What's The Difference Between Criticism And Verbal Abuse?

It's virtually impossible to have a close relationship with someone without some element of conflict. In some relationships, disagreements can stem from finances, miscommunication, or misunderstandings. But in others, the strife can be more severe and involve some form of abuse. Abuse isn't just limited to romantic relationships; it can happen in any relationship.


Verbal abuse is among the most common forms of abuse, according to love is respect, but it can be just as harmful as physical abuse. In addition to the mental and emotional distress it can cause, one thing that makes verbal abuse so challenging is that it's not always easy to identify. It can be confused with criticism, which can sometimes be constructive, but abuse is never constructive. It's only destructive.

So what are the differences between criticism and verbal abuse? If you're in a relationship and wondering if you're being verbally abused, here are some of the differentiating factors.

Abuse involves personal attacks, but criticism doesn't

A personal attack is when someone calls you an offensive name or insults you in other ways using words. Here's an example of a personal attack between a husband, Luis, and his wife, Becca. Becca made a careless mistake involving paying a bill, for the third time. A verbally abusive response from Luis might sound something like, "Wow, you're such a freaking idiot. How many times are you going to do this? How can you be so stupid, again?"


If he were to respond with mere criticism, he would say something along the lines of, "Again? Babe, you do that a lot, and it's really frustrating. You really need to be more careful." The difference between the two is that criticism doesn't involve name-calling. Although neither response is likely to put a smile on Becca's face, the first response is much harsher than the second. It involves putting her down and can leave her feeling angry, hurt, and even fearful.

In fact, PsychCentral lists five studies that revealed the damage that personal attacks can do to a person. Depression, suicidal thoughts and stress were some of the mental health challenges that abuse victims experienced.

If threats are involved, it's verbal abuse

This is one of the most obvious forms of verbal abuse, along with name-calling and other personal attacks. Some threats can involve a statement of intention to physically harm another person. An example would be someone telling their boyfriend or girlfriend, "If you don't shut up, I'm going to smack you."


Threats can also involve statements of intention to damage another person's reputation. For example, "You better clean that mess or I'll take pictures and post them all over social media so people will see what a slob you are." Or, "If you don't do what I asked, I'll tell your boss all the bad things you said about her so you'll get fired."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Criticism can be helpful, but abuse is always hurtful

Some people make a living by being critics, particularly when it comes to movies. Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Leonard Maltin, and Pauline Kael are just a few of the men and women who worked or still work as film critics. Although some movie reviews can be downright scathing, many point out flaws and offer solutions — even though it's too late for filmmakers to actually apply them.


Criticism in relationships is comparable to film critiques. Here's an example between friends Linda and Amy: Linda is more successful than Amy, careerwise. Amy has a habit of making poor choices that negatively affect her climb up the career ladder. Linda criticizes Amy for these choices and mentions the mistakes she's made, but without ever calling her a name or insulting her.

Criticism can be blunt and honest, and although it can also be hurtful, the end goal is sometimes positive and constructive. Sometimes. Verbal abuse, on the other hand, is never positive and does nothing but emotionally and mentally damage the person being abused.

Abuse can involve manipulation, but criticism doesn't

Manipulation is another form of verbal abuse. It involves using words to control the actions of someone else. The person doing the manipulation will use specific tactics to get the other person to respond a certain way or to do something. Good Therapy lists a dozen of them, but it's important to note that not all forms of manipulation fall into the verbal abuse category.


Guilt-tripping is one example of manipulative verbal abuse. Here's an example between friends Krista and Mary. Krista is older and more popular than Mary. Throughout their friendship, Krista manipulates Mary to do things that she doesn't really want to do by saying things like, "If you were a real friend, you would do this for me" or "If you don't do this, it's going to completely ruin my entire day."

Statements like these can be especially effective when used on kind-hearted people and those who don't want to risk losing a friendship, like Mary. People with manipulative tendencies sometimes will even target people who they know are vulnerable and easily manipulated.

Blame-shifting is a form of verbal abuse, not criticism

Blame-shifting is just what it sounds like. It's when one person refuses to acknowledge fault and, instead, "shifts the blame" to the person doing the blaming. This is another common form of verbal abuse. According to Psychology Today, blame-shifting is a defense mechanism that people use as a means of maintaining control. It happens when a person doesn't want to feel guilty or have to take any actions toward self-improvement. Therefore, the blame-shifter dodges the "blame bullet" and redirects it to stay in control and attempt to remain innocent.


Here's an example of blame-shifting between a mother and her adult daughter who live together and share finances. The mother made a terrible mistake that caused them both to lose thousands of dollars. Her daughter blames her for the error, but instead of accepting the blame and apologizing, the mother says, "Well, if you had just taken care of it, I wouldn't have messed up, so really, it's your fault."

Blame shifting, along with threats, manipulation, and personal attacks are all forms of verbal abuse. Unlike criticism, verbal abuse is destructive and unhelpful. If you're in a verbally abusive relationship, or any other kind of abusive relationship and are concerned about your safety, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.