This can be hard to understand for someone who has (thankfully) not experienced abuse in a relationship. Let us consider the following points. Which would you rather endure, physical pain or emotional pain? I think most of us would choose the former. Indeed, many of us have made that very choice when, for example, picking up a needy child even when we are exhausted/sick/etc. We would rather experience physical duress than watch our child cry (or, possibly, endure the incessant whining).
Furthermore, in general physical injuries will heal with little effort from us. Bruises disappear whether or not you do anything about them. Emotional wounds, however, are not so effortless. A victim who is made to feel stupid does not automatically grow out of that; low self-esteem does not heal itself. A wife who is told by her husband that he never found her attractive anyway is not likely to slowly regain feelings of attractiveness in the same way that wound slowly fades.
Another important distinction between the physical and emotional abuse is that physical abuse usually leaves marks you can see. Even if a victim cannot – or does not wish to – show them to others, at least s/he can point to something and know that they’re real. By contrast, an abuser who is not physically violent tries to undermine the victim’s own confidence; victims are often left wondering what happened, if they’re crazy, if it’s all their fault – it’s much harder to recognize for what it is, and that itself makes the situation that much more unbearable.
The pain of emotional abuse runs much deeper. Feeling bad about who you are is much more painful than a broken arm. As one victim put it, “The physical abuse makes me hate him; the emotional abuse makes me hate myself.” Victims time and again testify that they would rather suffer the beatings than the verbal attacks.
I was reminded of this question and decided to write a post about during my morning seder. In Erchin 15a the Mishnah discusses a motz shem ra, one who falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin on their wedding night. Should it be discovered that he is lying, the fine is 100 selas. However, notes Rashi, if a man rapes a woman, he owes only 50 selas. We see, explains the Mishnah, that ha’omer b’piv chamur min ha’oseh maaseh – one who injures with his words does more damage than one who does an actual act*. Indeed, Chazal are in agreement that verbal abuse is worse than physical abuse.
*I have used verbal and emotional abuse fairly interchangeably here, although strictly speaking there are differences despite the overlap. For example, abusers can emotionally abuse their spouse by cheating on them, giving condescending looks, etc., without saying a thing.
**Obviously, the damage caused by rape is primarily emotional, not physical. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, Chazal’s approach to rape is different from our modern one (and not because Chazal didn’t care about women). Nonetheless, the point still stands that Chazal are asserting that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”