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Domestic violence is much more than physical violence

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Speakoutloud.net physical violence coercive control Clare Murphy PhDDomestic violence, family violence and intimate partner violence – when perpetrated by men against their female partners – are terms riddled with stereotypes that seep into the public consciousness. The man is labelled a batterer, his victim a battered woman. Everyone knows violence against women is wrong so the social myths help to make rational sense of it . . .

He is thought to lose control, she is thought to be stupid for putting up with it. He is thought to be a monster, she is thought to bring the worst out of him. Obviously he must be psychologically ill, and obviously she must like that sort of thing.

But does he lose control at work and beat his boss? What about all the times she tries to talk reason with him and he refuses to respond? If he’s such a monster why do others think he’s so charming? Does she bring the worst out of everyone else in her life? If he is psychologically ill, surely that illness would manifest in violence in every context. And if she really does like that sort of thing, how can you explain why she does not “attract” violent men and women into her life outside the relationship?

What is really going on here?

Unravel physical violence from psychological abuse and control

I think an important place to start unravelling this dilemma is by describing the web of domestic violence by untangling one strand at a time.

Define the extent of domestic violence

Domestic violence includes, but is not limited to: Sexual coercion, financial restrictions, verbal abuse, isolation from friends and family, denigration, controlling the woman’s decisions, whereabouts, education, work. Controlling those things might include forcing the woman not to work, or to overwork. It might include forcing her to take the blame for all the bad family decisions, while not allowing her to make any of them. It might include disallowing her to have her spiritual practices, invading her privacy, and/or incessantly accusing her of having extra marital affairs, that in reality she never has.

All the above are tactics of power and control. One tactic at a time, often subtle and covert, creeps into the woman’s life. One tactic at a time strips away a piece of the woman’s self-esteem and confidence.

Know the effects of psychological abuse and control

Taken together an array of controlling tactics depletes the woman’s ability, or opportunity, to grow, to advance her education, her financial status, her career, her support network. Systematically one, some, or all of these rights are weakened, taken away, or prevented from flourishing.

The abuser twists the woman’s mind, plays mind games, confuses her. He breaks promises, switches tactics, provides irrational explanations that he claims to be rational. He charms others while he denigrates his partner. He makes excuses that would make sense socially. If these excuses are backed up by social myths then the excuses also make sense to the woman. After all, everyone makes mistakes and hurts others sometimes don’t they?

Many perpetrators of domestic violence never use physical violence

Many women live 12, 31, 53 or more years in a relationship with a man who psychologically abuses and controls her, but never uses physical violence. Some of those men might have lightly hit the woman once or twice in all those years. But the women always tell me they were never afraid of physical violence, rather they were they were afraid of more control, they were downtrodden by the non-physical tactics, and they were afraid of the degrading effects the control had on them. The women I counsel talk about the shame of staying with their partner and they tell me they are very confused about why they stayed so long. But their reasons for staying are complex. Those men who do perpetrate one-sided power and control are responsible for doing so. It is not the woman’s fault. She does not deserve it.

Name the abuse, name the control

Physical violence is visible to the public. There is public outrage about it. Physical violence is considered an important problem to be resolved – by the perpetrator and by the public. Physical violence might create an imminent threat to life. Women have bruises to show and the media sensationalises the violence. The man seems guilty. The woman is able to give this form of abuse a name. It is only then that she can make a decision about how to respond to it.

Non-physical power and control tactics are invisible. The public (in general) does not recognise the pattern, does not name it, does not discuss it. No one can be outraged about something they do not understand. This lack of information means the victim cannot define what is happening to her. Psychological abuse and control are not considered very important in the eyes of the media, the law, or people in general (unless they’ve lived with it). The woman has no bruises to show. The man seems innocent.

Yet women who experience physical violence accompanied by a systematic pattern of psychological abuse and control all say the psychological abuse and controlling tactics are more painful, cause greater damage, and are longer-lasting than physical violence. I hear this time and time again with each client I meet, each friend and family member who reveals their story, and this effect is widely reported in research studies with women survivors.

There are no honeymoon periods with a pattern of non-physical control, there is no loss of control on the part of the perpetrator. This deeper, more central feature of so-called “domestic violence” is likened to living in, and recovering from, the brainwashing that occurs in cults.

Valerie Chang, in her book, I Just Lost Myself: Psychological Abuse of Women in Marriage, discusses ways women respond when they are psychologically abused by their male partner. Of these women, she compares those who are never physically beaten with those women who are. The former group of women are less likely to seek help, more likely to detach from their partner before plucking up the courage to separate, more likely to never attempt a reconciliation, and more hesitant to ever commit to another male partner.

Psychological control predicts separation abuse

For many women there is no escape from psychological abuse and control by their partner after leaving him. This is especially the case for women who share children with the male perpetrator. Many controlling perpetrators use children as weapons against women. They will drag women and children through years of custody battles in the courts – for many perpetrators this is not necessarily to gain access to the children — rather it is to maintain power and control over their ex-partner.

Many studies attempt to locate risk factors that might predict physical violence or homicide by a male perpetrator against his ex-partner. Findings show that a man’s history of psychologically controlling behaviours is one of the strongest risk factors. Therefore, it is vital to realise that power and control is interwoven in, through and around what most call “domestic violence”. Physical violence does not reinforce psychological abuse. Psychological abuse is not a transitory stage leading to physical violence.

Physical violence is just one tactic among many that some men use with the aim of winning power and control over female partners.

It is never too late to act against psychological abuse and control

Many women live in relationships with a man who psychologically abuses and controls her. Some women might experience physical violence too, but many do not. No matter which is the case, the non-physical tactics are generally invisible to others and are not defined as abuse by the woman, until years after leaving her partner. Some are luckier, in that they go to counselling for depression or anxiety while still in the relationship. However, they are only luckier if the counsellor or psychologist is educated in understanding the dynamics of one-sided power and control, and can therefore help the woman make sense of why she may have nightmares, why she may no longer have friends, why she may have no access to money even if she did want to leave, and why she may lock herself away in one room of the house. It is not depression that makes her feel a heavy presence in the house, or makes her feel sick any time she has to be around the man who has been controlling her. It is his control over her that has led to those feelings. She may only come to counselling after years of anger and frustration due to trying to get him to take responsibility for his behaviours – and failing. She may only come to counselling after years of changing herself in an attempt to stop his abuse and control. Now she might have reached a stage of giving up trying, but is probably blaming herself for “her” failure to get him to take responsibility. After all – isn’t the social myth that it is the woman’s job to make a relationship work?


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  • Stacy 16 February 2012, 4:26 pm

    Hi, This is my story … after being apart from this man for 8 years now. His daily routine is to mentally abuse me in anyway shape or form. I’m writing because I’m at my wit’s end with everyone in our community not seeing this – or they do but don’t help me?! I have full custody of our 2 children and he appears and is a good dad in some ways. But, the bad (that’s hidden) OVERcomes ALL the good! My family know … our children know I hurt and am very insecure and they are also insecure. Not bragging, but I am a beautiful person inside and out. And, my boys are so handsome. When we are all at sporting events that we have to attend I’m on eggshells and they are so nervous. It’s everyday something so evil … I can’t explain it, but to only my mother and my best friends … they know! But, how do I get this to stop effecting me and my children so badly. Thanks in advance.

  • Jane 26 January 2012, 4:07 pm

    Thank you for your article, which explains ‘what is really going on here’ and has helped me to understand what is happening in my family 5 years after leaving my husband and how he is attempting to control me via one of my sons, who is almost adult now. It has also become evident that my son is being adversely affected by it. This is worrying. I realise how important it is to get help again. I thought I had got away from it, but it is creeping in and starting to interfere with my sanity and my relationship with my son. Thank you for reminding me that it is not my fault, although it is quite hard for me to say and believe that.

  • Diane 22 January 2012, 12:31 am

    Hi, I left a relationship about 3 months ago with a man who was beginning to show signs of control. In the beginning he managed to move the relationship along very quickly without me even realising. I was flattered; there were flowers, weekends away, meals out. In fact it was almost too good to be true. I remember the first time he upset me – we were out eating Chinese in a restaurant and he criticised my choice of outift saying that my jumper ‘was like an old granny’s jumper’. It upset me and he said ‘ha ha I was only joking, god don’t be so sensitive’. Well I am sorry but I am a sensitive person. He insisted on calling me at 6pm and 10pm on the dot every night that he wasn’t with me and if I complained or said there was no need to call me again, he got upset and accused me of not being bothered about him.

    This is how it was constantly and it began to wear me out, it was all about him and his life, what he wanted. My question is: was this domestic abuse or is it me being selfish and sensitive? It’s been 3 months since I broke up with him and he still writes me letters, begging forgiveness and another chance. I have not responded but sometimes I do get lonely and think about contacting him. Have managed to resisit so far.

  • Clare 27 January 2011, 7:07 pm

    Dear Jenn – Research consistently reveals that a man who threatens suicide as a control tactic should be considered as potentially homicidal. Therefore it’s vital that the issue with your friend’s husband be taken extremely seriously. It is important that you and your friend’s family help your friend find support from professionals trained in family violence. However, some professionals minimise the danger to victims when their partner threatens suicide. Untrained professionals – whether that’s in the mental health system, the police, social service agencies – or some domestic violence organisations too – focus on the man’s suicidal ideation and don’t realise that such a man may go on to cause her serious injury or kill her and her children. It is therefore important that women contact a family violence organisation and ask that they go through a risk assessment tool to assess whether she or other family members may be in potential lethal danger. Given the seriousness of this situation I’ve written some suggestions about how to help in a blog post titled Steps toward Averting Tragedy. It may even be possible that your friend’s own counsellor does not understand fully the dynamics of psychological abuse and power and control. If this is the case you could arrange for your friend’s counsellor to read this comment and my blog post in response to your comment. Well done for seeking help for your friend!! Best wishes Clare

  • Jenn 21 January 2011, 7:15 pm

    Hi, I have a friend whom I think is being psychologically abused, her husband has OCD and has used this excuse for his sickening behavior, he is very controlling, it is almost like he sees her and their children as his possessions. She is not allowed to come visit with her family without him, they only live a few hours drive away, he makes her feel guilty all of the time, he makes her feel dumb, he has threatened to kill himself if she doesn’t do things his way. His OCD issues make him scared to be alone. Her therapist suggested she just pack up the kids and go to her parents for the weekend, tell him she loves him and she would see him on Sunday. So today she decided to give it a try, and got a ride to her parents with her friend. When she called him at work to tell him of her intentions, he left work drove on the highway behind them called her on her cellphone and told her to pull over and come home with him or he would kill himself. She did go back home with him because she was afraid he would harm himself. She is miserable and neither I nor her family know what to do to help her, do you have any suggestions?

  • Jennifer 8 November 2010, 6:10 am

    Thank you for having the courage to print this article. I am doing a research paper for my college English class on domestic violence. It is my belief that people need to know the facts about domestic violence.

  • Clare 14 April 2010, 12:26 am

    Hello Katy, Congratulations on having your experience of psychological abuse BELIEVED. Unfortunately that does not stop many men from continuing to maintain power and control. Many men continue to use children as ammunition to get at their ex-female partner because they believe they are entitled to the role of boss, king of the castle, head of the house, head of the family. Many men refuse to relinquish this social status – a status that is reinforced by many people at all levels of society. It is important to include in a restraining agreement EVERY KIND OF CONTROLLING TACTIC that he is using (and maybe has used) so that this gives a basis for laying a complaint to the police. May you go well . . . Clare

  • Clare 14 April 2010, 12:18 am

    Check out the blog I wrote that discusses the difference between using language to describe the effects and impact of psychological abuse and control versus the language to describe women’s multiple strategies of resisting abuse and control. Check the blog post titled “Language women should use in the Family Court”. . . Clare

  • katy 13 April 2010, 5:45 am

    The courts granted me full residential custody of my son. He has a 10 yard restraining agreement preventing him from approaching me, and strict contact restrictions regarding our 8yr old son … the courts BELIEVED ME. So why does he continue to psychologically abuse me, using our son as a commodity … making our son feel bad inside and twisting and turning all I say, making me out to be a bad mummy? How can I make it STOP?

  • Clare 24 March 2010, 8:42 am

    Hello This is me . . . I’ve just written a post on some reasons why family court judges rule in favour of male perpetrators. Your question is a far too common one that should not have to be asked. I have some ideas that may be helpful . . . One is to create an affidavit of EVERY subtle, seemingly trivial, as well as more obvious kinds psychological abuse/non-physical control tactics you have endured over the years. It is important to show the pattern over time. Find your local domestic violence legislation to see what it says about psychological abuse. I think sometimes it’s necessary to show ways some tactics have been threatening. See my blog post outlining tactics and click on the logo to download a pdf full version to help spark memories. (You can find that by searching for “Men’s tactics of power and control” in the search box). Another idea is to write what you did in response to each tactic – the aim of that is to describe the many ways you resisted. I have yet to write a blog post with suggestions about exactly what I mean by that . . . in a nut shell the aim is to represent yourself in a light of strength, and resourceful intelligent ways of responding to the abuse, as opposed to only discussing the impact of the abuse which can lead to women being labelled as pathetic, mad, manipulative, unable to cope. Also for more help go to the menu above – choose “Questions” – scroll down and find the links under the heading “Find help with custody or other legal issues” . . . I wish you well, Clare

  • This is me. 23 March 2010, 1:49 am

    Dear Clare,

    Your post has provided me with some sense of validation, but not in a good way. If anything, it proves that my situation is hopeless. I have never admitted this out loud or even allowed myself to fully believe it until today. Here it goes… I’m an educated professional and college professor that has apparently been suffering psychological abuse from my ex-husband since I met him 20+ years ago. He is a manipulating charmer that has fooled everyone, including the judges in our U.S. court system.

    Truthfully—he is an obsessive, compulsive, addictive, manipulative, jealous, irresponsible, gambling, smoking, pill popping, cocaine user but most of all a big fat liar. I don’t have bruises or scars but have paid for his sickness with the quality of my life. He has interrupted every major event or family vacation and controlled my life through our son since the divorce. My biggest problem is that he seems harmless, plays the victim, and puts on the best “father of year” academy award winning performance.

    Our son will be turning 16 next month and this could be our biggest and final battle. I know that his father’s 14-year obsession with getting “his” son back has been a sick excuse to continue to torture and punish me for ending our relationship. The abuse will not stop, even if I give him everything he wants after the endless court battles (over 30 appearances and bankruptcy due to attorneys fees). In my state, I will be responsible for my son until he is the age 21. This final change of custody will financially destroy my family, It will cause great stress on my marriage and my other two children will be heartbroken, especially my 9 year old autistic son who absolutely adores his older brother.

    If he gets his way, my son would live in the worst possible situation — one with no rules and zero supervision. His girlfriend’s two daughters that grew up in his current home of 10 years are the perfect example of what will happen to my son – drug problems, bi-polar disorder, jail, beaten by boyfriends, one even has a four year old daughter that lives with my ex. I just hate to see my son throw away his future for the party life that is highly likely to land him in jail or dead.

    I am not perfect, I made a very big mistake by getting involved with a psycho. I have led a clean and respectable life for the last 13 years, I was even chosen “outstanding college professor” in our community. I’m so tired of sacrificing my life and that of my family. I know I am a very strong person—I have survived this long but … I’m not sure I can handle anymore.

    Do you have any advice on how to refer to this type of psychological abuse in family court?

    Best regards, This is me

  • Clare 24 February 2010, 7:26 pm

    Hi Rochelle . . . Counselling is a great option for regaining control of your life, regaining your lost self and helping deal with controlling people – but only if the counsellor “gets” your experience.
    However, not all counsellors are trained in, or understand, the dynamics of one-sided power and control. Many counsellors might give advice as if you are dealing with a partner who is willing to take responsibility and change their behaviours.
    There’s a big difference between strategies for dealing with an ex-partner who is trustworthy, honest, respectful, honours your privacy, whom you feel psychologically and physically safe around, and whom you feel completely free to be yourself when you’re around them . . . compared with techniques to deal with someone who does not honour any of these needs.
    I wish you well in your venture to find the support that is right for you . . . Clare

  • Rochelle 21 February 2010, 2:39 pm

    Will counselling help me regain control of my life, and also will it help me fight back on not letting my ex get to my head about our daughter?

  • Clare Murphy PhD 18 February 2010, 1:13 pm

    Hi Stephanie, This is an all too common problem. Fantastic that you are supporting your friend. I suggest you contact your local domestic violence organisation. They may be able to refer you to appropriate legal support and offer advocacy.
    For custody issues you could go to the Protective Mothers Alliance website . . . Clare

  • Stephanie 13 February 2010, 2:45 pm

    Please help my friend! She has been emotionally abused for years. Her husband got someone else pregnant, and they finally separated, but now he is threatening to take her kids and she will never see them again. She is terrified and a pfa doesn’t protect her. What can she do?