"You need a [expletive] bat in the side of the head. … I'll put you in a [expletive] rose garden you [expletive]. … You understand that? 'Cause I'm capable of it!"
Remember this private phone call … heard around the world? It was the raging voice of superstar Mel Gibson threatening the mother of their child.
At one point, she expressed anger at him for hitting her in the face and breaking her teeth – while she was holding their daughter. His reply? "You [expletive] deserved it."
This emotionally-charged incident is yet another example of verbal abuse. The adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" should long ago have been relabeled: "The biggest lie in the world!" Words wound. Words can become weapons.
Recognizing Verbal and Emotional Abuse
I define verbal abuse as the systematic, ongoing use of harmful words or sharp tones in an attempt to control another person. Emotional abuse is the unseen fallout of all forms of abuse – physical, mental, verbal, sexual and even spiritual abuse – striking at the very core of who we are.
Recently, one of my relatives confided to me, "I've just realized that I've been verbally abused all of my married life. I'd never heard of verbal abuse until recently. I didn't know what it was, much less, what to do."
As I talked with Georgia (not her real name), I heard what had been happening behind closed doors – for decades. Ultimately, the longer we choose to live in an emotionally abusive relationship, the more we're inclined to view an abusive lifestyle as "normal." Then we find ourselves living fear-based lives, being powerfully manipulated by our abuser.
Georgia had already taken the first step toward healing by recognizing the abuse. Then, I assured her, "Now you need boundaries. They will protect your heart."
Six-Step Strategy to Stop Abuse
To curtail the abuse, Georgia needed a plan. "You can't change someone else, but you can change yourself so that the abusive tactics are no longer effective." I shared with her the following six-step strategy:
#1: Clearly state what you are willing to accept and are not willing to accept from the abuser.
Communicate your position in positive terms. Keep your statement short and succinct. Don't justify and don't apologize. Simply state your boundaries.
"I want our relationship to continue, but I'm not willing to listen to name calling. … I'm not willing to hear your accusations. … I'm not willing to endure any longer the onslaught of profanity."
#2: Announce the consequence you will enforce if the abuser violates your boundary.
Consequences are part of God's divine plan that what we sow, we will reap. Galatians 6:7 (NIV) states, "A man reaps what he sows." Repercussions should include disengaging or distancing yourself from the abuser. You can't change the abuser, but you can remove yourself from frequent exposure to unacceptable behavior.
"I want to be with you, but if you call me any kind of name again, I will leave for a time. … If you persist in making that accusation, I will end our conversation. … If you choose to use profanity, I will choose to be with others where we can share positive, healthy conversations."
#3: Enforce the consequence every single time the abuse occurs.
Do not bluff! The abuser needs to know that you will follow through consistently. Plan on being tested multiple times. In your mind and heart, say no to manipulation, no to pressure, no to control. Eventually, there's a good chance your abuser will stop … but only after the behavior proves to be ineffective. James 5:12 (ESV) says, "…let your 'yes' be yes and your 'no' be no."
#4: Absolutely do not negotiate.
Since abusers do not use words fairly, negotiation will not work. Instead of "talking out" the problem, your abuser will seek to wear you out! Therefore, state that when the negative behavior stops, you look forward to a renewed relationship.
"I am not willing to discuss this topic further. … I've stated clearly what I will not accept. … When you're ready to respect my requests, let me know. I look forward to being together at that time."
Keep your words brief and to the point. Proverbs 10:19 (NIV) warns that, "Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues."
#5: Never "react" when your boundary is violated … only respond.
Expect your boundary to be violated again and again! If you react, you will find yourself back under the abuser's control. Respond by detaching yourself from the abuser and enforcing your repercussions.
Expect your abuser to use manipulative maneuvers. Don't cry. Don't beg. Don't explode. Expect your abuser to have emotional ups and downs. Expect your abuser to be angry with the boundary you have set. But don't seek to placate – it won't work.
Take to heart Ecclesiastes 7:8-9 (NIV): "The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools."
#6: Solicit the support of one or two wise, objective people to help you through this process.
Include supporters as you analyze the problem, formulate your plan and enforce the repercussions. Trusted individuals – friends, mentors, counselors – can help you through this critical period.
Discuss the situation with your supporters, including tactics used on you. Proverbs 19:20 (NIV) says, "Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise."
Once Georgia began implementing this plan, reinforcing her boundaries every time, her husband's abuse began to subside. His tactics no longer worked!
Consider your strategy similar to undergoing cancer surgery. You must get rid of the malignancy or else it will spread to other areas of your body. Likewise, this painful procedure provides the only hope for healing in order to have a new, healthy relationship.
Proverbs 12:18 (NIV) promises, "… the tongue of the wise brings healing." In truth, no one wants to have surgery – but it can save your life!