How victims cope with psychological abuse and coercive control

Speakoutloud.net how women cope Clare Murphy PhD_3I 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 wide range of strategies she’s used over the years to try to resolve the problem. He controls the money. He spends over and above the budget. He disposes of her possessions including cars. He makes all the family decisions. He never takes responsibility for any of his actions. He lashes out with his fists. He threatens to leave but stays. He denigrates her. He is unkind. He ignores her for days on end. He lives in his own world. He has isolated her from her friends. She has no friends anymore.

My other client is being abused by her boss. It is common for a workplace bully to target the most conscientious and capable worker. I asked if this might be happening. She said yes, that he was abusing her and the other good workers, but that the lazy workers were allowed to do what they wanted, whilst the conscientious workers were overworking to take up the slack. Both my clients were confused. They were both trying to do better in an attempt to stop the abuser from abusing them.

Why are victims of one-sided power and control so confused?

My two clients today are generous, intelligent and caring. The woman whose husband is controlling her has tried over her very long marriage to help him manage money. But he refuses to learn how, he refuses to allow her to take charge of it, he refuses to take advice from financial experts. He has lost most of their savings because of his ignorance and selfishness. He is always determined to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. I have met many women who have had the exact same experiences. Over the years these women have tried to get their partner to take responsibility for his aggression, his controlling, his abusiveness, his unkindness. Today my client was extremely distraught about her feeling of failure. She has never found a way to actually engage him in a conversation that would enable a resolution. This is a common experience for victims of one-sided power and control.

The victim tries many strategies to be heard

The bully at work and the bullying husband both refuse to take any responsibility for their behaviours. In the case of the woman whose husband is controlling her, she has tried yelling at him. She has tried getting him to see logic. She has often confronted her husband with requests that he not abuse her, not control her. But he always claims everything he does is right and justified. If she stays silent and lets him control her she becomes depressed, she loses herself. If she asserts herself, he gets angry and enraged and creates fear in her. No matter what strategy she use, he refuses to take responsibility for his behaviours, and refuses to consider her wellbeing. This is not just the experience of one woman. She is echoing the confusion of thousands of women who have a husband or male partner who is determined to get his way at all costs. She is experiencing physical health problems as a result of the abuse. This too is a common effect of being incessantly controlled. His behaviours were particularly bad last week, so one of her health problems became worse. My client, who is being victimised by her boss, is afraid of going back to work. She had to take a week off because she feels fear.

Many victims ask for their needs to be met

Lots of female victims of one-sided power and control continually ask for their needs to be met. They are not passive. Wives of male perpetrators often try to help their partner see how frustrating his control tactics are. But many perpetrators of one-sided power and control turn a deaf ear to such pleas. Generally those men who behave that way are determined to meet their own needs, not their partner’s. Many female victims will try to explain to their partner how his neglectful behaviours, denigration and mind games affect her. Often women will explain to the man how trapped they feel, how hurt they feel, how they need the safety and the space to be themselves. But such information is often used as further ammunition to further control, manipulate and abuse the female victim.

Victims often say, “No”, “Don’t”, “Stop”

Many women I have spoken to, who are in a one-sided abusive situation, will frequently say, “No” to the abuser. But it is extremely common for those men who are determined to control their partner to infrequently, if ever, respond positively to “No”. Many other women will try to resolve the power and control their partner has over them by arguing. But many of those women say this ends up being a waste of energy, because it does not stop their partner from continuing with neglectful, controlling, abusive behaviours.

Victims may become angry or abusive

The feeling of powerless and frustration that many women experience, because they cannot find a way to be heard, then leads some women to get very angry. Some women have to lie to be able to gain some freedom from the control. Some women become physically aggressive or violent as a way of trying to be heard. This then leads those women to believe they are the same as their abusive and controlling partner.

Some women will become manipulative by getting sick as a way of avoiding sex. However, that strategy does not work for many of those women, as there are some perpetrators who will coerce sex from their wife or partner, whether she is sick or not.

Some forms of control feel worse than others, for example, when one woman’s husband requested that she have a caesarian for his convenience, she became so enraged that she physically attacked him. But this attack was not just because of that one request from him. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was yet another controlling comment (aimed at meeting his needs, to the neglect of hers) after years of neglect, abuse, control and denigration. Many female victims hate themselves when they become abusive themselves. It is very confusing for them.

Many victims silence themselves or become isolated

But some women are afraid of anger – in others and in themselves. Some women do not want to appear abusive themselves so they will silence themselves as a way of dealing with being abused and controlled. They lose contact with friends because their partner has abused their friends, or denigrated those friends in such a way that leaves the woman wondering if her friends are good enough. Some women will simply stop seeing friends as a means of avoiding further abuse and control by their partner. They lose their self-esteem, their confidence. Many women who want to work, don’t work, because their partner has taken steps to stop her. This leads to more isolation. If he has taken her car from her, or “just” taken the keys, this leads to further isolation.

Victims’ multiple strategies tend not to work

Confusion is a hallmark for a victim of one-sided power and control – whether that is a woman’s experience in relationship with her husband, or the experience of someone being bullied at work. Most victims of psychological abuse and control are not passive. Victims resist. Victims fight back. Victims try to be heard. Victims try to make sense of why they are not being heard. Victims continually wonder how to get the abuser to be reasonable, to take responsibility for their actions, to try to see from the perspective of the victim. Victims continually ask for their needs to be met. They try to please the abuser, do as they are told. They rebel and say, “No”, “Don’t”, “Stop”. Victims become angry and aggressive. Yet at other times victims will silence themselves. It often takes 7, 15, 30, or more than 50 years for a woman to give up trying to resolve her partner’s behaviours. Many women feel like failures at this stage. But even then when they give up, they might try again — thinking, “If only I could work out why he does it, why he won’t take responsibility?”

Unless the controller takes responsibility for their behaviours, and takes real steps to change, it does not matter what aggressive, or passive, or assertive strategy the victim of one-sided power and control uses. The victim will never be able to change anything about the perpetrator’s behaviours until the perpetrator takes responsibility.

Safety is paramount for victims

It is important for the victim to take steps to keep herself psychologically and physically safe – whether she stays in the relationship or not. Safety is paramount when it comes to any friend, family or professional who tries to help a victim of power and control. It is vital that a support person understands the deep, complex and contradictory confusion that a victim may experience. The victim is not stupid. There are many reasons for the confusion. It is extremely common that a perpetrator will tell the victim many times, in many ways, that it is her fault, that the victim deserves the abuse and control. These messages may have been expressed to her in very subtle ways over the years of the relationship.

The controller steals the victim’s self-determination, her sense of integrity, her self-worth. It is important for any support person not to try to control her decisions too. If you are a support person, or if you are a victim of power and control – the following messages are for you…

  1. No one deserves to be victimised by a perpetrator of one-sided power and control
  2. One-sided power and control is aimed at confusing the victim
  3. The more confused the victim becomes, the more successful the perpetrator is in trapping the victim in their web
  4. The victim is not to blame
  5. Until the perpetrator of one-sided power and control admits to, and takes responsibility for their behaviours, it is impossible for a victim to feel they have any effect in trying to resolve the problem
  6. Any decisions the victim, or support person, makes should help enhance safety (psychological and physical) for the victim
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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.