Many divorcing people are trying to extricate themselves out of a bad marriage that may not have had any physical abuse, but they have suffered, sometimes for many years, as the target of verbal or emotional violence. Many times these emotionally abusive relationships did not become physically violent simply because the frightened spouse never “pushed the envelope” or habitually backed down in an attempt to manage the perpetrator’s rage. This type of co-dependent behavior culminates with the victim abdicating his/her own personal sense of power and identity. Eventually, they become putty in the hands of the abuser.
Then, adding insult to injury, how many times does the victim hear the annoying question, “Why do you stay?” or “Why do you keep going back?” Not only is the victim being abused by the perpetrator, she/he is then again treated callously and critically by those who are observing the struggle. So here is the reason why the victim remains in or keeps going back to a violent relationship, be it emotional and/or physical. Brainwashing, that’s why!
Women or men who stay entangled with aggressor partners do so because they have become brainwashed by the aggressor over time. The method of brainwashing in a verbally abusive domestic relationship is no different from the method of brainwashing used with POW’s, cults or other victims held hostage. I know I am dating myself right now, but the case of Patty Hearst transforming into a member of the band of thugs who kidnapped her was due to some very effective brainwashing.
There are five characteristics to brainwashing and you will probably see them in any abusive relationship.
- Omnipotence: The abuser behaves and speaks as though he/she has all the power and the target has none. The abusive partner usually controls the money, the victim’s free time, the victim’s circle of friends and just about anything that is considered to be empowering.
- Threats: these can be direct or indirect in nature. Remarks like, “I’ll make sure everyone knows what a whack-job you are.”; “I’ll make sure you never see the kids.”; “Just try to get away and you’ll be sorry.”
- Futility of the situation: this is programmed into the victim by repeatedly hearing remarks like, “You’ll never amount to anything.”; “You’ll never make it on your own.”; “You’re too stupid to figure it out.”;”You don’t have enough money to make it on your own.”; “No-one will want you.”
- Isolation: By controlling the time, resources and psyche of the victim; the victim becomes more confused and fuzzy about what is true and what is not. He/she begins to isolate and remain disconnected from important sources of support, such as family and friends.
- An Occasional crumb: This is the biggest hook into staying with a loser-abuser because the victim falls prey to the magical thinking that based on some tiny nicety, maybe the aggressor will finally change.
This type of repetitive verbal and emotional abuse breaks the spirit of its victim. Over time, the abused partner is locked into a dissociated state. Picture a boxer being overpowered by the opponent and using every bit of energy they have left to cover their face and avoid being pummeled. Once the spirit of a person is broken, their ability to reach their higher thinking is blocked. They become prisoners in their relationships because they can not think clearly enough to create a strategy or an exit plan.
Supporting any victim of brainwashing begins with debriefing and then reprogramming with positive “counter-propaganda” so that the abused begin to build faith back into their abilities and become encouraged to take back their power. Without this important first remedy, the exit plan will never be created or put into action.
The Rapid Advance Series of books will soon be launching Just Stop Picking Losers! If you or someone you know is struggling under the negative effects of relationship brainwashing, it is a must-read and a great resource for restoring faith in oneself.
Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I came here from LinkedIn after seeing your comment about an abusive relationship discussion there. I have worked with many clients that are either in or have left an abusive relationship and this is one of the things we talk about that helps that survivor understand more about how the relationship got so bad. It has also been an invaluable approach when someone expresses to me that it is difficult to understand why a person stays in an abusive relationship. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “I would never put up with that” or “Why doesn’t she just leave?” when it just isn’t that simple, is it? When I put it in terms of brainwashing and the five characteristics you outline above, it is much easier for a person to see the complexity and difficulty of getting out of that situation.
I wish i had read about this much earlier in my working days with domestic violence victims. A woman would revisit the shelter many times and we get exasperated with her explanation. She does not know why she does it nor do we. What you said makes so much of sense and I could have conveyed just that and prevented much damage. i know much better now and would convey the message to the workers at the Shelter. Thank You.
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true true true. The control and abuse and intimidation escalates when we leave in order for them to try and get that control back – their egos are badly bruised by that. And by going back we actually have more control over it and are able to “manage” it better. We can see it coming, we can try to dodge it by appeasing their moods, we have more control over what is happening to our children. Leaving him was way more difficult than I ever imagined, and over a year later, with a restraining order in place etc etc, I still sometimes think that it would be easier if I just went back to him, as then I could have some semblance of control over the situation. Without a very supportive boyfriend now I would not have made it. I would have gone back, just to stop the intimidation – as by him thinking he is in control gives me more control over the abuse. Thank God I am out of it. Emotional and verbal abuse tears one apart, but in the long run has made me stronger.
My book “A Manic Marriage” might give some more insight about what we as emotionally abused women go through.