During this period of the pandemic, being required to be home 24/7 can feel like a life sentence rather than life-saving when you’re confined with an abusive intimate partner.
We know times of great stress, such as loss of employment or financial difficulties, can escalate abusive behavior. For those targeted for abuse, a routine of work or school formerly helped to manage the stress of home life. During this uncertain time, those living with an abusive partner need strategies and useful resources.
Intimate partner abuse is solely for the purpose of one partner to overpower and control the other. Chiefly, psychological and emotional attacks target a partner’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Unlike physical abuse, psychological abuse is hard to see, because it happens with words and demeanor, without physical contact—yet the psychological harm it causes requires us to take it seriously.
Taylor, a research scientist and author of Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, explains that when an individual uses abusive tactics within a basic social structure, such as a couple or a family, it is possible to gain power. When this occurs, it is one of the most intense and damaging experiences for those involved (2004).
According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Survey in the U.S., researchers identified for men and women the frequency of psychological aggression, which included expressive aggression and coercive control.
Examples of expressive aggression are acting in a way that seems dangerous; recipients of abuse are told they’re a failure, a loser, not good enough, called names such as fat, ugly, stupid, and humiliated and made fun of.
Examples in the report of coercive control included keeping them from talking to family or friends, making decisions that should have been theirs to make, being kept track of by demanding to know where they were and what they were doing, and keeping them from leaving the house when they wanted to go.
Of women, 48.4 percent have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression in their lifetime.
- 4 in 10 reported expressive aggression.
- 41 percent reported some form of coercive control.
Of men, 48.8 percent have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression in their lifetime.
- 32 percent reported expressive aggression and coercive control.
A Powerful Coercive Tactic: Isolation
Isolation is one of many well-known coercive tactics that make up psychological abuse for the purpose of controlling an intimate partner. Isolation makes a person more vulnerable to other coercive tactics used by a partner, such as being gaslighted, intimidated, verbally threatened, criticized, demeaned, humiliated, intentionally made to feel fearful with angry outbursts and gestures, and having their intentions and strengths undermined. In fact, the more isolated a person is, the more dependent they can become on the very person who does not have their best interest at heart.
Strategies to Address the Impact of Psychological Harm
Someone who is the recipient of psychological abuse is at risk for many conditions, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem—developing negative beliefs, such as self-blame, loss of self-efficacy, loss of trust in judgment or perception, and trauma.
Low self-esteem is often the result of negative beliefs that get internalized from false accusations by being put down, criticized, called names, etc. When this occurs, feelings of confidence and competence can diminish. The controlling partner focuses his/her/their attacks on specific characteristics of the targeted person that are either vulnerabilities or their strengths that are perceived as threats to his/her/their power and control.
Although it’s not possible to change someone else’s behavior when they are not willing to change, the targeted person can work at changing how they react within themselves. The negative beliefs that develop include hurtful beliefs about oneself; distorted beliefs about what causes the abuse that leads to self-blame; and harmful feelings, such as fear, shame, or guilt. Bringing to conscious awareness negative feelings and beliefs developed in response to a partner’s abusive attacks can be addressed and might provide some relief.
Taylor says that changed beliefs occur in a situation of close and ongoing influence. We know that “close and ongoing influence” is what abusive partners create in their intimate relationships. Taylor addresses ways to bolster resistance to coercive persuasion and offers the following useful approaches to defusing it.
- Make a commitment to center yourself in beliefs that are incompatible or disprove the messages you receive from your partner’s hurtful accusations and increase this commitment over time. For example, if the accusation is “selfishness,” then the internal focus can be on the times that illustrate generosity to others that illustrate the accusation is untrue.
- Reduce any beliefs you have that support your partner’s accusations and reduce the negative feelings you have that make his accusations and beliefs powerful. This would be an attack on a vulnerability. For example, if you feel vulnerable about being a new parent, and you’re told, “You’re a bad mother,” it’s important to see that just because you’re told that doesn’t make it true. It requires work to keep a realistic perspective.
- Change your current beliefs or create new beliefs to reflect your own thoughts and feelings. For example, what did you positively believe about yourself before you met your partner? Reconnect with positive beliefs by revisiting positive experiences. In the memory, feel the good feelings it brings up, and identify the positive belief about yourself that’s connected to the experience. Hold on to favorable beliefs and revisit the related positive experience to keep strengthening the beliefs.
The more you commit to strong beliefs about yourself, the more you can internally defend yourself—a place only you have control. It’s extremely important to emotional well-being to take steps no matter how small to offset feelings of powerlessness and aloneness.
In addition to developing an internal defense, stay connected to others the best you can. Reach out to friends and family—those in life who provide a lifeline of sorts. During working at home, when your time is more yours, have a chat or email to benefit yourself. Having emotional connections with others actually limits the abusive partner’s power.
Keep in mind that there are helpful resources that will continue to be available during this pandemic period. Phones and computers are up and running. Online resources have an escape button to exit quickly.
When abusive behavior escalates to physical violence and/or threats of physical violence, in addition to using a resource for safety planning, legal protection orders are accessible. Considered an essential service, the courts are open to filing restraining orders by way of phone or email. In an emergency, call 911 for help.