“The psychological impact of subordination to coercive control may have many common features, whether that subordination occurs within the public sphere of politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations ...... the psychology of the victim is shaped by the actions and beliefs of the perpetrator” Judith L Herman 1992

The question of why a victim of domestic abuse stays with her abusing partner, or indeed returns to him after having left, is a reasonable one, on the face of it. After all, she is not a prisoner. Is she? What is not commonly understood is the complexity of the dynamics of abuse, and the subtleties of how they operate on victims of domestic abuse to induce a state of dependence in them, and control over them, not just physically but also psychologically.  The process of domination and control starts at the very first meeting and builds up until long after the relationship appears to have ended.

Perpetrators of abusive behavior do not come with a stamp on their forehead, on the contrary they appear as ordinary guys who just happen to be really helpful and even charming, which of course provides the perfect camouflage. In the beginning there is a paradoxical sense of safety. Unfortunately the ease and “at home” feeling which this creates becomes enticement onto a slippery slope where possessive attention seems flattering but eventually leads to enslavement.

One of my clients, Jean, reports her journey through the invisible vortex of domestic abuse. When she first met her husband, he in fact rescued her from a young man who was pestering her at a local dance. She was so grateful that she accepted his invitation for a drink. They began dating and he was so expressive, and would talk wistfully to her about his unhappy childhood and the kind of home and life he would create when he eventually married. He was so sweet and of course the word picture he painted happened to be what he knew Jean would like. It was exactly what she dreamed about.

Within 6 months they were married, but it wasn’t long until Jean found many aspects of her personality being disapproved of and criticized. On their wedding night he told her how she really needed to lose weight, and that her dress sense was really dowdy. He became increasingly authoritarian and controlling, and the wonderful picture of marital bliss turned into her being berated for the many ways in which she was a millstone around his neck. Jean began to feel hurt, sad, humiliated and keen to show he hadn’t made a mistake and that she would be a good wife. She gradually became more subservient.

Jean was a Clerical Officer for the Civil Service, a job which she had enjoyed since she left school. The wages were not great but there were opportunities for advancement and she had good friends there. She was trying hard to redeem herself for imagined shortcomings, and was easily convinced by her husband that “It makes sense” to pay her wages into his bank account.

Next thing her spending came under scrutiny. She had her own car but was persuaded that it was a waste of money running two cars and perhaps they should have one good car. Her car got sold and he got a better one. There was also the matter of her mobile phone bills, so she stopped calling her parents and friends.

Jean’s attempts to address issues with him were met with a “how could you be so ungrateful” martyred attitude, after all he had done for her. Didn’t she want the house they both dreamed of?  Why did she treat him this way? As usual she felt guilty particularly as he didn’t speak to her for three days at a time.

These cold, stonewalling episodes had the effect of controlling all aspects of Jean’s behavior; where she went, what she did, who she did it with, what she wore, and when she came back. It was like her life wasn’t her own. Jean’s friends had started to notice that she wasn’t her usual happy self. She felt so embarrassed, but it was easier for her to be loyal and defend her husband’s good intentions.

She was now only too aware of the black moods he could get into, but she didn’t feel she could confide in anyone, particularly as everyone thought he was a great guy. This Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde is a common feature of abusive men; house devil and street angel.

In abusive relationships, decision making becomes unilateral. Jean was becoming more and more on edge, particularly as her husband would now often be angry and verbally abusive with her over some minor issue, consequently she was continually walking on egg shells trying to appease him.

In less than a year after they had married, she came home from work to find the house with packing boxes in all rooms. Surprise, surprise, her husband had made an offer on their “dream home” and it had been accepted. Completion would be in about six weeks. The house was two hundred miles away. Jean protested. That was the first time he hit her and then went to get a knife to cut his wrists, because he was never going to be able to please her. Of course, she persuaded him not to kill himself and that they would have a lovely time in their new home.

It is not unusual for the victim of domestic abuse to find herself appeasing her abuser.

Jean found it difficult to leave her friends and family and her work with so little time to prepare for the idea, but she felt she had to make a go of her marriage. Her husband was back to his old loving self, telling her about all the work he would do in their home. He actually told her, that she should be on her knees everyday thanking God for such a wonderful husband.

When she saw how remote their new home was, Jean felt sick but covered it over because she didn’t want her husband to think she was ungrateful. He hated that. She decided to make the best of it.

A common feature of abusive relationships, is one way or another to isolate the victim from any form of support or other points of view other than the abuser’s. In order to tolerate an overwhelming situation, the victim comes to a state of acceptance where thy no longer question what is happening to them.

Jean continued to receive constant overt and covert criticism which escalated now she was away from her family and social circles. Why hadn’t she got a job? They needed the money, she was a lazy good for nothing, he rued the day he ever met her. Jean’s self esteem and self worth were at an all time low. She no longer trusted her own judgement and began second guessing everything she did seeing it from his point of view. She fretted about every item she bought in the shopping. She stopped going to the hairdresser, she no longer had her nails done, There followed many tirades along the lines of “ If you were more of a woman I wouldn’t have to go out so much. If you were more intelligent and earned more money I wouldn’t have to spend so much time at work.” (Jean had 3 cleaning jobs in the local village where she walked to and fro each day.).

She felt very depressed as it seemed she had no choice but to keep going. The criticisms continued, reinforced with humiliating put downs and name calling. She was shouted and yelled at combined with intimidation, when her husband would routinely get right up to her with his fist to her face.

Their physical relationship all but faded away as her husband would sit up late at night watching porn on the computer (because he didn’t have a real woman for a wife).

The same process that occurs in breaking the spirits of prisoners of war is prevalent in domestic abuse situations. This involves intermittent, unpredictable patterns of rewards and punishment for the same behavior. This is a powerful way to keep victims trapped, because they already doubt their own judgement, and feel so unsure about where they might be to blame for their situation, they desperately want to believe their partner has some humanity.

Just when Jean was thinking she needed to get away, as if by thought transference, he became quite solicitous and gave her the money to have her hair done and to buy a new dress. Once again he seemed like his old loving self, telling her he couldn’t live without her and if anything ever happened to her he couldn’t carry on living. He showed her the rope he had to hang himself if she ever left him. He thought it was time that they started a family because he loved her so much.

When people ask the question “why does she stay?” it is because as far as they are concerned, the woman could walk away. In fact women in abusive relationships leave on average eight times before they permanently make the break, because they are psychologically entrapped. When all other connections are severed the victim will cling even more to the only meaningful connection she has, the perpetrator.

When Jean became pregnant with their first child, she assumed things would be different, but in fact it became worse. Her husband would come home late and waken her up to cook for him. He would make her stand by while he verbally abused her for hours at a time. Then when it was nearing daylight he would fall asleep, and sleep all day, while she would have to go to her early morning cleaning job. She would also phone into his workplace to say he was sick.

She was often physically exhausted, with sleep deprivation, and every time her husband went out she lived in dread of what might happen when he came in. Sometimes he would waken her (if she was asleep) and slap her on the face before anything was said, which of course ensured she didn’t say anything, and made her biddable. His threats took on a new slant, “If you even think of taking my child away from me I will kill you.” By now, Jean really believed that was what would happen.

In domestic abuse situations, actual violence may be infrequent, since fear can be induced, by unpredictable punching of walls, menacing looks, or the destruction of valued possessions. For example, Jean loved to read as a way of easing her loneliness and isolation, but her husband ripped up all of her books one night in a fit of rage. Eventually the victim begins to feel grateful that she hasn’t been killed or injured. This gratitude is the basis of what has become known as Stockholm Syndrome.
Research shows that, prisoners of war, hostages, and battered wives usually finish up suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, nevertheless social judgement often focuses on aspects of the victim’s personality regarding her abuse without considering that this very judgement gets in the way of recognizing her symptoms. Sadly as Judith Lewis Herman reports in “Trauma And Recovery”,

 “sometimes survivors are treated more harshly than those who abused them”

Author's Bio: 

Grace Chatting is a senior accredited member of the British Association of Counseling and Psychotherapy, a qualified Social Worker, Family Mediator, and a Life and Relationship Coach.

She lives and works in the UK, Spain and Ireland, teaching and empowering people to become all that they can be.

For the past 30 years Grace has immersed herself in studying all aspects of what makes people, couples and families tick. During this time she has worked with literally tens of thousands of people and has built up considerable expertise in successful couple relationships and prevention of family breakdown. She also has a high level of expertise in working with women in recovery from Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships.

So many of her clients would say "Why don't they teach this stuff in school?" and Grace agreed. The idea gradually took root and resulted in the Relationship Academy http://relationshipacademy.co.uk