Lisa Aronson Fontes

In the News: "Victims of Sexual Violence Often Stay in Touch With Their Abusers. Here’s Why."

This past Friday, the New York Times explored why victims might stay in touch with their abusers and why many often struggle to leave abusive relationships. We are grateful to see they also mentioned some of the challenges victims face in the US court system, where men are believed more than women. Coercive control, of course, is often at the center of the answer to the "why?" question and the two experts interviewed for this piece do a great job of highlighting coercive control dynamics, even without using the actual term.

The piece features quotes from Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes, whose writings we have highlighted before on this blog, and Qudsia Raja, who is the policy director of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Their feedback is particularly important and this article is worth a read.

What Really Happens in a Controlling Relationship: The harsh reality of "perspecticide" in a coercive control relationship

This post has been republished with the permission of its author, Lisa Aronson Fontes. It can also be found at Psychology Today, where it was originally published. Links included in the original post have been maintained here.

Living with an abusive and controlling partner can feel like living in a cult—except lonelier. Victims' ** own viewpoints, desires, and opinions may fade as they are overwhelmed by the abusers'. Over time, they may lose a sense that they even have a right to their own perspectives. This is called perspecticide—the abuse-related incapacity to know what you know (Stark, 2007). Perspecticide is often part of a strategy of coercive control that may include manipulation, stalking, and physical abuse:

Deciding how you should spend your time.

Abusers make their partners narrow their worlds. Once isolated, it is easy to lose one's sense of self.

  • Doug *** insisted that Val watch him play video games rather than doing what she wanted. He demanded that he be the center of her attention at all times. Gradually she accepted this as an obligation.
  • Corey’s husband only “allowed” her to socialize along with him, with other couples. He did not permit her to leave the house without him, even to shop for food.
  • Whenever TeyShawn tried speaking on the phone or seeing friends or family, his boyfriend, Angelo, grew angry with him. After a while TeyShawn severely curtailed his social life; It just wasn’t worth the hassle.

Micromanaging.

Abusers insist on controlling minute aspects of their partners' lives. Over time, victims internalize the rules and forget what life was like when they were freer to make their own choices.

  • Herman drew up an extensive chores chart and insisted that Marta keep a detailed log of her activities.
  • Ken gave his partner, Steve, a list of expectations for his diet, workout routine, and grooming, and implied that their relationship would be over if he did not comply.
  • Darnell expected Sara to dress modestly when outside the home but insisted that she dress sexily when they were alone together. He told her to stop speaking to the cat, reading magazines, or sleeping on her back. He chose her makeup, dictated her bedtime, and weighed her daily. He meticulously controlled the way their house was organized, down to how towels were folded and food stored on the shelves. To avoid explosive conflict, Sara followed Darnell's demands and began to see them as "normal."

Defining you.

Abusers make their partners feel badly about themselves. Because they are isolated, people victimized by perspecticide begin to believe the negative descriptions of themselves and lose self-esteem.

  • Imani’s husband told her repeatedly that she was a gloomy, depressed person by nature. He told her that she was selfish to ask for changes in their marriage since she would never be happy anyway. Over time, she stopped asking.
  • Lori’s boyfriend told her she was oversexed and that he needed to keep an eye on her or she’d be out of control. He had sex with her at least once on most days, which was more than she wanted, but he told her it was what he needed to do to keep her “honest.” Over time, she stopped protesting the way he monitored and forced himself on her. She accepted the idea that the sex was “for her own good.”
  • Clarice’s husband, Dre, did not have a job for the first decade of their marriage. Clarice worked long days and when she returned home he berated her for “choosing work over family.” In front of the children, he defined her as cold, unloving, and nonmaternal. Clarice constantly felt obliged to prove that she was a good mother. The children joined their father in blaming Clarice for “not being around much,” as if she was making a deliberate choice to be out of the home for long stretches. In the evening, sometimes Dre would take away Clarice’s phone, saying, “Now you’re going to have to pay attention to us.”

Setting the terms of life in a couple.

Abusive partners create the expectations. The abuser demands certain acts as proof of love and over time, the person being victimized gives in.

  • Kelly’s husband insisted that they share a toothbrush and that they use the same water or wine glass at all meals. He couldn’t seem to tolerate her having anything that was hers alone. Kelly dreamed of being able to close the door when she showered but her husband wanted to be able to see her at all times.
  • Lily pushed her boyfriend to share all his social media and email passwords and when he refused, she secretly installed a keystroke logger so she could access them against his will. When he found out and confronted her, she replied, “Loving couples keep no secrets.” He gave up on the idea of Internet privacy.
  • Karen told Carmen that she should never say “no” to her; pleasing her should be her Number One and only priority. Carmen tried hard to follow this rule, and grew ashamed when she had longings of her own.

People subjected to perspecticide often blame themselves, as they feel despairing and disoriented. It can be hard for them to figure out exactly what’s wrong. Controlling partners serve as a filter for the outside world, gradually forcing their victims to lose the support of family, friends, and coworkers. Isolated and controlled in this way, victims lose self-esteem and have trouble remembering what they once thought, felt, and believed.

** If you're not comfortable with the terms "victim" and "abuser," feel free to substitute words that you prefer.

Written by Lisa Aronson Fontes

New Resource: Invisible Chains Blog

Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes' book Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship has been included on our Recommended Reading page. It is a wonderful resource for those who have experienced coercive control. Dr. Fontes has a doctorate in counseling psychology and has worked in the areas of child abuse, violence against women, and challenging family issues for over 25 years. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has presented on the topic of coercive control many times. 

Recently, we discovered that Dr. Fontes also has a blog, hosted through the Psychology Today website, where she writes regularly about coercive control. This blog is a great, digestible resource for those wanting to understand more about how coercive control functions within intimate relationships. We highly recommend checking it out!

A few recommended reads:

"Coercive control can be difficult to recognize. Many abusive people act charming and kind in public, while controlling, degrading, and intimidating their partners at home. A prenuptial agreement can reinforce their domination. "

"...All too often, abusers interfere with the lives of their former partners for months, years, or even decades after services and systems have moved on. People often treat domestic violence survivors who talk about what they are experiencing as if they are crazy, exaggerating, or making up stories. It is difficult for people to believe that the formal end of a relationship (such as moving out or a divorce) does not always mean the end of the abusive or controlling behavior. All too often, the abuse just takes on new forms."

"Away from family and childhood friends for the first time and with easy access to alcohol and drugs, college students may be especially vulnerable to the emotional manipulations of Coercive Control. The first step in helping young people avoid and escape from these stealth forms of abuse is to identify the problem."