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

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

References:

  • 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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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.