In my recovery groups for women with controlling partners, some common questions arise, such as, How did I end up with an abusive partner? and Why me?
One woman wondered whether there was something that caused the women in the group to be targets of abuse. Another, who had suffered through two abusive relationships, asked, “Am I wearing a sign that says, 'Abuse me'?”
Coercive control, or psychologically abusive tactics, are often subtle, unrecognized, and misunderstood. These tactics undermine a target by intimidating, ridiculing, and diminishing her self-worth. The goal is to gain submissiveness and compliance. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for the targeted person to believe that the same person she turns to for affection and companionship wants to hurt her and dictate her life.
As an individual struggles to make meaning of this, she often looks to herself for explanations. She may question how she ended up with a partner who hurts and abuses her. She may wonder if there’s something wrong with her.
4 Ways Targets Are Made Vulnerable
1. Sometimes an individual believes she has inherent flaws, and that this causes her partners to abuse her.
She may speculate that if she felt better about herself, she wouldn’t be abused. It’s important for everyone to know that low self-esteem is not cause for a partner to dish out abuse. Rather, low self-esteem is a painful result of being abused. A partner abuses a target not because of who she is, but because of his need to be in control (a need often influenced by the culture we live in). There is absolutely nothing that justifies the abuse.
2. People with controlling partners often come to believe that they are responsible for their partner’s abusive behavior.
It’s the nature of the coercion for a target to internalize hurtful accusations and take the blame when a controlling partner repeatedly faults her for things beyond her control—including his abuse. But each individual, whether it’s the controlling party or the target, is always responsible for his or her own behavior.
It is inevitable that at times we will say things and act in ways that will trigger other people to get upset with us. How a partner reacts and expresses irritation or anger is entirely up to him or her. You cannot make someone physically attack you or say terrible, hurtful things to you.
3. Our culture still tends to empower men more than women.
This can make a woman more vulnerable to a controlling partner, making it harder to protect herself, receive support, and feel validated. A society that condones men having more power than women can fuel controlling partners to dominate and expect submissiveness. While many men, of course, do not choose this course, the ones who do support their actions by exploiting culturally reinforced expectations of women.
4. The majority of women in support groups like mine say they cannot turn to friends, family, or coworkers for support.
People outside of the abuse often do not understand the pain endured because of a controlling partner. The same cultural conditioning impacting a couple also affects their family of origin and their friends, community, clergy, and even the professionals they come into contact with. In turn, these people—who are powerful forces in their lives—can reinforce cultural beliefs that do not always favor them. The same denial of coercive control runs through these many layers of influence contributing to women being put at risk, and further isolating individuals with a controlling partner.
How to Become Less Vulnerable
The U.S. has yet to criminalize coercive control. So for now, we can inform ourselves of what coercive control looks like through books, websites, and the guidance of informed professionals like doctors and therapists, and learn to take it as seriously as we would physical abuse. We can take care of ourselves and others by not accepting anything less than respect and a sense of safety in all of our relationships.