Why women and society miss the cues of psychological abuse and coercive control
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 context of their normal lives. When psychological abuse begins it will often creep in over time; a subtle edge of voice tone, the odd ‘put down’, a criticism here and there, seemingly uncharacteristic selfish acts.
Little behaviours at odds with the norm. And so it grows. Conquest by stealth – psychological abuse knows no bounds. It can be a soft pattern of almost unwitting abuse or a planned campaign of immense cruelty.
Instead of being able to name their partner’s behaviours as ‘power and control’ or ‘abuse’, lots of women can only think of their partner’s actions as ‘puzzling’ in its early stages. Then ‘odd’, ‘weird’, and ‘bizarre’ as it escalates. As power and control is exerted, women become more and more confused, and self doubt causes women to blame themselves and desperately rummage through their own behaviours for clues how to please their partners and make the problem go away.
They may simply feel that what they are experiencing isn’t right, just or fair but will search for answers within themselves and their own psyches. What am I doing wrong that he is angry with me? What’s changed in our relationship that he belittles me? Why can’t I see my friends? Why can’t I use the car?
Karen, a woman I interviewed for my Masters research said, “I knew that I was angry, but I didn’t really understand what was happening”. Several women said as Teresa did: “I didn’t notice this until I looked back and realised. It was gradual and insidious and you just slid slowly down the slope”.
Psychological abuse is either hidden or is considered less important than physical violence. This could be because of the imminent life-threatening nature of physical violence and the visible bruises and broken bones that some women experience. The media sensationalises physical violence and it’s extremely rare to read of a critical analysis of the perpetrator’s use of non-physical control tactics.
When the man is not using physical violence the woman usually thinks like Teresa, that psychological abuse “was something I knew absolutely nothing about. I thought abuse was hitting”. Most men and women think that physical violence is the only legitimate reason to leave a relationship. Most women respond as Elsie did:
“If he’d hit me I would have left, it would have been a really justifiable reason to leave. I did not think psychological abuse was a legitimate reason to leave because you explain it away, you rationalise it and it’s not as accepted the way physical abuse is by society. You’re just supposed to lump that, you’re supposed to put up with it.”
All the women I interviewed believed that psychological abuse is trivialised, misunderstood, or dismissed by friends, family and society in general. The psychological abuser relies on this, so feeds off the confusion, doubt, disbelief and the trust of his partner. To deal with a lack of support from others, Victoria said she just told people that her experience with her partner “wasn’t particularly pleasant. I could justify it if he beat me. It would give me more credibility”.
Raewyn never sought help for 12 years of psychological abuse, but sought help immediately when her partner hit her – because physical violence is seen as a credible form of abuse.
Elizabeth said, “If I had been hit, we all know that being hit is not okay, so if I had been hit it would have called my attention to something being wrong sooner. There is more press about it”.
Violence not only means physical abuse and sexual abuse, it also means psychological abuse.
The New Zealand Domestic Violence Act states that psychological abuse includes, but is not limited to, intimidation, harassment, damage to property and threats of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or psychological abuse.
The Act also states that when a tactic appears “minor or trivial when viewed in isolation or appears unlikely to recur, the court must nevertheless consider whether the behaviour forms part of a pattern of behaviour”.
Psychological abuse may, or may not, be written into civil and criminal laws in the country where you live. Either way psychological abuse is a form of intimidation that is not readily understood and continues to avoid the spotlight. Victoria said, “We see ads all the time about women’s refuge and the women on the ads have black eyes, but what about the women who’ve just been worn down day in and day out, do they get to go to women’s refuge? What happens to them?”
Women are able to see that there’s “something wrong” because of the impact they’re experiencing. Heather said, “You think that every relationship has to have some problems, it can’t all be smooth”.
Some women find it difficult to distinguish between the constraints of motherhood and the constraints put upon them by their partner’s power and control tactics. For instance, Karen said: “It’s difficult to know whether the responsibilities of motherhood isolated me more than he did. I could fight against it while I was still me, but when I was me plus one and me plus two you are a lot more vulnerable and the opportunities are lessened.”
The lack of awareness about psychological abuse causes women to assume they are experiencing “normal” relationship problems. This makes women extremely vulnerable to developing mental or physical illnesses and to experiencing more and more abuse. This is because women often have no knowledge of how the pattern of power and control forms over time.
To address this knowledge gap, I have posted several blogs to elaborate on the following patterns of psychological abuse which are outlined in my power and control wheel discussed in an earlier post.
One-sided power games
Over-protection and ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness and violation of trust
Degradation and suppression of potential
Using social institutions and social prejudices
Denial, minimising, blaming
Using the children
Intimate partner Sexual Abuse
NOTE: Perpetrators of abusive power and control can be of either gender. This article is based on my research on women victims and male perpetrators.