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Domestic Violence

Exposure to Intimate Partner Abuse Requires Healing

Recovery gives you back safety and agency.

Key points

  • Intimate partner abuse causes damage to mental and physical health.
  • Recognizing coercive tactics at play and working through any trauma symptom are critical steps in recovery.
  • With one's agency returned and knowledge of coercive tactics, seeking a healthy relationship becomes possible.
Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels
Source: Anastasia Shuraeva/Pexels

Experiencing ongoing abuse from a past intimate partner can cause serious injuries to your sense of self and well-being that, if not addressed, may leave you vulnerable and at risk for another potentially harmful relationship. Prioritizing recovery and taking the time to identify the nature of the abuse allows for healing that’s necessary to regain confidence in yourself and the strength to act in your own best interest.

Intimate Partner Abuse: How It Works

A partner who is out to achieve power and control in their intimate relationship uses coercive tactics that are highly effective, particularly when living under the same roof.

Often, the coercive process is subtle and insidious at first with the use of words, demeanor, and manipulation. At times, there can be periods of positive attention, making it all the more effective in confusing the recipient.

Coercive abuse affects one’s life dramatically because the abuse targets a person’s thoughts, feelings, and how they perceive things—affecting their sense of self, view of the relationship, and connection with the world surrounding them.

Until they are able to acknowledge the coercive tactics embedded in their partner’s behavior and identify the psychological injuries they sustained, they will not see themselves as a victim of abuse and will remain in a state of feeling unsafe and a loss of agency over their life.

Identifying the Coercive Tactics and the Injuries

First, it is critical to move out of “not seeing” and minimizing to identifying the specific coercive tactics at play with your partner, and second, to see the traumatic impact on yourself.

I have used Biderman’s Chart of Coercion for the past 30 years in my psychoeducational recovery groups, and it has proven extremely helpful to participants in recognizing the specific coercive tactics they endured.

Recipients of abuse can learn from the Chart of Coercion which tactics they have experienced and begin to see the impact on their psyche. The Chart of Coercion includes the strategic harm of each coercive tactic that’s intended to undermine one’s sense of well-being:

  • Isolation: Strategies that lead to the exclusion of family and friends and control of money to disallow the pursuit of interests. Isolation makes the victim more dependent on their partner and weakens their ability to resist.
  • Monopolization of Perception: Also recognized as gaslighting, when the abuser dominates by distorting reality to serve their own needs—frustrating and minimizing words and actions not consistent with compliance. The impact of gaslighting is to purposefully instill self-doubt and confusion in their partner.
  • Degradation or Humiliation: Name calling, putdowns, and criticism of character traits, body image, etc., create shame. In the end, resistance can feel more damaging to one’s self-esteem than compliance.
  • The Superiority of Power, Omnipotence: The abuser can use the belief that they are superior and have more power in the world, and therefore, resistance is futile. The ongoing demand is to remain inferior or vulnerable; otherwise, the victim can be punished or killed.
  • Enforcement of Trivial Demands: Petty rules are disproportionately enforced to encourage regression and fear that ultimately encourages compliance.
  • Violence and the Threat of Violence: Acts of violence and threats can be a prelude to or cause personal injury and even death. The use of violence and threats creates ongoing fear, anxiety, and confusion. Just the threat of escalation to violence is enough to control the victim.
  • Occasional Indulgences: The positive experiences that show up with an abusive partner are in the service of brainwashing, which often gives reasons for further compliance. This intermittent reward encourages false hope that the abuser will change.
  • Exhaustion, Dependency, and Feelings of Incompetence: The cluster of hidden injuries that weakens one’s mental and physical ability to resist is a coercive tactic as well. The reduction of a sense of competence, mastery, and ambition is a loss of well-being and even one’s identity.

Coercive tactics, without violence or threats of violence, can cause trauma symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as depression, despair, anxiety, low self-esteem, chronic fear, and loss of trust in one’s perception and judgment. Non-physical abuse is extremely harmful and needs to be taken seriously.

Recovery From the Traumatic Impact of the Coercive Tactics

In recovery, you unpack the experience with your abusive partner by identifying the specific coercive tactics involved. In doing so, you begin holding the other person responsible for their abuse and start to decrease any self-blame.

Recovery also involves identifying and addressing the traumatic impact on your mental and physical health. For example, it’s likely you internalized the verbal degrading accusations into self-blame and developed negative beliefs about yourself. You might have been told, “You’re crazy,” and feel confused and out of sorts, but you’re not crazy.

Taking Steps to Get Help

Because the nature of the experience of abuse from an intimate partner can leave you feeling humiliated and shamed, there can be a propensity to stay silent and avoid talking about it. Actually, it’s when you start speaking about it—even to one person—that there’s a shift out of isolation. It’s in recovery you learn that you are not to blame for your partner’s abuse. Healing allows you to regain safety and agency to direct your own life.

It’s from a place of knowing that we can take steps to protect ourselves and, in particular, those we help by recognizing coercive tactics, their harmful impact, and the ways to heal.

If you or someone you love have experienced intimate partner abuse and could use professional help, find a therapist near you by searching Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory.



Biderman, A. 1957. "Biderman's Chart of Coercion." Amnesty International 1973 Report on Torture.

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