If you are asking yourself this question, you are not alone. Many people find themselves in the same place and are unsure how they got here. Everything seemed great at the beginning of the relationship, and perhaps you felt you met your soul mate. So, what went wrong?
During first days or weeks of the relationship, maybe your new partner was very loving, wanting to spend lots of time together, often sending messages, declaring their love and planning your future together. Perhaps things progressed very quickly e.g., moving in together, planning a wedding, or maybe even choosing names for your future offspring.
If this scenario sounds familiar to you and reflects the first phase of a relationship you were in, or are in now, then read on. This type of relationship can also be characterised by increased demands for your time, e.g., face to face, over the phone, online etc. and requests that you spend less time with your family and friends and more time with your partner. Then, after a while, the relationship turns “ugly” and you might start to realise you have fallen in love with an abusive partner.
It is not your fault; you were manipulated into an unhealthy relationship with an abuser who is very skilled in coercive control.
The following quote describes one-way coercive control can be used by an abuser: “They are driven to get you committed and under their control as quickly as possible. By contacting you often and making sure each contact is as long as possible, an abuser will not give you sufficient time to reflect upon what is happening. You will be tired, and your thinking will be muddled.” (D. McMillan).
Following an intense courtship phase, abusive partner might start making comments about your friends and family e.g., ‘you don’t need them’, ‘why do you call your mum so often’. They could then move to giving you ‘advice’ about what to wear, the type of hairstyle to have, make up etc. You may notice your partner becoming jealous and explaining that this is only because they love you so much.
“If it’s too good to be true (it usually is)”, or as Dina McMillan, social psychologist who specialises in relationships and has a very powerful Ted Talk “Unmasking the abuser”, suggests: “If it is too good to be true, to quick, you probably should run”.
“Why do we stay in toxic relationships?” I hear you ask. By the time we realise that something is “off”, that “loving partner” has used so many manipulation tactics that we may think we can’t leave. Some of us probably think we don’t deserve any better, and might even think we are lucky to be with a person who sometimes gets jealous -because they ‘love me so much’.
Perpetrators of violence often use manipulation tactics in a subtle way and their partner doesn’t notice what is happening until many lines are already crossed e.g. we no longer have access to money as our partner has decided: “you are bad at it” and have stated that they “will look after it for you”. Or, when you haven’t seen your family for months, or no longer talk to your friends as “they are a bad influence on you”, or you experience some form of physical violence because we “made” them do it, we “kept pushing” until “we made them that angry”, and even though it was all our “fault”, they also feel bad about the fight and are “really sorry” now.
Abuse can take many different forms, and it’s not always clear what is happening when we are at the receiving end of manipulation and coercive control. Some of my clients have said: “On paper I should be really happy, and everyone from the outside sees a picture-perfect relationship, but the truth is that I feel shattered inside”.
Through therapy, I help my clients to understand what happened to them, with the use of the POWER AND CONTROL WHEEL (theduluthmodel.org) This is a visual representation of eight manipulation tactics commonly used by abusers.
Another useful perspective and visual tool I utilise to help people make sense of their experience is the “cycle of violence” framework by L. Walker “This is a tension reduction theory that states there are three distinct phases”.
I discuss with clients what is a healthy relationship and how we can manage conflict and disagreements in a manner in which dignity and respect of both parties remains intact.
I explain the “third entity” concept whereby two individuals work at building the third entity in their relationships (“Power to Change”).
“Within a relationship, there are two autonomous individuals with their own, but probably similar, interests and beliefs, and then there is the third entity, the couple. By having a third entity, the individuals do not need to be dominant or subordinate as there is freedom to be oneself.”
We take time to unpack the experience during sessions, in order to gain an understanding of what has happened. The best place to do this is in a non-judgemental space, with a therapist who has solid experience in working with people, both persons using violence, survivors of violence and children affected by violence, have completed relevant training and have a depth of knowledge on the subject.
If you, or someone you know, is in a toxic relationship, is planning to leave, or has left the relationship and is trying to rebuild their life, make sure to support them in reaching out for professional help with a therapist who specialises in helping people heal from the impacts of domestic and family violence, including coercive control and other manipulative and abusive behaviours.
Author: Ania Harnden, BSocialWork, AMHSW, EMDR Therapist
The Duluth Model https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/understanding-power-control-wheel/#outerring
Unmasking the abuser https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ythOTBEkUZM
L E.A Walker, 2017, “The Battered Women Syndrome”, 94
Dina L. McMillan, 2007, “But he says he loves me”, 43
“The Power To Change” Manual, 2008, This manual has been written and produced by the organisations participating in the Daphne project “Survivors speak up for their dignity – supporting victims and survivors of domestic violence, 2007-2009, 82