Coping with a Verbally Abusive Friend

Should a Friend Be Verbally Abusive?

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Have you ever felt as if you were in a verbally abusive friendship? Verbal abuse (sometimes also referred to as emotional abuse) is generally seen in parental or romantic partner relationships, but it can also rear its ugly head in friendships, too.

Verbal Abuse Between Friends

At the heart of abuse is a desire to control the other person. Put-downs and insults are meant to tear someone down emotionally, so the person will be less likely to seek out other friends or do activities without the abuser. 

Verbal abuse is constant over time, and much different than regular friendship conflict. The key to defining verbal abuse in friendships is consistent negative vocal behavior.

In other words, it isn't when you and a friend have an argument (and may say hurtful things) or when a friend is moody (and may snap at you.) Friendships go through ups and downs, and sometimes people disagree and even behave poorly, so it's important to understand the difference between a "regular fight between friends" and an abusive friendship .

Signs of a Verbally Abusive Friend

Verbal abuse is meant to tear you down emotionally by trying to belittle or even frighten you. If you think your friend might be verbally abusive, watch for these signs:

  • Telling you that you're stupid all the time
  • Saying that you won't be able to make new friends
  • Calling you names (fatty, dummy, moron)
  • Blaming you when things go wrong
  • Making fun of your accomplishments
  • Sharing embarrassing things about you in front of other people

Sometimes the best way to determine if you're being verbally abused is to pay close attention to how someone makes you feel. If you feel hesitant about telling a friend something positive that happened to you, or unhappy with yourself after spending time with them, it may be a sign of verbal abuse.

Why Verbal Abuse Occurs in Friendship

Like any relationship, there is a balance that should (in an ideal friendship) go back and forth. Sometimes your friend decides where to go or gets the limelight, and sometimes you do. In practice, however, there are some friendships that are very one-sided, where the emotional investment in the relationship is tipped too far to one friend. One friend will be afraid to let go of the other one.

A good friend will allow you the space to be yourself and even to find other friendships. But with verbal abuse, one friend wants to control the other. One friend may make excuses for the bad behavior of the other friend for a certain amount of time. Eventually, they will see the emotional bullying that went on. In the beginning, though, it's very easy to "explain" it away.

Verbal abuse also occurs because some people have not learned how to be a friend. People should use common sense or the Golden Rule when it comes to treating others, but some folks just don't get that right away. They might drive away several friends and relationships before realizing that, or they may never realize it and spend their lives continually miserable and unable to act like a real friend.

What to Do If You Have a Verbally Abusive Friend

As always, if verbal abuse escalates to something physical, you need to get away from that person immediately and even call the police if warranted.

You might want to approach your friend to point out the verbal abuse, but be cautious. If you feel that your friend will yell or scream at you in return, you may want to bring along a third party to help diffuse things. Another option? Just walk away from the friendship.

If you decide to email a friend to discuss verbal abuse, be very careful about the words you use. Too often, friends use email as a barrier to share feelings with a friend, but their tone and demeanor may sound accusatory this way because your friend doesn't have the benefit of seeing your non-verbal clues (a smile, a caring tone of voice, etc.). As a result, the friend may read something into your words that you had not intended.

If your friend is already verbally abusive, sending an email to tell them this will probably just lead to more of the same. Some tips if you do decide to email them:

  • Stick to the facts.
  • Talk about how things made you feel, but don't assign motive to your friend. (For example, "I felt as if you were making fun of me when you said X" instead of "You made fun of me by saying X.")
  • Don't engage back and forth. An email like this really signifies the end of a friendship, so don't use it argue. Your friend may respond with more nasty words, and if they do, ignore them and move on.
  • Don't call them names in an effort to point out how awful they've treated you. (For example, "You act like such a spoiled, self-centered brat and all you do is name-call.")
  • Do let them know that the friendship is over. (For example, "I've enjoyed getting to know you, but I feel it's time for me to move on from this friendship.")

What If Your Friend Wants to Change?

If you let your friend know that you are ending the friendship because of their verbal abuse and they beg you for another chance, use caution. On the positive side, you may have been the first one to point out their abuse, or the one that finally got through. If this is the case, change may come in time or more quickly, depending on how badly the person wants to work on their issues.

You're certainly not obligated to "stick by" a friend who has been abusive to you. So if you feel as if there will be more negativity directed towards you while your friend works out their problems, you have every right to wish them the best and just stay away. If they eventually change to the point that you can be friends again, you can tell them you'd be open to it then, but be sure to move on so you can both have some distance.

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