Domestic violence is much more than physical violence 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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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.