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Learn About Coercive Control and Psychological Abuse

No bruise no victim?

– Posted in: Helping victims/survivors

Why women and society miss the cues of psychological abuse and coercive control

Speakoutloud.net hidden coercive control Clare Murphy PhD_1What have I done wrong? Am I going crazy? Is this normal?

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
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection and ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness and violation of trust
Degradation and suppression of potential
Separation abuse
Using social institutions and social prejudices
Denial, minimising, blaming
Using the children
Economic abuse
Intimate partner Sexual Abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence
Cyber 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.

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  • Valerie 9 April 2013, 10:56 pm

    My bruises hurt but they can’t be seen … this website helped me cope with psychological abuse and I cried with relief when I realised it’s not me. I am not insane and what he done to me has a name …’crazymaking’

  • Becky 1 October 2012, 9:48 am

    I feel so absolutely stupid. I am a nurse. I am in a 33 year marriage to a military veteran who has systematically driven me from every single family member, friend, and even my dog with “they don’t care about or love you”. Every job and even after a bachelor degree he finds a way to let me know I am too caring, naive, giving, etc. to control what I feel and do. “You don’t need to drive in this weather, time of day, traffic”, etc. I am just beginning to see the years and years of changing everything about me in order to please him. He quit having sex with me the first two years into the marriage claiming there was something wrong with me.

    I have to stop even thinking of all the times he has humiliated me in front of family, friends, our kids, etc. He says and does anything he wants, and blames me for his actions. He has done things that hurt so bad I cannot even bear to think of them. He continues to live with me, but apart, in his own world of what he wants and does not tolerate. He just ignores me, period, but does not want me to leave. He took over the cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry because he didn’t like how I did it. He half-way does things but it is good enough to fool any outsider and even my family. I lost my kids and family to a God-like worship of him.

    Am I crazy? Strangers and co-workers have always told me I am the kindest and most caring and such a good worker. I am overly concerned with always doing a great job in all endeavors.

  • Alex 25 September 2012, 5:10 am

    It is true. It is so sad, the pain and confusion that is felt once you discover that after years of fighting to save your marriage, relationship, sense of self and family that what you were going through has a NAME. I tried so often to communicate this phantom feeling that I had, that I started collecting data, keeping a journal and rereading it so that I could establish some connection from my feelings to the occurrences that caused them.
    Finding all of this out made me hate him in some small way. I no longer know who he is. This man that I loved and cherished had used me as some kind of patsy for his own lack of social, developmental and emotional growth. It seemed like he would rather break me down, than allow me to help build him up.
    Of course you never want to know that someone has to deal with this kind of thing. Especially if the thought never crossed your mind that it could ever be you. That is how I felt. But it is good to know now, that I am not alone and perhaps through your research, you can put this thing on the map! Our families are affected by the strange mannerisms of these kinds of men. I would never want my son to treat any woman this way. I will continue to follow your study now that there is hope to acquire new knowledge and help in coping with this madness that for so long, I thought was self-induced.

  • Maria 26 June 2012, 8:45 am

    I look forward to reading the rest of the blogs you will write for the other points on the wheel, emotional unkindness & degradation. What you are sharing on this website is so helpful for those of us who have suffered in secret and had the experience of not being believed or understood to the point that people imply that YOU must be imagining things. That, along with a spouse who constantly tells you that you are the problem, can cause you to feel pretty confused and alone after a while. My spouse killed himself a year ago, but I still struggle with understanding his behavior and treatment of me and our son. We were married 28 yrs. I didn’t know what to say, what to call it…his ways toward me. But it was this insidious form of secret abuse. Thanks

  • Hyper Beam 31 March 2012, 4:54 am

    What’s worse is, police won’t help you, CPS won’t help your children, your abuser will likely use the fact that no one sees the damage done as both a way to assign the blame to you as in, “I haven’t hit you, you’re over reacting” and as a control tactic as in, “There are no bruises, so if you try to get out/get help, no one will believe you and it’ll just prove how hysterical you are (or what a jerk you are for leaving me).”

  • vicki 29 April 2011, 5:37 pm

    I look forward to your next blog posts. Being in an emotionally abusive relationship, I realized I have said the very words you are writing about. “If he hits me, it’s over”. All due to how unacceptable it is when the abuse is physical.

    Emotional abuse is something you can’t see when you pass someone on the street. But, it is incredibly painful, and goes on for years. I have felt like I have been physically beaten repeatedly, and no one knows how I feel because they cannot see it.