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—the book that helped change Brandy's life. 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."

How can his voice drown out your inner knowing? Patricia Evans explains.
  • The abuse only happens when you're alone with him. Friends and coworkers might think he's a prince, so you doubt your own perceptions or believe his anger must be your fault.

  • Verbal abuse escalates gradually; you adapt. (The abuse might also become physical.) He's Jekyll and Hyde, with just enough sweet times to keep you hoping the relationship will improve.

  • Assuming he's rational (aren't all men?) and wants what you want (loving mutuality), you strain to make sense of what he says. But it's nonsense, designed to confuse you. The shocking truth is, he seeks control, not intimacy.
Yet you can save your spirit. Evans maps out the steps to emotional rescue:
  • Recognize that the abuse has nothing to do with you or your actions or qualities.

  • Stop trying to explain and defend yourself. Instead, start setting limits: "Cut that out!" or "I don't want to hear that."

  • Listen carefully to your feelings. Believe them, not him.

  • Get support from a counselor or therapist. Make sure she understands that this isn't just a "conflict" or an "argument."

  • Keep in mind that an abuser might be able to change himself if he really wants to—but you can't change him. You can honor and nurture yourself.
Next: Are you in a verbally abusive relationship? See the checklist

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