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Learn About Coercive Control and Psychological Abuse

Tactic #14 — Symbolic Aggression

– Posted in: Intimate partner abuse Male perpetrators SAFETY of Women & Children Why does he do it

This is the fourteenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Symbolic Aggression.

Power & control wheel #14 Clare Murphy PhD

A symbolic act is a verbal or physical gesture that represents or means something of larger significance than the gesture itself.

Symbolic aggression includes verbal or physical gestures aimed at terrorising, threatening, intimidating, dominating, making someone afraid or controlling them.

Drawing from research with men who have used symbolic aggression, and women who have been subjected to it, this blog illustrates just some of the tactics — these include the ways the perpetrator uses his body to intimidate, stalking behaviours, destroying, hiding or misusing the woman’s property, using physical items to intimidate such as driving recklessly, threats to kill or harm her, her friends, family, new partner or pets.

Giving a Gift

After a woman breaks-up from a controlling partner, he may send her gifts, such as jewellery and flowers, with a card saying, “Sorry, I love you.”

To someone who has lived with ongoing coercive control by this man, the gift and the message means something threatening to her, for example, the unwelcome gift and message may mean he will try every tactic possible to manipulate his way back in; or he knows my every move; or there is no escape; or I am unsafe.

It is important for the victim of symbolic aggression to trust their gut instinct about what they view the tactics to mean, and to do whatever it takes to keep themselves, and their children if they have any, safe.


Susan gave an example of how her controlling ex-husband’s mere presence terrified her. After  Susan separated from Anthony he used to stalk her. Susan said Anthony turned up at her farm work “at 5.30 in the morning and for my own safety I woke my boss up. It was so scary. He left town but came back for a party. I was so freaked out when I knew he was in the same area. I had to leave town coz I could not handle it if he turned up at my house at night to see what he could see or do or whatever. I just had to go.”

Stalking is a form of invasion of space that can be likened to one country invading another.

Dominates her space or controls their space

Sally said, “every time I prepared a portion of the garden to grow vegetables, Dylan would take over that patch, planting what he wanted. He did the same in the house, so that any time I claimed personal space, he would take it over.” Other men lock women out of the house.(4) Yet other men may use space to intimidate, for example a man interviewed by Lundgren said, “It makes her reconsider when I lock her up in a cupboard. Then she gets scared. Give her a sense of her total dependency, that’s the only way.”(5)

Sam, a man who admitted to controlling and abusing his partner said, “I used to get shitty when my girl used to go read a book in bed by herself. I’d go, ‘What the fuck, you’re not spending any time with me!’ ‘Woo woo, I’m supposed to be number one centre of attention here, not the bloody book.’ Now I realise they need their time out, they need their book read, they need to relax. Coz at the end of the day they don’t hate ya, they just love ya, they just need their bloody time. This stopping abuse course helped that way. It opened up a door I didn’t see that could be opened.”

Verbal intimidation

Heather thought, “if Luke tried the opposite tactic and gave me heaps of space I might have been the one running back to him, but having somebody constantly in your face over and over demanding, ‘Why won’t you live with me?’ he was always in my face.

Raewyn said Brian tried to dominate her verbally. “Initially I just let it go. I just let him dominate because then I had no way of trying to sort out how not to get dominated. Although I didn’t do everything he said, although I was swayed I suppose. Initially I don’t recall fighting against it. Maybe later there were some areas which I would stand up to him about, perhaps like the children a little bit.”

Uses looks and facial signals

Everyone in an intimate relationship knows what their partner’s particular “looks” mean. We know when a partner is using a fun look, a loving look, a disapproving frown, pursed lips, an intimidating sneer, or a “don’t mess with me” look. We know when they’re getting angry and rising up the tension scale — their face and neck might go red, their eyes may become monstrously scary.

One of the men interviewed by Cavanagh and her colleagues said: “I was a bit of a tactician, I’d more or less try to intimidate her by going quiet and staring.”(1)

Uses his body to intimidate

Symbolic aggression includes standing uncomfortably close to her, or making rude insulting threatening gestures, which differ from culture to culture. These may include sudden upward arm thrusts, clenching or shaking their fists, thrusting up single or double middle fingers into the air, stomping out of the room, or blocking the door so she can’t get out.

Teresa said Patrick “was never physically abusive, but there were times when I thought he was going to be, where he’d stand over me and I’d be lying or sitting down and he’d just stand over me with his fist clenched and with a face like granite and look at me really coldly and I was really scared that if I said or did the wrong thing that he would hit me, and that was really intimidating.” Teresa responded to this intimidation “by grovelling and being nice. I made the mistake of laughing the first time he did it. I was in bed and he’d come to stand by the bed, and he had a pair of quite loose track pants on, and I laughed and tweaked at them so they came down a bit and he was absolutely furious out of all proportion. I don’t know why he was so furious, but that’s the first time that I thought he was going to hit me and I laughed at the look on his face and he said, ‘Pull them up!’ I thought he was joking but he wasn’t, he was deadly serious, so I had to pull them back up and tighten the drawstring. I get really upset when people are angry, I’ll do what I can to make them not angry.”

A lot of people believe that physical violence is the only form of intimate partner abuse. However, this is a myth. Peter, a man I interviewed for my PhD research, said his wife told him that, “the looks I’d give her, aggressive stares, getting up close to her face,” were intimidating. But Peter said that many men he knew believe these behaviours are OK ways of behaving towards their female partners.

Uses objects, physical items and possessions

Symbolic aggression includes displaying a weapon, or keeping a weapon in view or within reach, slamming the door in her face,(2) banging the table, hitting the wall, or throwing something, but not at his partner. Or, as Heather said, Luke used to throw shoes directly at her.

Elsie said Leon “would just rant and rave or throw something or other. He kicked the door in, chucked stuff, pinned me up against a wall and yelled at me. There was lots of intimidation, plenty of it, enough for me to avoid it like the plague. I felt dominated mainly with fear of aggression and his nasty tongue. The threat of him being nasty to me, because I’m such a mouse, was enough for me to behave the way he wanted.”

Other forms of indirect harm, include hiding her important papers such as passports, birth certificates, or driver’s license. Or breaking or destroying something that is important to her,(2) such as destroying family photographs and smashing the children’s toys.

Some men destroy her everyday household items, for example Karen “called the police once when Felix smashed all the cutlery in the house. That was the time he threw all the furniture over the balcony onto the lawn, down one storey so they all smashed on top of each other. The police didn’t come. They said it would take a little while and he, at that point, said he was leaving. He came over to the phone and said I’ve stopped now and then he left.”

Sometimes the abuser kicks or punches holes in the wall or defaces her car.(3)  Whilst others attempt to frighten her by driving recklessly with her or the children in the car, or by attempting to run her off the road. Or, if he’s in the car with her doing the driving, he may grab the wheel causing her to lose control of the vehicle.

Playing with her mind

The abuser’s tone of voice or actual words can be forms of symbolic aggression. This includes ongoing threats to her self-concept by belittling her “essential ideas, feelings, perceptions, and personality characteristics.”(6)  It also includes giving her the silent treatment, which is deeply debilitating to live with.

Victoria said Graham was intimidating. “You always thought he would be on the precipice of hitting you and you never quite knew what was going on in that mind. It was psychological intimidation more than a physical intimidation. I tried to figure out what he was thinking. I tried to figure out what I needed to do to keep the peace. And then you’d misjudge it and you’d get it wrong, and it wasn’t what he wanted, and so you’d get it wrong anyway. So you’ve sweated for ages trying to figure out what the hell to do and then it was the wrong decision anyway.”

Makes threats to the family or the relationship

On occasions when Karen would say to Felix, “‘I’m finding it really hard bringing up the children.’ He’d respond with, ‘Adopt them out then, don’t come to me with that.’ That was his set response if I expressed any type of thing that ‘it’s getting too much and I need your help.’ In response, I’d just fly into a frenzy: ‘How dear you say such a thing!’ It would really get me going. He’d respond by smashing things.”

Some men make threats to the relationship, saying, for example, “If you won’t let me borrow your car, the relationship is over!”

Threats of suicide

Other men threaten suicide to maintain control, for example, “you either take me back or I’ll kill myself.”(4)  I have written a blog about Threats of suicide by men with a history of psychologically controlling their partner. Take this threat seriously. This is NOT “just” a mental health issue when it involves a man who has a history of manipulating and coercively controlling his partner. There are definite cases following such a threat of men who carry out their threat. They have murdered family members before killing themselves. It is vital that the police are informed and help is sought immediately from a domestic violence agency.

Threats to kill other people or pets

Some men threaten to kill their partner, or anyone who is close to her, including her new partner or pets, if she doesn’t do what he wants. Elizabeth said David “used to threaten me about having affairs saying, ‘If you try anything like that I’ll give you the lead treatment.’ Meaning he would shoot me. I wasn’t scared he’d shoot me, but I was scared he could hurt me.” When Elsie left Leon he said he’d “get me”. Although, “at the same time I don’t think he would. I think he’s too much of a coward. He’d been to jail for beating up his ex-wife and it did have an effect on him. Like I say he’d stop short.”

Adriana did not experience Steven controlling her throughout their relationship, rather her experience of abuse began after she divorced Steven. It was then that he threatened to kill her. “After the threat I was in shock probably for a week. I had physical pain after three or four days because my body was so strung out. My sleeping pattern is not very good. Previous to that threat I didn’t have trouble with sleeping. I’m not as resilient as I was beforehand, both physically and psychologically.”

A man interviewed by Hearn, said he was going to stab his wife with a knife, but decided it would hurt her more if he killed her dog instead, so he did.(4)  Elsie said Leon “threatened several times to kill my dog. In response I used to just be nice to him and point out that she was a really good duck shooting dog.”

The impact of symbolic aggression can be terrifying, causing severe mental distress

I asked some of the men I interviewed for my PhD how they thought their controlling behaviours affected their partners — they said their abuse:

Belittled her, took something away from who she was, made her depressed or miserable, and made her feel pretty worthless or helpless. Other men thought women’s experience of being controlled by their male partner was probably just a normal way of life for them, that they don’t know any different.

Threats made within the context of coercive control must always be taken seriously

No one deserves to experience abuse in any form, including all the symbolically aggressive ways mentioned above. It is OK to reach out for help. I urge you to reach out for support so you can get counselling face-to-face or on the phone, or so you can attend a group programme with other women who share your experience. Groups for women who have experienced intimate partner abuse are safe ways to get validation and support and to be empowered. If your partner makes threats to kill himself or to kill you or anyone close to you — you must take such threats seriously and call the police. Research shows that many men carry out such threats — trust your gut instinct and take steps to make yourself safe.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Using Children
Economic abuse
Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse
Domestic slavery
Physical violence
Cyber Abuse


  1. Cavanagh K, Dobash RE, Dobash RP, Lewis R. ‘Remedial work’: Men’s strategic responses to their violence against intimate female partners. Sociology. 2001;35(3):695-714.
  2. Tangney JP, Wagner PE, Hill-Barlow D, Marschall dE, Gramzow R. Relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996;70(4):797-809.
  3. Brisbane Domestic Violence Service. Australia.  http://www.bdvs.org.au/information/myths–facts.
  4. Hearn, Jeff. (1998). The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women . London: SageLundgren E. Feminist Theory and Violent Empiricism
    Aldershot, UK: Avebury; 1995.
  5. Loring MT. Emotional Abuse: The Trauma and the Treatment New York: Lexington Books; 1994. (Quote: page 1)

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  • Danitra 3 November 2015, 11:48 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this blog. My experience with my husband is very similar to Bethany’s. I have dealt with so much stuff in this relationship that it’s hard to articulate what is going on. Your post did a great job of this!!! Thank you. Knowing that it is truly abuse and that it has a name is very comforting. It’s so easy to feel like you’re going crazy or you’re delusional with this intimidating type of abuse… That is until he does something that leaves a physical reminder that something is wrong… Such as my broken window pane or my cracked phone screen (from him throwing my phone out the window last night)… Smh (shake my head).

    I wonder why I have allowed myself to tolerate his sporadic yet increasingly abusive behavior for so long. My Christian beliefs against divorce is why I originally stayed and now after years of various incidents from sexual, emotional and physical abuse… I wonder if my Christian beliefs are reason enough to stay… I’m leaning towards letting him go his own way (that is if he will leave) and trying to rebuild my life so I can be financially independent for myself and my son.

  • Clare Murphy PhD 1 November 2015, 3:01 pm

    Bethany, thanks so much for pointing out this problem of ‘naming’ this form of abuse. You have a very legitimate reason for being frustrated. Trying to find useful names for non-physical forms of abuse is a major reason I started writing this blog and researching the issue. It’d be great to hear your views on what you think your experience should be called. And also anyone else who reads this, it would be very helpful to have your input.

  • Bethany 31 October 2015, 7:42 am

    My husband uses symbolic aggression and it is the scariest crap I have ever dealt with. He actually believes in his mind that me defending myself and my children from his behavior proves that I am the one who is mentally ill.

    I tell him all the time that what he is doing is not normal and he needs help but my suggestion just ends up hurting me in the long run. For almost two years he threatened to kill himself. He uses the children in intimidation tactics against me. When he knows the baby does not like something, he does it anyway to make her scream and to bother me. It scares me senseless. I oftentimes want to have him arrested but he does things in such a way that nothing would ever come back on him. I may be able to record him doing something so I will look into that.

    In the meantime, I have been trying to find information about these intimidation abuse tactic patterns online for years. I had a hard time finding anything about my husband’s behavior because it has an actual legitimate term… ‘symbolic aggression’.

    Not knowing what to call this type of abuse has made this search very difficult.