Tactic #4 — Isolation

This is the fourth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Isolation.

Isolation is a powerful tactic used by controlling partners

Isolation is a pivotal tactic that controlling partners use in order to weaken their victims, prevent them from hearing others’ perspectives, and to bring them into line with his own beliefs and requirements. Often possessiveness and jealousy play a part in some men’s motivation to isolate women from social contact with friends and family. Some tactics aimed at isolating the victim include telling her that she cares more for her friends, family and pets than for him, telling her he’s the only one who understands her and loves her, controlling incoming information including what she reads, calling her names if she spends time with friends and family, purposefully moving towns or countries, and there are a whole lot more tactics that women describe below in interviews from my Masters research.

Isolation is a debilitating consequence of abuse and control

Anyone who lives with an ongoing experience of being abused by a family or household member can become isolated as a result.  For instance, the victim may withdraw from friends and family to save face or because they feel misunderstood, judged, stigmatised, or not supported. Particular tactics aimed at isolating the victim can lead women to become extremely dependent on their controlling partner.

He controls the money to prevent her use of the car

Elsie said her husband had the money for the petrol, “so I could only go and see my parents if he gave me petrol money. So I’d only go sometimes. I still saw them. As Leon’s control over me got higher and stronger over me he would let me go more often. Near the end of our marriage, friends would come and he would open the door this much (indicates two inches) and say I wasn’t home. That way I never ended up with anybody to counteract what he said. It did start to wear me down.”

He turns off electricity to prevent her exiting through the electronic gate

A couple of friends of Heather’s said, “’I don’t know how you live here with these gates around you all the time. It’s a fully fenced section with these gates.’ They said they’d feel a bit trapped, it’s like Fort Knox in there. I started to think, yeah, I’d gone to go a couple of times and Luke stopped me coz he switched the power off and I couldn’t get in to turn it back on. There were just a few things like that that started to scare me. That’s when I started to panic and thought I’ve got to get out of here and have some time on my own to see what’s happening.”

He manufactures situations aimed at isolating her

Heather would tell Luke, for instance, that she “was going out with a friend on Saturday and he’d say, ‘Oh didn’t I tell you, I was planning on going away, ring and tell them you can’t, I’ve already planned it.’ Sometimes now I think he really hadn’t planned it, he’d just ring at the last minute, so any time I went to go to an outside activity, ‘Oh didn’t I tell you mum wants to come over’. There was always something stopping me getting contact with the outside world. He’d say, ‘Let’s go fishing, it’s too nice a day you can’t go shopping today, I’ll go and pack and we’ll go to the lake fishing.’ So I’d ring my friend and say, ‘Can we go shopping on a wet day, it’s such a nice day Luke is off to go fishing’. In the end I was realising that I was spending all my time with him. Then when he was doing that with the phone calls I started to get a bit scared. I was scared more than anything.

Says what she does makes him jealous so insists she not do it

Karen said her partner Felix “was a very jealous person, he was afraid that I’d be running around screwing everyone. I learned how to shut myself down. I stopped seeing my friends as much. Once the baby came there was utter isolation, poverty, and loss of trust.”

Attempts to isolate him and her as a couple from the rest of the world

Teresa said her partner “didn’t want the world encroaching or shining its bright light on anything in the relationship, that it had to be exclusive and separate from the rest of the world. I thought it was quite nice. It meant that you were really special (laughter). Somebody loved you that much.”

Heather’s partner attempted to isolate her from family and friends “mainly because my parents didn’t really like him that much and my friends didn’t like him that much he’d say, ‘Oh if just you and me went to live in Australia it would be amazing. We wouldn’t have your family and everyone against us. They’re all against us here. If we moved away it would be just us. We would be so much happier. We wouldn’t have the interference.’ I didn’t want to move away. I liked having my family. But I must admit there was one stage he’d say, ‘They’re just against us because we’re so happy’. I started to believe maybe my aunty and uncle aren’t very happy, and maybe my grandparents haven’t got anything else to do but think that their granddaughter should have something better, I’d start going through all that. But I couldn’t make that move to Australia.”

Demands loyalty to him, not to others

Elsie said she really adored her stepson, Jeremy, but if ever her husband “saw us get close he’d really get stuck into me, and to Jeremy too, coz that was like disloyalty to Leon. It would really hurt because I really did adore my stepson. He was just adorable. He wouldn’t let Jeremy ever come near me, it would be like total disloyalty.”

Tells her she is not allowed to see certain people

Sally said, “I was not allowed to keep in touch with my male friends. I made the assumption he was jealous but he’d never admit to it – he had no comprehension that my friendship with these men did not mean I loved him any less or that they’d get more attention in anyway whatsoever – it was so immature and pathetic of him and ignorant that he refused to even meet these people.”

Dismissive of invites to participate with her friends and family  

Teresa said her partner Patrick “very strongly tried to prevent me from continuing and developing relationships with other people. I did what he wanted. Again it was quite subtle. It wasn’t, ‘I don’t want you to have any friends, I don’t want you to talk to your family’. It was – he’d refuse to come and visit my family for weekends or Christmas. The first Christmas I stayed, I didn’t want to stay, I’d much rather have gone to visit my family, but I felt sorry for him being left all alone, even though it was his choice to be left all alone. So I told my family I had to work because I didn’t want them to know that he was the kind of prick (laughter) who didn’t want to come and be with the family. Then with friends, he didn’t like it when they came round and he’d go and shut himself in the study and be quite dismissive to them. I was especially confused for a long time about the friends thing because my idea of living with someone was that you could have friends around for dinner and drinks and lunch, and that wasn’t the right thing to do. It took me a long time to figure it out.”

He puts limits on her visits with friends and family

Susan’s sister lived three quarters of an hour away. “But Anthony didn’t like me going over there and spending the day with her because I wouldn’t be home doing things. We were allowed to visit my cousin who was 15 minutes drive away. Anthony would go off and do a job. When he got home I thought he’d been working the whole time, but he hadn’t, he’d been visiting. I didn’t know this for a long long time, but I know he used to call into various people’s places whenever he was going past, but he used to put a time limit on my outings. I used to argue with him and he used to just look at me like I was an idiot and said, ‘well I’m not talking to you’. And he didn’t. He’d stop talking to me completely.” However Susan would still visit but would “only visit if I had to go and do something such as grocery shopping, because otherwise you have nothing if you don’t have friends.”

Teresa “narrowed the range to what was acceptable to her partner.” She used to go away for a weekend with girlfriends every four or five months “and drink lots of Lindauer and eat chocolate and cheese and crackers and I didn’t do that at all when I was with him because he was really threatened by it and didn’t like it.” She said that, “At work he didn’t like it if I spent too much time with other people, or did things when he didn’t know what I was doing. He had to know what I was doing all the time. He used to ring up every hour when I was at home and say, ‘What are you doing?’”

Tells her that her friends or family don’t care about her

Heather said Luke “was starting to set me against my parents, saying, ‘They’re just being mean, they don’t like me, they just want you to go back to your ex-husband and they’re not giving us a chance’.”

He attempts to divide and conquer by provoking jealousies and rivalries

Teresa said that her partner Patrick would tell her, “That people at work had said things about me, that they had said that I was this, that I was that, horrible things, which I believed and I don’t know whether they had said them or not. I think that he probably twisted a lot of things like that and I believed him, so that would change my judgement.” This led Teresa to reduce her interactions with other people, “and my job which I previously really enjoyed, I’d just go to work and do my job and go away as quickly as I could so I wasn’t around people. And I wouldn’t phone people or do things with people at all.”

He’s rude, critical or dismissive of her visitors

When Sally’s “best friend travelled from the North Island to visit her and Dylan in Nelson, Dylan, who was not usually very active when it came to renovating the house, suddenly appeared ‘busy’ renovating the house. He didn’t want to go out, and spent most of his time making my friends wrong or visiting with his alcohol drinking marijuana smoking buddy. My best friend told me I had become a clone of Dylan’s, which I had not realised. He did not want me to keep in touch with her after that and whenever I wanted to get in touch he disapproved.”

Sally also said that “one year, my sister did not tell Dylan she was coming up to surprise me for my birthday coz she knew he wouldn’t let her stay. And another time one of my friends rang to use our shower because her electricity had gone out and he said ‘no’.”

Teresa said Patrick “came down to my parent’s place once and that was the only time he would, and he was rude and I was really embarrassed by it.”

Elsie said, “If I had a friend that was my friend and not somebody that Leon had introduced me to, he’d run them down, he’d say they’re not like you, they’re a bitch and stuff like that, to get rid of them, put them off. It would work because it was so unpleasant to listen to all the time and he’d embarrass me if they ever visited, so I wouldn’t encourage people to come and see me. Friends would ask me to go out or something. I just kept saying, ‘Oh no, no.’ There was one young girl, she was such a nice girl, we really got on well, and she said when I was leaving work – we’d worked together – she said, ‘I’ll come round and see you, we’ll still see each other eh?’ And I said, ‘No we won’t.’ And she was really hurt I know, but I never explained why. I think she just thought I was a nasty (laughter) person.”

Karen said “Felix accepted my involvement with my family more than with my friends, but he was very critical, especially of my mum, which is understandable. And it used to drive me nuts that I couldn’t have my brother there coz I sort of brought up my little brother and I felt very closely bound to him. He would let me have him, but there would always be a bloody hassle, there would always be a row when my brother was there, always. I felt terrible about that because I wanted to give him support and love.”

Elizabeth “would go to groups or do personal growth type things and I’d meet people and I’d maybe have them over, and David would say to me things like, ‘Why are you making friends with her she’s separated, why don’t you make friends with married people?’ He would be quite cold to them when they came to the house. I would be quite reticent about having them back, or I wouldn’t go to things that he couldn’t come to. If I got invited to something on my own I wouldn’t go unless it was a couple invitation. So I only really did couple things.”

Friends and family decide to stay away because of his abusiveness

Elsie said “I was isolated in the sense that Leon would have a guise of being nice to my parents, but then he would be rude sometimes, enough for them not to like him and they wouldn’t want to come round and see me. He was unwelcoming and unfriendly to anybody who knew me, so people just started to stay away.”

Victoria’s “sister came to stay once, my sister and I aren’t particularly close, it was getting close to the end of the marriage and Graham did one of his ‘behaviours’ and it was the first time that my family had actually seen him in action. And it wasn’t nothing, it was like, ‘you think this is a problem, you should see him on a good day!’ My sister said, ‘I’ll never come and stay with you again because I couldn’t believe the way he acted.’ So it wasn’t about, ‘Oh my God let me support you and help you’. It was about, ‘I’m never coming back, I’m not going to associate with you guys because this is stuffed’. So through the dysfunctions we were having people pulled back, and I didn’t want people to see that. So it was best to pull away and not engage in too many behaviours with others. I didn’t want to admit that this was my lot. If they saw it I’d have to admit it to myself and I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself.”

He makes her feel bad for pursuing friends of her own choosing

Elizabeth said, “I used to try and do any socialising that I wanted to do during the day when David was at work, but in the hours that were acceptable to him. I didn’t do separate things in the evenings although I did join a quilting group and I remember getting a real sense of belonging because it was all women.”

He requires relationship issues be kept secret

Teresa said, “Whenever I’d talk to people on the phone Patrick would make it really clear with body language and non-verbal behaviours that he didn’t like it and he’d sulk afterwards. He’d say things like, ‘What happens between you and I is just between you and I and it’s nobody else’s business. I don’t think you should ever tell people what’s between you and I. It’s special, it’s just ours.’ I did still talk to my friends a little bit, but I really cut myself off from people to keep him happy.”

Elsie “made the mistake of saying something to mum one day. It was something really harmless about something in the house and Leon waited until we were out of earshot and then let loose. So no I never talked to anyone about it, and my parents to this day don’t know. They still don’t know what it was like. I’ve never talked to anyone.”

Pauline’s husband came from parents who thought very highly of themselves and had to keep up appearances. “So his parents believed that if anything went wrong, ‘God you should not tell people because if they think badly of you, you’d go down the ladder!’ Yeah so I had to come to terms with not telling anybody if bad things happened. When we were finally separated, my family just went into total shock because they thought it was an absolute perfect marriage and they were just stunned.”

However Pauline did share some traumatic experiences with her friend. “My friend went ballistic at him when she found out about the miscarriage and he was like, ‘Oops I feel a bit awful someone has found out I can get rather nasty and everyone thinks I’m Mr Wonderful’.”

Pauline “was so confused and I thought I was going quite crazy because he acted like nothing’s wrong. So I’d think well maybe it’s me, it’s all my thinking, my perception.” However she finally experienced validation for her perception when her friend, who lived miles away and had not visited for a long time, arrived for a visit and her husband was home on shift. Until that visit her friend had “thought my husband was an absolute angel, she went to school with him.” But at this visit her friend told Pauline, “All these months you talked to me on the phone about what he’s been like, I didn’t think you were lying, but I couldn’t see that’s how he would be, because that’s not him.” But she said, “Now I’m here today, I can see this is for real, it’s happening.”

She chooses to isolate herself to save face

Teresa said, “I didn’t really want to talk about it to friends or family because I felt that they would see me as a failure and that I’d buggered it up. And I guess also that they would want me to do something that I wasn’t ready to do, like you have to leave. Whereas my feeling was that if you’re in a relationship, then you have to do everything you can to make it work and you can’t just get up and walk out, because you’ve made a commitment.”

Victoria said she and Graham “were very quite secluded and isolated as a couple, so the opportunities to talk weren’t greatly there. I never spoke to Graham’s family about the relationship because they were in their own dysfunctional homes. My family wasn’t particularly close and I certainly wasn’t going to tell them that I was in trouble. Secrecy was more about my perception of saving face than it was about an overt ‘You mustn’t tell’.”

She becomes isolated due to fear of consequences

Raewyn said “I didn’t go and see my family as much because Brian really used to get pissed off with me travelling up there. He’d say, ‘Oh it costs so much money.’ That’s probably one thing I did restrict myself in because he was so anti it.”

Victoria said she and Graham “reduced social activities. The only ones we did were involving his family, what Graham wanted to do. And that’s also because I didn’t want anybody to see us function, or dysfunction is probably more appropriate, as a couple. So I’d go to his family because they were all dysfunctional anyway, and he’d have a tantrum if we didn’t go to his family. His tantrums had to be seen to be believed.”

Susan said, “I was scared that when I got home Anthony was going to get angry and not talk to me. He’s always sulked. If he didn’t like something I did he wouldn’t talk to me. But usually it was for a day. The two weeks he ignored me was far out, it was unbelievable. He still would sleep with me. We wouldn’t have sex, but would sleep in the same bed. I’d talk to him and he’d just turn his head and walk away.”

Karen said she would sometimes “stop and have a jug of beer with people after uni and I knew there would be hell to pay, I knew there would be a problem. I was fearful, dreading, just the dread. I couldn’t enjoy spontaneity. I couldn’t enjoy social things because of the fear and the guilt, so I would withdraw and just choose not to do it, it would be too much bother.”


Murphy, Clare (2002) Women Coping with Psychological Abuse: Surviving in the Secret World of Male Partner Power and Control. Unpublished Masters thesis, University of Waikato, New Zealand. Available here.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

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

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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.