About Coercive Control and Psychological Abuse

How to help women abused and controlled by male partners: Stage 1

– Posted in: Helping victims/survivors

As Yolantha in this video says, she did not recognise she was in a domestic violence situation. She was attracted to her man because he was passionate about things. She had never heard of psychological abuse and control and what it entailed. But when she was given some information, she still didn’t want to believe it.

How do you help a woman who is denying, minimising or excusing her partner’s abuse and control?

It depends on what stage she is at . . .

The first stage is known as precontemplation – the stage before contemplating changing the status quo. Dienemann and her colleagues (2007) suggest this stage equates to when the woman is fully committed to the relationship.

When a woman in a relationship marked by one-sided power and control is fully committed to the relationship, she might talk about the positives, hiding any evidence of being abused. She might relabel the man’s abuse as the result of a stressful job, problems with his childhood, or that he is just being a ‘normal’ man. Our society places a great deal of emphasis on the notion that it is the woman’s role to make the relationship work. While a woman is fully committed she may not separate herself from the relationship. She may placate or submit to his requests and demands – not because she is codependent, but because it is a strategy to try to stop him from denigrating her. She may spend years trying hard to please him, or to improve herself to gain his acceptance and approval – in an attempt to reduce or stop his anger, or to reduce his suspicions that she is not a good enough housekeeper or mother, or that she is having an affair with another man. She might start to silence herself and stop ‘answering back’ – stop arguing the point – which are yet more attempts on her part to help him revert to the loving caring man he once was.

She may become more and more isolated

In the meantime he may have criticised her friends or threatened them so they may have stopped visiting, or stopped calling her. He may have explicitly told her she could not see her family or friends, he may have threatened to harm her family or friends . . . so over time she becomes more and more dependent on him for closeness and more and more isolated.

Friends and family may have tried to intervene

Friends and family may have mentioned to her that, “He’s controlling you”. She may have argued the point and made a seemingly valid excuse for his behaviours. Often friends and family might say, “He’s abusing you”, or “Leave him”. But at the time when she is very committed to making the relationship work, committed to helping him change and she is in fear of the relationship failing she may reject friends and family believing that “no one understands”.

Increasing psychological and physical harm

As months and years pass, she may become more demoralised because she has not changed him, he has continued to blame her while not taking responsibility and she has accepted the blame. It is highly probable that her self-esteem has become battered, she has lost confidence, she has become confused, numb, developed depression, post traumatic stress and anxiety. Many women by this stage may have developed physical health problems such as stomach pain, indigestion problems, fibromyalgia, headaches and chronic fatigue. She may be told by her partner she is crazy and she may feel as if she is going crazy.

Friends and family often feel helpless, powerless and hopeless

Friends and family often cannot work out how to help her or the right things to say. She may ask for help but reject it, she may just want to be heard and not want to have her problems solved. She wants to be understood. She wants to save her relationship while at the same time she wants the abuse and control to stop. If there is no physical violence it is very very difficult to define and name psychological abuse and control. It is difficult for the woman to do this. It is difficult for the man to define his behaviours as abuse – he may feel completely justified in his domination and control and disciplinarian behaviours – as a man – as head of the house. It is very difficult for friends and family and colleagues to – firstly even see psychological abuse and control because so much of it is subtle – and secondly to define it and name it even if they do suspect something.

This is stage 1 in a long process – so what can you do to help at this stage?

  1. At this stage it is highly likely the woman will only want to talk and be understood
  2. Tell her she does not deserve abuse, does not deserve to be controlled and she is not to blame

You could also do the following, but you may be rejected because she may just want to be heard

  1. Raise doubt in the woman’s mind – explain the ways this is not a healthy relationship
  2. Provide her with information about psychological abuse and control
  3. Tell her the difference between a healthy relationship and a relationship marked by one-sided power and control
  4. Do not force her to do anything – that is probably already a tactic used by her abusive and controlling partner
  5. Know that she probably sees any abuse as temporary – inform her of the risk of further abuse and control by a man who so far has refused to take responsibility for his behaviour


  • Burman, Sondra. (2003). Battered women: Stages of change and other treatment models that instigate and sustain leaving. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3, 83-98.
  • Dienemann, Jacqueline A., Glass, Nancy, Hanson, Ginger & Lunsford, Kathleen. (2007). The domestic violence survivor assessment (DVSA): A tool for individual counselling with women experiencing intimate partner violence. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 28, 913-925.
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10 Comments… add one

Torey May 27 2014, 3:53 pm

My daughter is 26 and has a 2 year old with her husband. He is so mouthy and mean to her. He has overdosed 2 times on drugs. She saved his life both times. He blames her for everything and does not even respect her. He was not like this when she married him. She even quit her job because she could not handle the stress at home and at work. I want her and my grand baby out of there. I am clearly out if my mind — worried.

Clare Murphy PhD May 27 2014, 5:03 pm

Hi Torey, I’m sorry to hear your daughter’s experience of abuse and the stress for you as a caring mother. I wrote a blog outlining some ways mothers can support daughters coping with an abusive relationship specifically to support mothers with some ideas to handle the situation. There might be some ideas there that are helpful for you. Clare

Mr September 14 2013, 4:54 am

I am in a relationship with a woman who has been mentally abused, controlled and sexually abused for a long time. We have had feelings for each other throughout and we are together now. Recently the ex called and left the typical message of being sorry and the usual games. It upset her and I have noticed this week that she has pulled away a little and is feeling overwhelmed. She never called back but she has told me she is upset about the way she felt after that message. She continues to tell me how she feels about me but for the first time in a long time ..I am worried about her cause she has come so far. Not just with us but her own life. She said it’s just part of the process and she needs a minute to move past it. Anything I can do? I just love her so much.

Clare Murphy PhD October 2 2013, 2:17 pm

It can take a long long time for anyone who has been controlled and abused in subtle covert ways to begin to trust again — even if you are not the one who was abusive. In my view, the more consistently you are authentic, genuine, honest, and respectful the safer your partner will feel, but it may take a long time for her to really trust you. Just be consistent in your support and avoid playing any games. Use clear assertive communication — any behaviours that are genuine go a long way in making someone feel safe.

Megan July 18 2012, 2:48 am

Hi, I have a close cousin who is 19…she has never been all there mentally. She was going to college here in Tx and met a guy online. She cashed in her college fund her parents set up for her and took off to live with him on a spur of the moment thing without telling any of her family. She has called my uncle and aunt several times to come get her because she wants to come home. They drove all the way out to Ohio leaving as soon as they got the phone call, only to get there and she won’t even come out of the house to see them. They finally found out that the guy is 37 and doesn’t have a job…drawing a small amount from social security. Her parents have actually talked to the guy and he has gotten really nasty with my uncle and wouldn’t let him talk to her. My dad (her uncle) has called and the guy got nasty with him as well and wouldn’t let my dad talk to her. My uncle made the decision to cut off her phone because the guy was making international calls on her phone. She contacted another cousin over facebook and told her that the guy said that she could never go back to her family because if she left him she would be a ‘loser’ and that nobody in her family would want her. This guy must some piece of work. My aunt and uncle are beside themselves. They don’t know what they can do anymore. They are scared for their daughter’s life, they have no clue what to do next. They have spent over $20,000 just going to get her, cell phone bill and hotel rooms for her. Does anyone have any advice that I can pass along?

mamello April 29 2012, 11:37 am

I am twenty four years of age and have a five year old kid with the father and I am suffering from an abused relationship. I have been quiet for a long time and I don’t want to see myself die and leave my kid and family. I really want help desperately because the police didn’t help at all.

Steph July 28 2011, 6:27 am

It is not that simple especially when children are involved.

If a woman wants to get out but can’t work and is paralized by the thought of her nasty husband spending even one second of visitation alone with her angels she is stuck. When she knows the court will allow him to visit her kids alone even when he drinks and would watch R rated movies in front of them and such she can’t let that happen.

It is a nightmare when she has to watch him text all night knowing it is other women he is texting. But there is no way out.

Monica in Dallas June 12 2010, 7:17 pm

Hello, I am sorry to hear about Joann’s daughter — I do wish peace for her and for you (Joann) her mother.

I am glad to have found “How to help women abused and controlled by male partners” by Clare Murphy.

I am attempting to reach out for help for myself at this time. I am in a current state of hopelessness — I’ve become A PET HUMAN for my abuser. The abuse has been a progressive painful ongoing experience — the worst beginning over a year ago. My being isolated now completely for months is more than I can bear.

I am a mother of three sweet beautiful children whom – my abuser – has managed to limit my time with to almost nothing… I CAN NOT TAKE IT !!!! I MISS MY BABIES!!! I miss my family. I miss driving my car. I miss working. I miss going to the store. I miss feeling human. I am a mess… A BIG MESS and I am lost with how or where or what to do to help myself. Everything I ever loved has been taken from me… I am lucky today to have my laptop…. so it is a good day.. .. HA HA!! days go by he holds the phone, the money, the keys, hid my car keys and title; takes my glasses (broke my nice pair) ; takes my medicine sometimes and hides it — I am narcoleptic — w/o my medicine I will fall into a deep sleep for days —- hardly brings groceries into house… so i have to count on him bringing me food…. even takes such things as razors, tweezers, tp, make up, cut cords to television, and so on and so on… . . . I DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO…… I NEED HELP I AM SLIPPING AWAY … I NEED TO BE WITH MY CHILDREN; I NEED TO GET AWAY FROM THIS GUY; the abuse has also become very physical… this past month the back of my head busted and welted from being thrown backwards on the cement. My right side temple was bulged and I could hardly open my mouth; ———– he is getting up… I have to get out of this site

Joann November 11 2009, 8:34 pm

My daughter is married to a controlling man. She was living in my house when she met him. He lied and said he had nowhere to go (she met him at college) She called me up. I was against this, because the last time I let my daughter have a roommate, she said the boyfriend was punching and abusing her. Her room is in back of the house and we could not hear it.

My daughter is 34. The man she moved in with married her and moved her fifty (50) miles away from me and her friends. The only family she has in this tiny village is her aunt (who when she last seen was very close to my daughter’s husband).

Now my daughter is married, and I know that this man is controlling. She is on disability and he is a Computer Specialist. He tells her he does not have any money to pay the oil bill, so she has to pay the oil bill from her disability check. She has MS and I think that she is “settling” on any man. Her husband constantly lets her know it. My daughter has to pay for her own specialist fee when she sees a doctor. He tells her “Who would love you if I didn’t?” My daughter is very beautiful.

My daughter and I talk on the phone, but I have to promise that I did not talk to her. I am not allowed to call their house. When I do call because I must speak to my daughter he will answer the phone and 25 minutes later my daughter calls me whispering “I’ll call you on Thursday”. Today is Tuesday. She tells me to “leave it alone”. I can’t sit by and see my one and only daughter being treated so cruelly. Please help m,e or if you cannot, please direct me to someone to who can.

Clare November 11 2009, 9:50 pm

Hello Joann . . . This situation must be extremely distressing for you and your daughter.
I recommend that you seek local support about how you might be able to approach this situation so your daughter is not put at risk . . . Types of support to seek are women’s advocates at your local women’s shelter and domestic violence programmes, and ask around for a lawyer who understands psychological abuse and one-sided power and control. Ask the police for advice. Some police jurisdictions have domestic violence liaison officers you can speak to. If you go to the “LINKS” tab on the menu above you should find contacts for some of these places in your country.
Your daughter sounds isolated and afraid of her husband. Unfortunately, the control the man has over the woman often means that even if you could find social or legal support to try to get your daughter out of the situation, she may not feel it is safe or right for her to do so.
Alternatively, you could look for support and information services in the town where your daughter lives, so that she might be able to meet informed professionals and women in similar situations and have her experience validated e.g. by attending a programme for women in domestic violence situations. Or you could locate a counsellor in her town – who needs to be trained in psychological abuse and power and control – for your daughter to hear an informed perspective and be supported.
Many controlling men prevent their partners from seeking such support. From what you say, it is likely that, if your daughter did want to seek such support, she might have to find a way to do that without her husband’s knowledge. Very best wishes to you. Clare

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