The Progression of Violence & Tactics of Control
In all probability, your partner was not abusive in the beginning stages of your relationship and, even now, does not always use physical violence. It is rare for an abuser to physically assault their partner prior to beginning a pattern of verbal abuse and emotional control. It is likely, as you look back on the relationship, you can begin to recognize how the abuse began in very subtle ways – through attacks on your feelings of self-worth, your abilities as a person, and by slowly isolating you from others. Often, it is not until a survivor feels “trapped”, either emotionally, financially or socially, that they recognize how destructive and abusive their partner has become. Frequently, the physical violence begins to increase in severity and intensity at this stage – after an abuser is reasonably sure his partner is isolated and cut off from much of their support system.
The tactics used by a batterer also involve much more than physical abuse. In addition to being assaulted, whether it is once a week, once a month, or once a year, most abusers engage in other behaviors which make their partners fearful and afraid. Below is a “Power and Control Wheel”, developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota. The wheel serves as an illustration of the many tactics an abuser will use. It is often the use of the non-physical tactics which have the greatest impact on a survivor’s feelings of self-worth.
Recognizing which of these tactics have been used by your partner may help you to understand how difficult it has been for you to see your alternatives and how these behaviors have been limiting your freedom, your safety and your self-determination.
Most individuals who are being abused are also being emotionally abused. The most obvious type of emotional abuse is being constantly criticized or degraded. Your partner may also be emotionally abusive by ignoring you, withholding affection, calling you names, accusing you of having affairs, or telling you that you are an unfit parent, friend or spouse. Emotional abuse can be subtle and is often hard to recognize. It is also the most effective tactic to keep you from feeling you are deserving of love and respect.
Most abusers will isolate their partners, geographically, emotionally, or socially, in order to keep them under their control. They move the family miles away from friends and relatives or discourage or forbid their partner from having close relationships with others. Survivors often report they are not allowed to see friends or family, get a job, have access to transportation, participate in religious/spiritual activities, or have outside interests or activities. Even if these activities are not strictly “forbidden”, abusers will often put such limits on them by monitoring phone calls, interrogating them about their whereabouts, or publicly humiliating them causing the survivor to simply stop doing these things.
Minimizing, Denying and Blaming
Abusers blame their partner for the abuse by making them feel like they are “overreacting” to the violence. Abusers will minimize or deny the severity of their actions, and refuse to acknowledge any controlling behaviors. If they do acknowledge the violence, they will point to the survivor’s behavior or demeanor and tell them this is why they used violence. This tactic is extremely effective at increasing a survivor’s sense of responsibility, because they are aware that the abuser will simply blame them for the assaults if they tell others about the behavior.
Many survivors report their partners frequently control access to their financial resources by withholding money from them, sabotaging their efforts to get or keep a job, berating them about they spend, and by lying about assets. Some abusers keep all bank accounts and credit cards in their name so their partner does not have any access to funds without their permission. Not having access to financial resources keeps survivors economically dependent on their abusers and is a major barrier for survivors who want to leave the relationship.
One of the most prevalent, yet often minimized, forms of abuse is using your children to make you feel bad about yourself. Perhaps your partner has repeatedly told you that you are not a good parent and if you ever attempt to leave, they will fight you for custody. The abuser may have even threatened to kidnap or kill the children if you make any effort to escape.
Many abusers also try to turn children against the other parent by telling lies or by threatening them with harm. These threats are very real to a parent in a battering relationship and may make them too afraid to leave.
Using Coercion and Threats
Your partner may threaten to increase the use of violence towards you or your children if you do not obey them at all costs. They may threaten suicide or threaten to harm other members of your family or your friends if you attempt to leave. If you are in a same-sex relationship, your partner may threaten to “out” you by revealing your relationship to those whom you might not want to know. Coercion can also include forcing you to commit illegal activities and subsequently threatening to report you to child protective services or law enforcement. These behaviors are designed to keep you afraid and to keep you from ending the relationship.
Using Male Privilege
Part of an abuser’s belief system is a feeling that they “own” their partners and children, and are entitled to demand absolute obedience from them. They often have very rigid attitudes about gender roles, acting like the “master of the castle” and treating their partner as a servant.
Intimidating behaviors and actions can range from threatening looks or gestures to slamming objects, destroying property, hurting or killing pets, and displaying weapons. An abuser will often destroy an item that has special meaning to their partner, while letting them know that they could be his next target.
Even though your partner might not always use physical violence, it is likely he is constantly utilizing many of these tactics to control and degrade you. If you have heard over and over again how worthless you are, how everything is your fault, and how you deserve to be “punished” for your failures, you are likely to begin to believe it. This is especially true if there is no one around to support you as a worthwhile person and who sees your partner’s abusive behavior as destructive and inappropriate.
Furthermore, given the isolation, the constant negative reinforcement and the violence you are experiencing, it is not uncommon for you to become increasingly confused about what is happening. You may begin to feel numb inside as your perceptions of yourself and your relationship become more and more distorted. You may be feeling immobilized – recognizing the dangers you face if you leave and realizing there is nothing you can do to stop the abuse if you stay. It is not uncommon for victims of battering to begin to exhibit symptoms similar to prisoners of way – they are disoriented, may be suffering from sleep deprivation, interrupted eating patterns, and shock. These symptoms are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances and do not mean you are “going crazy”.
Battering is a very powerful and effective form of control and any person experiencing this type of violence is likely to become temporarily immobilized. However, the more you can begin to understand what is happening, the better you will be at recognizing that your partner is responsible for their behavior and what is happening to you is not your fault.