Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

How many women think of that schoolyard rhyme while reeling from a partner's put-downs or angry outbursts? The rhyme's a lie, says Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Cruel words can do worse than break bones: They can break your spirit, cripple your confidence, even make you physically ill.

"This can happen to any woman, with any family background or career," she says. "It's happened to psychologists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, Web designers, mommies—even the director of a women's shelter." A woman falls into the trap because the abuse takes her by surprise. "He isn't abusive while he's courting you," Evans says. "But once he gets you, he switches—and you have no idea why."

Evans proposes a persuasive reason in her new book, Controlling People: An abuser needs to see you as his dream woman, an extension of himself—so the real, spontaneous, separate you becomes the enemy. That's why you get a double message: "I love you" ... "You bitch." And that's why verbal abuse is all about undermining and definining you.

Seven Signs You're In A Verbally Abusive Relationship
  • He seems irritated or angry with you several times a week. When you ask why he's mad, he either denies it or tells you it's in some way your fault.
  • When you feel hurt and try to talk with him, the issues never get resolved. He might refuse to discuss your upset feelings by saying, "You're just trying to start an argument!" or claiming he has no idea what you're talking about.
  • You frequently feel frustrated because you can't get him to understand your intentions.
  • You're upset—not so much about concrete issues like how much time to spend together, but about communication: what he thinks you said and what you heard him say.
  • You sometimes think, "What's wrong with me? I shouldn't feel so bad."
  • He seems to take the opposite view from you on almost everything, and his opinion isn't stated as, "I think ..." but as if you're wrong and he's right.
  • You can't recall saying, "Cut it out!" or "Stop it!"