As children and in school we are raised under the rule of authoritarians in the form of parents and teachers, and in university, although we are allowed a bit more autonomy, we are still within the power of the faculty. On any given day, many individuals hold power over each one of us. From the Prime Minister to the police to our employer. But for the most part, the power those people or institutions hold over us is for our protection and is in our best interests.
When those people in our lives, whether it be at home, school, or work, begin to misuse that power or exert an excessive amount of authority, it becomes more than just looking after our best interests. It becomes abuse.
Often, people are not aware that the grip of abuse is tightening around them until it’s too late. Things start off well and fine, but then a comment comes. It seems innocent enough; they were just concerned about your whereabouts for safety reasons. Right?
And then, you’re not able to go out with friends this weekend because you had a row when you mentioned you wanted to meet your mates, and your partner didn't think it was such a good idea. Honestly, your partner doesn't trust your judgement sometimes and doesn’t want you around people who might compromise your integrity or morals. They’re just looking out for you.
And before you know it, you don’t even bother to ask to go out anymore, because nobody asks you to join them anymore. Because you said no too many times. Because it’s just easier that way. There are no fights if you make no requests. And there are no bruises if you just do everything your partner wants you to do. Or asks you to do. Or doesn't ask you to do, because you should just know by now what they want and expect. The equal partnership you were once a part of is now a one-sided domination, and you are not on the winning team.
And just like that, you’ve lost yourself.
Control and power in an abusive relationship
Although I’ve used a domestic partnership to illustrate one type of controlling and abusive relationship, there are many other types. Controlling or abusive relationships can happen at school, work, or home and the form of abuse can come in any combination of these:
Intimidation is the tool most often employed by an abuser to establish and maintain dominance over their victim. They exert their power in the form of coercive or controlling behaviours using various schemes to convince their victims they do not have an equal voice in the relationship.
Being masters of manipulation, abusers utilise a broad range of different tactics to subdue their victims including, but not limited to:
- psychological punishment: in the forms of guilt trips, silent treatment, swearing, and nagging
- traumatic tactics: explosive anger, violence, other forms of physical abuse
- positive reinforcement: smiling, gifts, and praise
- negative reinforcement
There is a rhythm cycle to the evolution of controlling and ongoing abuse, and in a condensed account this is how it usually goes:
Gain trust: The abuser wins their victim's trust by showering them with charm, attention, and loving behaviours
Over-involvement: The abuser begins to display an overly involved interest in their victim’s day to day activities
Patterns of jealousy and institution of petty rules: One by one, new rules affecting the victim’s “appropriate” behaviours are set in place and enforced by the abuser. Jealousy and possessiveness, of course, are demonstrations of love.
Power, control, and manipulation: At this point, the victim is coerced or manipulated into accepting blame for and believing they are the cause of the abuser’s behaviours
Traumatic bonding: Repeated cycles of abuse, followed by loving attention (reward and punishment often lead to traumatic bonding. When these bonds are firmly established both the abuser and their victim are resistant to any change in their relationship. This is evidenced by battered women who refuse to leave their abusive mates even after outside intervention.
How to break the cycle of abuse
Many victims of abuse become so conditioned by their victimiser's maltreatment that they genuinely believe they deserve the treatment they are being subjected to. It is important to know that nobody deserves to be abused or violated. The first step in breaking free from abuse is realising your self-worth and establishing a commitment to yourself to leave the relationship.
Leaving the abuser and staying away is often the hardest part of the entire recovery process for most victims.
Seeking outside help is almost always a necessity in successfully leaving an abuser. These are a few suggestions on what types of sources should be sought out while, or after leaving an abusive relationship:
- Call 000 for immediate assistance if you are in danger
- Legal Intervention: File a restraining order against your abuser
- Attend self-defence training: Learn how to protect yourself from violent attackers
- Confidant: Find a trustworthy person you can confide in and ask for help. This person can also serve as a "sponsor" to talk you through feelings of reconciliation toward your abuser
- Lifeline: Call 131 114, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732): 24 hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line.
- Department of Human Services – Apply for financial assistance, social work counselling, and third party referrals