Psychological abuse

This is the tenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Denial, Minimising, Blaming.

Power & control wheel #10 Clare Murphy PhD

We are all responsible for the choices we make in life. We’re personally responsible for our own thoughts, beliefs, assumptions and interpretations of situations. Our thoughts lead to our feelings and in turn our thoughts and feelings influence our behaviours. When we’re in a “healthy” relationship and one of us causes harm to the other, the one who causes harm will acknowledge and own what they did — take responsibility for it — and take steps to never do that again, to change their behaviours with the aim of developing greater levels of love, care, empathy and respect for the other person. They do what it takes to try to hear, understand and empathise with the other, and in turn express themselves in helpful ways to help the other person understand them. Self-Responsibility requires giving up blaming others.

However, in a relationship where one person is motivated to be right and get their way at all costs, and to maintain power and control over the other, they relinquish personal responsibility for their harmful words and actions — they deny they’ve done wrong, they minimise their abusive and controlling behaviours — they blame the target of their abuse.

Men who use coercive control against their female partner deny their behaviours outright. Or he’ll admit to causing harm but minimise it saying the abuse was not that bad, or he’ll tell her their relationship is the best she can hope for. Men who use coercive control use rationality and reasoning, by for example reminding her of times he was right and she was wrong. When she gives him feedback about his behaviours he’ll divert attention away from himself and pick her personality apart. He’ll blame his abuse on his stress, drugs, alcohol, or anything or anyone outside of himself. He’ll blame her for his behaviours by twisting things around so that it appears she is responsible. And if she wants to escape the clutches of his incessant control tactics, he’ll use intimidation and threats by doing things like warning her that if she leaves, he’ll commit suicide and that she’ll be responsible.

Denying, minimising and blaming all lead to obstructing change. . . . . No matter what the victimised person says or does in an attempt to resolve the controlling person’s behaviours and attitudes, the controlling person prevents the development of a healthy relationship.

Here are some experiences that women have when living with a male partner who denies, minimises, and blames….


Denial entails acting as if he has not been abusive, not been controlling, not caused any harm. Therefore he believes there is nothing to be responsible and accountable for.

Elsie said her husband Leon “was a real control freak, but he never acknowledged it to himself. He would quite often say to people how nice he was. I don’t think he ever knew what he was ever like. I’d say nothing (laughter). He was so nasty if you crossed him, it just wasn’t worth it.”

It is common for some men to use counselling as an arena to continue denying their controlling behaviours and to try to get the counsellor to take his side.

For example, Elizabeth said her husband David “thought counselling was about telling me that I was wrong, so he came along to agree with the counsellor that I was wrong. Even in later years when I went to counselling over the whole sexual abuse thing and so on it was always about, ‘there was something wrong with me’. There was never any acknowledgement that anything he might be doing could be contributing to what was happening in our relationship.”


Minimising entails acknowledging he may have done something harmful, but he refuses to take responsibility for the level of abusive behaviour and the level of harm caused — saying things like, “It wasn’t that bad, get over it.”

Karen said she “would feel guilty and self‑indulgent for arguing because he’d say, ‘What are you making all this fuss about? Settle down, calm down, live your life peacefully.’ So I started making these decisions to close myself down. You do begin to doubt how right you are if you’re just living this life in one continual power struggle and everything’s being constantly bitched over, everything. Everything (sigh of exhaustion). You just get exasperated and exhausted and you don’t know which battles to pick and which one’s important.”

Victoria said her partner Graham would minimise his behaviours mainly by saying, “things aren’t that bad”. She said that it wasn’t an overt, “this is what I think and you’ll damn well think that way, but if you don’t agree with what I’m saying then I’m going to make you doubt yourself, so I will manipulate you to believe the way I believe, but I won’t overtly tell you that you have to believe that way, but I’ll just make sure you feel so unsure about what you believe that you’ll take on what I believe anyway.”

As a response to Graham’s subtle ways of minimising his controlling behaviours and their effects, Victoria “started to believe that he was right and that maybe I really did misinterpret a lot of things, that I really wasn’t made for this marriage thing and that was my fault, that I was too pushy, that I wanted to change him and that was a wrong thing to do, and that I should accept him for who he was, and that I wasn’t a very nice person for doing that, and I must stop that immediately, and that that’s another bad aspect of my personality that must be fixed.”

When Victoria had an emotional response to something, Graham would say things to minimise what he’d done and to shut down the conversation and therefore obstruct change. He would tell her she was, “overreacting…. misinterpreting and … you just don’t understand… everything’s such a bloody big deal to you, just get over it… what are you on about, for God’s sake do we have to go through this again?”

Over time Victoria learnt not to trust my own judgements. I always thought if I was upset about something, I was overreacting. There wasn’t a degree of upset before I decided that I was overreacting, any minute hint of being upset I was overreacting. Get over it and move on and accept that there is nothing you can do about it. So just put up and shut up. Get on with it.”

Because Susan’s husband Anthony would deny, minimise and blame, and therefore close all doors to the possibility of resolving issues and developing a healthy relationship, Susan said, “I was the only person who ever said sorry. He’d be late home from the pub and I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, but I really missed you, that’s why I’m really angry that you’re not here.’ Whereas he’d say, ‘It’s only the pub, what’s your problem?’ I suppose that’s when it becomes my fault and I fully believed it was my fault for being so impatient, for being so controlling over his space.”


Similar to minimising, people who use power and control to get their way will use reasoning and rationalisation. They’ll rationalise by saying things like, “I only did it one time” yet in actual fact they use controlling tactics daily, weekly … in an ongoing way over a long period of time. They rationalise by saying that one behaviour they did a moment ago was a one-off – and therefore minimise the incessant ongoing pattern of control across time.

Teresa said “It’s very clever because there’s a logic to what they say. At the time there isn’t an argument against it, it makes sense, it’s not till you go away afterwards and think about it and think ‘no that’s not right’.”

The controlling partner will rationalise by reminding her of all the times she did something wrong and he did something right. He’ll also compare his behaviours with other men’s saying that his were nowhere near as bad and that she has it good with him. Such comparisons especially happen when the man never uses physical violence. There is so little mention of coercive control in the news media — which means the victim has very little back-up from society to support her interpretation of his behaviours.


When a controlling person justifies their behaviours, they usually turn the attention onto the victim — saying that they would not have behaved that way if she had done what he expected of her, such as keep the children quiet, have the dinner on the table on time, not challenge a decision he made.

As Donna said, “Everything in Frank’s world was…he was justifiably right in everything.”


Blaming entails admitting that he has used abusive, controlling behaviours, admitting she may feel harmed, BUT he takes absolutely no ownership or responsibility for his actions and their effects.

It’s common for men who use controlling behaviours to say to their partner “it’s all your fault you’ve done this.”

Elsie said Leon would “blame my dog for things and it obviously wasn’t. I remember his dog one day (laughter) had shat on the floor in the lounge, he’d been shut in or something. I was really cross about it and he blamed me for that. If he blamed me I would just agree and say I was sorry. I suppose I did that quite a bit and accept it was my fault just for peace, but internally I didn’t believe it.”

Being continually blamed for someone else’s behaviour can be crazymaking. However when I question deeply, the women who come to me for counselling, they will have been like Elsie — that is, even though many women start to outwardly behave as if they are “letting the abuse happen” or as if “they are putting up with his controlling behaviours” . . . .  In reality, somewhere deep inside them they will have quietly held onto their own voice as they learned it was not beneficial to continue to push for him to take personal-responsibility. 

The effect of being constantly blamed for her husband David’s behaviours would lead Elizabeth to “bend over backwards. I would say to him well, ‘How do you want me to be?’ I wanted him to tell me what I needed to do to be okay, to be the wife he wanted, to be the person he wanted.”

Teresa said her partner Patrick “blamed me for lots of things. The drinking was the thing he blamed me for most. He was a secret drinker. When I would confront him about being drunk or about drinking, it would be my fault because I’d upset him by telling somebody something, or I’d spent too much time with my friends, so what was he supposed to do. That sort of thing felt like a consequence of breaking the rules.”

Teresa said Patrick “tried to make me drink and said that the reason he drank was my fault because I had such an odd puritanical attitude about alcohol which is totally untrue. That he had to hide it from me because it would upset me and that if I would sit down and have 12 beers a night with him, then it would be fine.”

As many women do in response to incessantly being blamed, they do as Teresa did: “I apologised, said I wouldn’t do it again.”

Teresa said Patrick “blamed me for his marriage breaking up as well. The blaming me for the drinking is a thing I recall most vividly, because in retrospect it’s so absolutely bizarre (laughter). How could it be my fault that he got pissed every night and hid the cans under the floor and in the ceiling and in the filing cabinet, it’s not my fault. But I really thought it was, that I had some serious problem with alcohol that I couldn’t see that this was normal behaviour (laughter).

Women usually seek to engage their partner in conversation seeking to understand why he abuses and controls them. During such conversations with PatrickTeresa said he’d respond by saying, “Because I made him. Every behaviour of his I didn’t like, he did because I made him, because of my attitudes and my behaviour. He was doing it in response to me and a lot of the time he was doing it so he didn’t upset me, like hiding his drinking. It was my fault that I was upset about it because if I hadn’t snooped I would never have found out about it so what could I expect?”

Sally said throughout her seven year marriage to Dylan, she would never back down from trying to get him to take responsibility for his behaviours, but, “He never ever would work out any problems that we had. He always blamed me every single time, without fail. He would just never take responsibility for any of his actions.  I left him because he just would not meet me half way.” She said he blamed her all the time and like many women who are consistently made to feel responsible for their partner’s behaviours, she ended up believing it was true, so she “always tried hard to fix myself and I think that is why, in the end, I went on Prozac because I was exhausted from trying to fix myself when I actually wasn’t the problem.”

Raewyn said it might only be little things, but that Brian would often “blame me (laugh). If something went missing he would blame me, whereas really it had been him who put the thing somewhere, whatever it is, a book, or some tool, or whatever.”

Donna said her husband “wouldn’t acknowledge that there was anything wrong. To this day Frank will tell you that our whole marriage break up was my fault.”

Victoria said Graham would blame her for “everything! His actions, problems in the marriage. Everything was my fault. Everything, absolutely everything. Our first real fight once we got married, we’d been married about 20 minutes, and we got to the reception and his family threw rice at us sitting in the back of the car and it went down his shirt — That was my fault. So he stormed off and wouldn’t talk to me, and my sister’s husband had to go and get him into the reception. And then we went into the room after we got married that night he wanted to watch a video. We didn’t have the video cord adaptor thing, so I rung down to reception and asked them about it and they’re like, ‘aren’t you the newly weds?’ and I’m like, ‘don’t even go there’. They said, ‘we didn’t think you’d need the adaptor so we lent it to another room’. So that was my fault somehow, I should have been aware of the adaptor problem.”

Karen said her husband Felix “had this new age philosophy that we all construct our own lives, our own existence and he would say, ‘if you have got this problem Karen, then this is entirely your fault and your decision, and you are the only one who can do anything about it, it’s got nothing to do with me. You own your situation, it is yours not mine.’ Which is fine to an extent, I’m ok with this. But I do believe that we need to take responsibility for the way that we behave with each other and how our actions impose on other people. He’s got this philosophy if you’re sitting down watching tele at night on the couch and a piece of fuselage falls off a plane falls through your ceiling and kills you, then you obviously created that, you asked for it, it’s your fault. Everything he did was my creation.”

In response to Felix avoiding taking responsibility for his controlling behaviours, and twisting the concept of personal-responsibility around as a way of blaming Karen for his abusive and controlling behaviours, Karen “argued with it. I hated it. I still hate it. But I resisted it, I argued about it every time, and I’d say, ‘well how come it’s that way that everything in your life is my fault?’”

Denial, minimising and blaming are destructive tactics of power and control

The perpetrator’s belief that he has to be right — at all costs — every time . . . . . leads to a downward spiral over months and years, as the victim of control becomes more and more debilitated.

Ironically, as the victim loses her confidence, self-esteem, and dignity, many men end up not liking the result! That is, not liking the person she has become. And because the perpetrator of coercive control denies, minimises and blames throughout the course of the relationship — he is oblivious to the fact he is the one who — by using one control tactic at a time, over years, chipped away at her — as if chipping away at a slab of marble slowly shaping her into a shadow of her former self.

When a man constantly denies, minimises, rationalises, justifies and blames — over time — and seldom, if ever, takes personal responsibility — and does not show he is holding himself to account by actually changing his behaviours — then these control tactics are the hallmark of a relationship that will never ever become the loving, caring, healthy relationship the woman is hoping for.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Using the children
Economic abuse
Sexual abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence


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  • Cavanagh, Kate, Dobash, R. Emerson, Dobash, Russell P., & Lewis, Ruth. (2001). ‘Remedial work’: Men’s strategic responses to their violence against intimate female partners. Sociology, 35(3), 695-714.
  • Coleman, Karen H. (1980). Conjugal violence: What 33 men report. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 6, 207-213.
  • Eisikovits, Zvi C., & Buchbinder, Eli. (1997). Talking violent: A phenomenological study of metaphors battering men use. Violence Against Women, 3, 482-498.
  • Goodrum, Sarah, Umberson, Debra, & Anderson, Kristin L. (2001). The batterer’s view of the self and others in domestic violence. Sociological Inquiry, 71, 221-240.
  • Hearn, Jeff. (1998). The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women. London: Sage
  • Mullaney, Jamie L. (2007). Telling it like a man. Men and Masculinities, 10, 222-247.
  • Stamp, Glen H., & Sabourin, Teresa Chandler. (1995). Accounting for violence: An analysis of male spousal abuse narratives. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 23, 288-302.
  • Wood, Julia T. (2004). Monsters and victims: Male felons’ accounts of intimate partner violence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 555-576.


Tactic #9 — Using Social Institutions and Social Prejudices

by Clare Murphy PhD 15 February 2013

This is the ninth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Using Social Institutions and Social Prejudices. Many perpetrators of psychological abuse use social, health, legal and other institutions such as child protection services as arenas to further their coercive control over their intimate partner. They use […]

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Cognitive dissonance – how women justify staying with a controlling partner

by Clare Murphy PhD 15 June 2012

Cognitive dissonance is a theory developed by social psychologist, Leon Festinger, in the 1950s. The theory explains how people respond when their attitudes and beliefs do not match their behaviours. We humans are driven to have harmony between our attitudes and our behaviours and to avoid dissonance, that is, to avoid contradiction. Cognitive dissonance theory explains […]

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Tactic #1 — One-Sided Power Games

by Clare Murphy PhD 17 May 2011

This is the first of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics mentioned in my power and control wheel – One-Sided Power Games. Research with men and women reveals that men who engage in one-sided power games show more concern about gaining something for themselves than showing concern for what they are actually doing to […]

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A new power and control wheel

by Clare Murphy PhD 17 May 2011

I’d like to introduce you to the ‘power and control’ wheel I created after researching and interviewing women who had been psychologically abused and controlled by their male partners. You may recognise the Duluth ‘power and control’ wheel (on the left below) … it has been hanging around noticeboards at women’s centres, doctor’s rooms, and […]

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No bruise no victim?

by Clare Murphy PhD 28 April 2011

Why women and society miss the cues of psychological abuse What have I done wrong? Am I going crazy? Is this normal? One of the most common problems for women experiencing psychological abuse, is that they do not realise what is occurring in the early stages and are often not able to put it in […]

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Warning signs that your male partner is emotionally controlling you

by Clare Murphy PhD 20 August 2010

You’re dating or living with this good looking guy, maybe he’s charming and you feel wanted . . . but things he says or does make you feel bad about yourself – and you can’t really figure out why. You likely question yourself asking whether it’s something about you – because he doesn’t seem to […]

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Psychological abuse can lead to murder

by Clare Murphy PhD 20 November 2009

Men who murder their female partners are often motivated by a need to save face by regaining a sense of power and control if the woman threatens to leave, or does leave. Many mental health and legal professionals do not take women’s experience of psychological abuse and control seriously. But men’s perpetration of psychological abuse […]

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Shame experienced by abuse victims

by Clare Murphy PhD 19 August 2009

Dr Angela Jury conducted interviews with 25 survivors of intimate partner abuse for her PhD research. The following are extracts from a Massey University news release about her study: Abused women – especially victims of psychological and emotional torment – are often so paralysed by what they see as the stigma and shame associated with […]

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Interview with a woman who was bullied and scapegoated in churches

by Clare Murphy PhD 9 August 2009

The following is an interview I conducted today with Margaret Jones PhD, who has written a book about her experiences titled: Not of my making: Bullying, scapegoating and misconduct in Churches. The nub of one-sided psychological abuse and power and control is that it occurs across all social institutions. In fact the trigger that helped […]

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Are women who live with abusive partners codependent?

by Clare Murphy PhD 8 July 2009

The other day I met a social worker/counsellor at a seminar. When she found out I research domestic violence she immediately told me that women who stay with violent men are codependent. She said such women were just the same as women who live with alcoholics. She was not interested in another view because she […]

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Power and control: Lawyer-client relationship

by Clare Murphy PhD 27 June 2009

A power and control wheel has been developed as a tool for recognising abuse and psychological assault by lawyers against their clients. This Lawyer-Client wheel was motivated firstly by the book Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture by Marc Galanter, and secondly, by the State Bar of Texas ethics rules (which reflect ethics […]

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Women are socialised to find self-worth by living with a man

by Clare Murphy PhD 23 June 2009

Women continue to be bombarded with social messages that suggest they can find self-worth by marrying or committing to live long-term with a man But this does not mean they enter a relationship that leads to abuse and control. However, this was the case for many of the women I interviewed in my Masters research, […]

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The Emperor has no clothes on

by Clare Murphy PhD 10 June 2009

In 2001 I interviewed women who had left their psychologically abusive and controlling male partners/husbands. Before marrying, most of the women had total belief in their partner – because he was a man. The women said this belief was socially encouraged. For example one woman said: “Over the time that I was with him my […]

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Women mentally bruised by male partners: How to help Stage 5

by Clare Murphy PhD 8 May 2009

Maintenance is the final stage in this series of blogs about providing help for women that is appropriate to her stage of coping with being abused and controlled by a male partner. Dienneman and her colleagues (2007) call this stage establishing a new life whether the woman stays together with her partner or whether she […]

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Gift giving can be manipulative

by Clare Murphy PhD 4 May 2009

Today I read this article about the very problematic issue of male perpetrators of domestic violence (including psychological abuse and control) giving gifts as a means of trying to ameliorate their partner and trying to increase the chances that she will stay with him and meet his controlling commands. My research with women shows that […]

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Helping women who are refusing to be abused: Stage 4

by Clare Murphy PhD 3 May 2009

Stage 4 of making change is the time when new actions take place. Dienemann and colleagues (2007) suggest this stage in women’s relationships in which men abuse and control them, entails breaking away from their relationship – or – it entails the man curtailing his abuse and control. This is a time when women assess […]

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Confused about helping women abused by male partners? Stage 3

by Clare Murphy PhD 26 April 2009

When women start to develop a determination to prepare for seeking change it does not mean it becomes easy for friends and family to know how to support her. At this third stage in women’s process of making sense of one-sided power and control by a male partner, Dienemann and colleagues (2007) suggest women are […]

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Feeling bemused about helping women abused by male partners – Stage 2

by Clare Murphy PhD 21 April 2009

During the contemplation stage of women coming to terms with the abuse and control by their male partner, women begin to accept that there is a problem that is not resolving itself. Dienemann and colleagues (2007) call stage 2 a time when women continue to be committed to the relationship but begin to question it. […]

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

by Clare Murphy PhD 7 April 2009

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 […]

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How victims cope with psychological abuse and control

by Clare Murphy PhD 16 February 2009

I had two clients arrive today in tormented distress. One client was confused about her husband’s behaviours. She was also distraught because she is yearning to leave, but feels guilty at the thought of doing so. She wants to leave but is still confused about why he continues to be abusive and controlling despite the […]

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