Tactic #2 — Mind Games

This is the second of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Mind Games.


Mind Games are deliberate attempts to psychologically manipulate someone. They are covert, coercive, manipulative intentions masked by innocent sounding communication. Mind Game language is designed to confuse and keep the victim from guessing the perpetrator’s true aim.

Some of the Mind Games men use to psychologically confuse female partners include blocking her from clarifying his mixed messages, questioning all her judgments, and manipulating her by responding with lies. Mind Games are an attempt to indoctrinate someone into believing they are the guilty party and their viewpoints are irrelevant or pathetic, and need to be realigned to the viewpoint of the perpetrator.

Mind Games are especially powerful when the victim totally trusts the perpetrator and believes both their roles in the relationship are well defined and socially ‘normal’.

Mind Games entail brainwashing – a notion that we usually associate with cults or terrorist hostage tactics. But, the truth is, brainwashing is happening in your neighbourhood right now. Ordinary men brainwash their partners when they say one thing and do another. For example when a man lectures her about his life philosophy of caring for others, but only enacts such caring towards others outside the family – not her. They brainwash their partner when they appeal to her instinct and desire to care for him by saying, “If you really love me you’d do what I want”. This gets confusing when you love and trust your partner. But he is slowly – one tactic at a time – oppressing and controlling. It’s insidious – and it can take years to see, and to realise this is a pattern.

Women’s efforts to make sense of mixed messages are often blocked by their partners which is incredibly stressful, anxiety-provoking and can lead some women to experience disrupted sleeps, and illness – physical, psychological and spiritual. Brainwashing, guilt trips and confusion lead to exhaustion, which can make women more susceptible to believing some of the denigrating and manipulative language their partners use against them. Some women are led to identify more and more with the abuser, whilst others are able to maintain morsels of a sense of themselves – of their own thoughts and beliefs.

Women I interviewed for my Masters research, and women I work with in counselling, talk about experiences of emotional blackmail, manipulation, guilt, feeling fearful and feeling mind-numbingly-crazy.

Confusion and crazy-making

Elizabeth said that because she could not “prove that stuff” that her ex-husband did and said to her that now – years later – she still has “this thing, about whether people believe me”.

Victoria said, “The Mind Games leave you in doubt as to whether or not you’re actually being abused … you’re not quite sure anymore and they really start to cloud your judgment. Whereas if somebody hits you, you know you’ve been hit. The psychological abuse has made me pessimistic, untrusting, vulnerable and very strong now I’m at the other end of it. Also I feel there’s this big hole, this big deep cavern that will always be there that I have to work my damndest to walk around and never to fall back into because I know it’s always there because the behaviours have been so well learnt over the years.”

Pauline said, “I had a friend who I used to call a lot on the phone … I was so confused and I needed to talk to somebody to hear it out loud and to get some feedback. At one point I thought I was going quite crazy because he acted innocent. Like if I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ he acted like nothing’s wrong. He wouldn’t really say anything. So I’d think well maybe it’s me, it’s all my thinking, my perception.”

“And my friend who was calling lives in another town and it’s ages later when she was next at our place. And he was home on shift, outside working so I called him for lunch. We’d be sitting down to lunch and he wouldn’t come in. My friend [had previously] thought my husband was an absolute angel, she went to school with him, and she said to me, ‘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’.”

Guilt trips

The combination of tactics some men use to control their female partners lead many women to forgo and lose interests and wants of their own. To survive in the relationship many women continue doing only those things that keep the peace.

Victoria said, “I felt guilty about going onto the nursing course. I didn’t feel guilty at the beginning coz I thought it would be good. But then the more I did it, he’d start to do reactive behaviours like, he’d drop me off at work and then he’d go cruising the main street of the city we lived in. Then I felt guilty that maybe I’d pushed him too much or that I’d offended him, or that I’d damaged his ego because I was moving on and he wasn’t moving on. That was where the guilt came in, that I was making him feel less of a man and I must stop that.”

Questions all her judgments

Teresa said her partner often questioned her judgments about friends: “If I talked about something a friend was doing or had said or some problem that a friend had, if I was talking about it sympathetically he would try and turn it around so I wasn’t sympathetic and say “No, it’s probably this or probably that” and point out negative things about people that I liked to change my judgment of them and so I wouldn’t like them as much.”

Luckily, Teresa didn’t take any notice of what he said about her best friend. Instead she, “considered the things he said and then mentally dismissed them”.

But when he said things about other people Teresa, “would think Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, oh yes he’s probably right. He would also tell me that people had said things about me. People at work, 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 judgment.”

Manipulates with lies

Heather said her partner scared her, “how he would fabricate the truth all the time. I never knew what was truthful and what wasn’t. He told people, “I laid all those tiles,” but I’d seen with my own eyes that he hadn’t laid those tiles, I saw the tile man doing it. I said, “Look Luke you didn’t actually do those tiles.” He said, “I did.” I said, “You did a little bit over there where the man showed you coz you wanted to cut a tile. That’s lying.”

If she withdraws he punishes her, if she reaches out he rejects her

Sally said “my husband initiated sex 99% of the time.  He would insist that part of the problem we had sexually was that I didn’t initiate.  So occasionally I would initiate sex … and every time I initiated sex he just wasn’t himself, he just became kind of angry, kind of a hatred on his face … I don’t remember his words but they were something like how dare you initiate sex at this time, I am busy, I’m working, yet generally he was not busy or working.  I was so confused … one day it dawned on me.  I thought he doesn’t want me to initiate sex, but that’s not the issue.  He just wants to be in full control, no matter what.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Victoria said she was not allowed to be independent, nor was she allowed to be dependent. If she didn’t agree with Graham, he would manipulate and twist things to make her doubt herself. She was not allowed to express feelings and, if she did, he said she was either overreacting or misinterpreting.

Behaves differently when people visit

Women share stories about ways their partners don’t carry out household, personal or parental responsibilities, but suddenly when visitors come to the house, their partner starts performing his responsibilities. Raewyn said that if she “wanted a break from the children he was either uncooperative or refused saying that she did nothing anyway. He sulked if he did not get his own way [yet] when friends came over he would suddenly start being a father.” Sally said that Dylan would often not work, but would “appear to be busy when visitors or guests came to stay”. Donna’s husband had trouble putting on his own boots, but she said that “one day Frank’s family were visiting and he bent down and put his own boots on and off in front of them.” Donna was devastated that she had been so used because she did not know he could manage himself.

Charming in public and abusive in private

Teresa said others told her she was misinterpreting things because Patrick was so charming to his colleagues. Elizabeth said her husband, David was charming in public but at home he stomped on Elizabeth’s budding creativity. Heather said that she’s still having trouble coming to grips with her own experience of abuse and control in private and his public utterance of words of love. She was further confused because of other people liking him and validating him.

Mind Games are abuse

Mind Games should not be taken lightly – they are abusive and they are controlling. Patrick attempted to impair Teresa’s judgments by hiding things and suggesting that she was going insane when she could not find them. Victoria said she had no name for her husband’s behaviours when she was in the midst of experiencing his power and control tactics. She said, “I didn’t really consider it abuse until I was deeply entrenched in the marriage. I just thought he was manipulative and I thought he was moody. But in the initial stages I didn’t know I was being abused. I thought he was playing Mind Games with me, but I never considered Mind Games to be abuse. If I had been aware that there was such a thing, then I would have seen it as abuse earlier.”

Mind Games are a warning sign that you are being abused and controlled

If you believe your partner is playing Mind Games, then seek help. If you feel you are going crazy, then you may be in a relationship with a partner who is controlling you. You have the right to seek help and to seek support and validation from people who believe in your judgment about what you are experiencing.

The compassionate view

We live in a society where the notion of being a man is written in a social script that all too often is distorted and suppresses a man’s natural humanity. Acts of dominance hide vulnerabilities and emotions, which results in some men remaining unaware of their underlying needs for love and care. In the distorted society myth it’s not regarded as manly to show feelings. Mind Games are part of this complex cover-up that hides the perpetrator’s real need and desire for human connection. Paradoxically, women often detect such insecurities in their partners whom they love, which can get in the way of women being able to name Mind Games as ABUSE. Until, and unless, the perpetrator is helped to develop empathy and a compassionate view, the victim must acknowledge there is harm being done and need to protect themselves from further harm.


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
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.