary of when it comes to verbal abuse.

‘What did you choose that outfit for?’

‘Why don’t you tidy yourself up and do something else with your hair?’

‘Not sure you should have any more to eat.’

Comments like this infer that you’re not good enough or acceptable as you are.



Comparing you to others is another way to infer that you’re not good enough.

Be wary of comments like: ‘your friend Charlie is pretty fit’; ‘why can’t you be more like your mate, Sam’; ‘you’d look as good as Nat if you had some work done.’

The implication is that your partner fancies or rates other people over and above you, making you feel inadequate.


Name calling may start off with what appear to be sweet, endearing terms, but the words might change even within a short space of time to become derogatory. Some people never get called by their actual name, which implies they aren’t noticed or valued in their own right.



Verbal red flags always tend to include three types of lies:

  • Denial
  • Minimisation
  • Blame

These can either be used to throw you off kilter or convince you to believe that it is a failing of yours that you ‘feel’ hurt, rather than a fault of theirs for behaving nastily or aggressively towards you.



This is when your partner denies having said something to you when they have, or states that they can’t remember what they have done to you, when that clearly isn’t the case.

This leaves you remembering and knowing what happened to you, but wondering if you imagined it, which is confusing and frustrating.



This is when you partner reduces your experiences of everything.

‘It was only a joke.’ ‘It was just a bit of bants.’ ‘I didn’t say it like that.’ ‘It was just a bit of a laugh.’ ‘It was nothing.’ ‘You’re over-reacting.’ ‘You exaggerate everything.’ ‘You’re so over-sensitive.’

Verbally making fun of you, the things you do, like and believe in. Jokes and banter are largely at your expense, amounting to an attack on who you are as a person and implying that you aren’t good enough as you are.

In this way, all the unkind, uncomfortable and painful experiences you have at the hands of your partner – who is meant to care about you – are made out to be less than they are.


The verbally abusive partner will blame you for saying or doing something wrong, or for not doing what they expect you to do.

‘If you hadn’t behaved in that way, I wouldn’t have said those things to you.’  

‘If you had listened to me in the first place, things wouldn’t have got out of control.’  

‘You made me so angry, I just lost it.’

‘It’s your fault.’

‘It’s because I love you that I do these things.’

‘It’s not my fault you can’t take it.’

It’s disturbing to consider that your partner will blame you for everything, as if they have no control whatsoever over their own behaviour and how they speak to you.



Someone who is verbally abusive believes how you experience their behaviour doesn’t count for anything.

No matter how normal or justifiable your response is, you feel reduced, put down, diminished and discarded. Confused, you may begin to believe your partner’s take on things and start believing that you are losing your grip and not seeing things clearly. More than this, you may start to think of yourself as a bit of a mess and believe that nobody else would put up with you.

The bottom line is that there’s no legitimate, valid or sane reason why anyone should verbally abuse you.

There’s a saying that ‘some attention is better than no attention’, but this is not the case. It can be toxic attention and filled with a variety of statements all designed to dismantle and disarm you.

You aren’t getting lucky and, more importantly, you don’t need to tolerate it. All behaviour forms a context, and this kind of attention should be a red flag to you.

Walk away. Move on. Be happy – you deserve it.


Cathy’s book, When Love Bites: A young person’s guide to escaping harmful, toxic and hurtful relationships is out now, priced £14.99. Visit her website to pick up your copy.

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