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Domestic Violence

How Survivors of Intimate Partner Abuse Take Back Control

The first step is identifying coercive tactics in their partner's behavior.

Key points

  • Identifying intimate partner abuse often begins with identifying coercive tactics.
  • Coercive tactics cause specific psychological effects like anxiety and a loss of trust in one's judgment.
  • Getting emotionally stronger via trauma recovery allows for emerging clarity and change.
Pexels / Pixabay
Source: Pexels / Pixabay

In an intimate abusive relationship, many clients who seek treatment are looking for help and yet are unaware of what they actually need help with. Survivors of abuse can present with confusion, anxiety, low self-esteem, loss of trust in their perceptions, and powerless to make a difference in their life. Unclear of how they came to feel entrapped, survivors often do not see that their situation is caused by their partner’s coercive behaviors. Mental health professionals can facilitate change by helping a survivor to unpack the elements of their abusive experience with their intimate partner via psycho-education and trauma recovery.

First: Identify the coercive tactics of psychological abuse

When physical abuse is involved, it’s a clear indicator abuse is taking place. It’s the psychological abuse, with or without physical violence, that is hard to recognize and has the powerful effect on the victim causing confusion and trauma.

Psychological abuse is made up of coercive tactics often embedded in repetitive behaviors. It can be a disapproving look, a put-down, being ignored, being called vulgar names, not listening or responding, twisting the meaning of your words, blaming, intentionally making you feel guilty, threats of all kinds from abandonment to suicide to taking the children away, etc. As a first step, you should identify if coercive tactics are occurring.

In my practice, when I begin hearing signs of possible coercion in a person’s intimate relationship, I inquire further and ask if they would be willing to complete my Controlling Behavior Checklist. In so doing, we are both able to recognize evidence of abuse that’s often hard to see at the outset unless it’s listed and checked off like a grocery list. This often becomes a pivotal moment from not knowing or perhaps suspecting, to seriously taking stock of your experience with abuse in your intimate relationship. Once you see all the checks indicating the behaviors as abusive, you cannot un-see them. Using a checklist of coercive behaviors saves time and helps you begin to make meaning.

Second: Understand the nature of coercive tactics and “hidden injuries”

Anyone who endures coercive tactics from an intimate partner will experience some degree of psychological effects that can be traumatic in kind. Coercive tactics allow one person to gain power over the other by use of degradation, humiliation, isolation, brainwashing, and threats.

Identifying the traumatic effects of each can be helpful. For example, isolation encourages dependency, threats cultivate fear and anxiety, brainwashing creates confusion and self-doubt, and degradation/humiliation creates shame and low self-esteem.

Running through coercive behavior is a constant blaming of the partner who ultimately can internalize the blame and false accusations into negative beliefs about themselves. In the end, most survivors have lost trust in their own perception, feeling guilty and responsible for “problems in the relationship.”

Once survivors begin seeing this as part of an orchestrated coercion by their intimate partner, they start having a loosening of their entrapment. They can begin to stand back in real time and identify the behaviors as coercive tactics. When they are able to do so, the powerful effect of the tactic begins to lessen. In a small way, the survivor begins to feel a bit of internal control or agency coming back.

Third: Develop emotional strength in order to decide next steps

With growing awareness, many survivors don’t feel able to act in their own best interest right away. Survivors can feel critical of themselves for not being able to. I normalize their reaction and point out that getting emotionally stronger first is often necessary. I assure them that even a start with recovery could help to get clear about what it is they want to do, and enable them to act on it.

Recovery work with survivors of intimate partner abuse starts with identifying oneself as a survivor. This occurs when the coercive tactics are recognized and understood as abuse. In addition, understanding the nature of abuse, the “hidden injuries,” and the symptoms of the psychological impact one endures. Establishing safety, self-care, and control of one’s life take place. In this process, shame and humiliation start shifting toward holding their partner responsible for their coercive abuse. (Adapted from J. Herman’s Stages of Trauma Recovery.)

Some survivors want to get stronger to address their partner’s abuse with hopes they might change, and some want to come up with a way to eventually leave safely. Often working on getting emotionally stronger needs to take place while living with the perpetrator, and, in some instances, it’s just not possible. Being subjected to intense, ongoing abuse may not allow for any recovery to take hold, making it clear it’s best to decide to plan to leave safely.

With recovery, the survivor gains agency, trusts their perception, and determines what they want going forward.

© Lambert

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