We shouldn’t suffer in silence
To explain how the techniques discussed in Part 1 play out in real life, my recent experiences provide a useful case study in what can happen when you say “no” to an abuser – even one you no longer live with. Denial, manipulation, emotional blackmail, gaslighting, forced concessions, false misunderstandings, punishment by proxy – she pushed the boat out on this one!
When I left my abuser – when I was removed from the house for my own safety – she retained the children because she was right that ‘the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you’. Since then, she has used them to continue her campaign of coercion and control over me, and to punish me for having the temerity to leave.
Parties, extracurricular activities, family events, etc., all arranged in my time and emotional blackmail used to force me into giving up my time – ‘But she’s already told all her friends she’s going, she’ll be an outcast if you refuse, she’ll be the only one not there.’
There have been more than 40 such requests in 18 months i.e. more than one per fortnight or 100% of my weekends. That gives you an idea of what I’m dealing with: if she can shave an hour off here, an hour off there, or make me spend three hours hanging around outside a village hall, she feels like she’s winning and in control.
The number one tool she’s used to flex power over my life and independence has been my daughter’s dance classes, midday on a Saturday, three towns over, disrupting the one day a fortnight I have the children midnight to midnight. It means that every other weekend when I have them, we can’t go out for the day unless it’s Sunday and we have to rush back for handover; can’t go away for the weekend; can’t get to the beach early, thus avoiding the crowds; and have to spend two hours in traffic, with an hour of my son and me waiting in the car for her to finish. It is the last major weapon in my abuser’s arsenal, and I knew she wouldn’t give it up without a fight.
I endured this arrangement for two years, as I knew it would cause a ruckus and my daughter seemed to be enjoying it. Increasingly, however, she started to express her dislike of dance class, and began crying each time I took her. She wants to spend more of what little time we have together with me, not in a car and in a dance class she doesn’t particularly enjoy. She wants to go to zoos and camp out and build dens in the woods and visit her cousins overnight. I don’t blame her.
I emailed my abuser a very friendly message saying that as our daughter had expressed numerous times she no longer wanted to go to dance class and was becoming emotionally distressed as a result, I had decided to support her in this decision and would no longer take her to dance class. I offered to pay for the one remaining class of the term that we would miss and hoped she would understand, as I didn’t want it to turn into the situation we had the last time I said “no”, when I had to report her to the police for harassment.
My abuser composed a surprisingly thoughtful response. She said that our daughter had expressed the same to her and she had the same carry on over dance class; however, my daughter enjoyed dance class while she was there. She asked me to take our daughter to one more dance class or else she wouldn’t be able get her badge at the end of term and said that after this, she would reconsider dance class. I agreed to take her to that one last class.
On the day of the class, I received a text message from my abuser ‘reminding’ me the time of the class. It is always at the same time. It seems innocuous to an outsider, but abuse can be very subtle. It was intended to exert pressure on me, a coded message – make sure you take her – because once I make a concession, she can pretend I agreed to everything.
I replied that our daughter was crying again and reminded her that this would be the last time I took her to dance class. My abuser responded with incredulity, as though this was the first she was hearing of this. ‘What? Why won’t you take her anymore?’ The intention was to make me doubt myself, to feel as though I wasn’t clear. This puts me on the back foot and her in the position of power. Acting as though nothing has changed is a subtle threat: if you push this, I am going to be difficult; it’s too much effort; give up now.
When I attended the class, it turned out that my daughter didn’t need to go that day in order to get her badge – she would have received it the following week regardless. I had been lied to, manipulated into taking her to that class so my abuser could leverage it into the next phase of the plan.
I knew it wouldn’t be the end, so I was prepared for the email I received the following week. It was about how all my daughter’s friends go to dance class, and she would be left out and not invited to parties if she didn’t attend. My abuser said that she believed extracurricular activities were important for a child’s personal and social development and I would therefore damage our daughter, causing her to suffer emotional and psychological problems should I deny her these opportunities.
Since my abuser struggles to string two sentences together, it was clearly written by someone else (her equally abusive parents – it is very easy to discern their writing style from hers). They know that I know she didn’t write it, the message being clear: if you resist, you will be up against the entire family, and given the last house we sold brought us £20 million, we have far more resources than you.
An email like this also indicated she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had said I would no longer take our daughter to dance classes, or else she wouldn’t need to employ emotional blackmail.
And the ‘damage’ I’ll cause my daughter? It’s my belief that forcing a child to go to classes when she wants to spend quality time with the daddy she only sees rarely is far more damaging, particularly when she already goes to FIVE other clubs!
For the next couple of weeks, she was very nice to me – friendly, almost. She complimented me on my appearance; she made pleasant conversation at handovers; she thanked me for everything I did for the children, which was a massive red flag. I knew I was being buttered up for the next attack.
More emotional blackmail/manipulation
It went quiet for a couple of weeks, and then came the next attack. She asked if I would take my son to football classes on Saturday afternoons two towns away, as it was ‘only fair’ to give him the ‘same opportunities’ we had ‘agreed’ to give our daughter for the past few years. My son already goes to three other classes.
The highly manipulative language makes it obvious that, having lost her weapon to control my life on my weekends with the children, she was trying to unsheathe another one. Once I agreed to give up Saturday afternoons, she could leverage that into giving up my morning/lunchtime for dance class as well. ‘Well, you’re already over there,’ she could say. And then my weekends would never again be my own.
I said no. I emailed her to explain that now I had free Saturdays with the children, I would be taking them to museums and theme parks and castles and forests; we would go away camping and see mountains and swim in lakes and play in rivers: wholesome activities all children should be able to enjoy. Again, I assumed that was pretty clear.
She texted me immediately: ‘That’s okay about football, but you are still taking our daughter to dance classes, aren’t you.’
What? If I refused to take our son to football on a Saturday so we had free weekends, why on earth would she think I intended to take my daughter to dance class on a Saturday? She didn’t think it: it was a game. The false misunderstanding destabilises you. It makes you doubt yourself. Was I not clear?
It shows that the football had nothing to do with my son, or fairness, or opportunities, and everything to do with power.
When I said no, and told her I had stated many times that I would not take our daughter to dance class, my abuser erupted. According to her, I hadn’t ever told her I wouldn’t take our daughter to dance class: a clear, out-and-out lie in the face of incontrovertible, written evidence.
Then came an act of pure, mind-blowing gaslighting: she sent me a screen grab of a message where I said ‘I will no longer take her to dance class’ and captioned it: ‘See? You never said you wouldn’t take her to dance class.’
What. The. Hell. I read it twenty times. Was it in any way unclear? Was I going crazy? How could a message reading ‘I will no longer take her to dance class’ be used as evidence that I hadn’t said I will no longer take her to dance class?
I reiterated that the answer was no, and that after telling her numerous times by both text and email, and having explained my reasoning, I would no longer discuss it.
Punishment by proxy
I had anticipated all of these reactions. When I lived with her, they would have included threats of violence, actual violence, shouting, screaming, enlisting others to put pressure on me, damaging my reputation, etc. They would also have included threats against my chilsren, so I should have factored that into my analysis, but I hadn’t expected her to go there.
Because she couldn’t punish me, she punished my daughter. Because she couldn’t explode on me, she exploded on her, screaming and shouting, “How dare you say you don’t want to go to dance class? After all the money I’ve spent on you! After everything I’ve done for you! How dare you disrespect me? You’re such an ungrateful little girl!’
And then – to show you that my abuser isn’t the most effed-up person in that family – her dad came over to shout at my daughter and tell her she would never see him again because of how horrible she was. Then my abuser’s mother came over to shout at my daughter, “How dare you treat my baby girl like this?” …my abuser being in her mid-thirties. How sick is that?
I feel incredible guilt over my abuser punishing my children over my actions, as I am clearly meant to. People assure me it isn’t my fault – I can’t control what she does, I have to maintain my boundaries or she’ll abuse me all my life, and she alone bears the responsibility for how she behaves towards my children – but that doesn’t make it feel any better.
My abuser hates to lose. It makes her feel weak and insecure. Dominating others, being in control, is essential to her sense of wellbeing. She doesn’t compromise or come to an understanding – there can only be success or failure.
So losing this battle – at least for now – led her to try to steal time elsewhere. She suggested that instead of a Saturday, she could take both children to tennis class on a Friday evening and drop them to me at bedtime, thus slicing three hours off the start of my weekend. She phrased it as though she was doing me a favour by ‘letting me off’ the Saturday…even though I wasn’t obliged to do the Saturday anyway! The ‘compromise’ was for me to give up my Friday evening every weekend I have my children; for her to take three hours from what little time we spend together; and for her to continue to wield power over my ability to live an independent life.
I said no.
Her evident existential discomfort has manifested itself in manifold ways since. She refused to let the children contact me while we’re apart; tried to strip a whole week from me over the summer holidays (and tried to guilt-trip me by saying she’d booked things for the children); tried to shorten one of my weeks by a day; and then, after agreeing to our schedule, tried to slice another two days off the end of the holiday. It’s nothing new (40 requests in 18 months) but the frequency of the requests and the amount of time requested is certainly out of the norm.
It’s constant, demoralising and it’s exhausting, especially when you know that every time you say no, there’ll be another request, and another, and another, and they’ll all be filled with blackmail, denial, manipulation, gaslighting, and my children will get caught in the middle. That’s the point – she’s trying to wear me down until I no longer have the will to resist, and then she can take, take, take. And it will never end – at least, not until the children leave home, though I’m sure it will continue long after that.
Manipulating the Children
Lastly, she has done something really twisted. She bought my daughter a new dance outfit, ‘for when she resumes her dance lessons.’ She’s bought them both tennis outfits for ‘when their tennis classes start.’
As with punishing them in order to punish me: how sick is that?
The only way to survive is to persevere. Hold the course. Realise it’s a game and refuse to play along. Set your boundaries and don’t compromise. Be polite but don’t allow social convention to make you vulnerable to exploitation.
Expect an abuser to act like an abuser and you won’t be surprised when they try to abuse you. Expect a manipulator to manipulate and you’re prepared for when they try to manipulate you. When they’re nice, remind yourself it’s a ploy. When they’re nasty, remember it’s their issue and their insecurity, not yours.
I’m not going to lie – it’s hard – but walking your own path instead of someone else’s, being true to yourself and your values and beliefs, means your self-respect can weather the storm, and your self-worth isn’t on the table.
One day it will be over, and the children will understand. Until then, put your shoulders back, hold your head up high, and keep the faith.
Saying “no” to an abuser is always a red flag to a bull. It takes guts to say it, knowing that this simple word will result in an explosion, at a time to be determined by another. But saying it is something we must do if we don’t want others continually damaging us.
“No” might bring about our death, but it is also necessary for our survival.
To understand why this word is so dangerous, and why abusers hate it so much, you need to understand what it represents. “No” is a boundary, a line that you are saying will not be crossed. It is a declaration of your own agency and power.
Abusers hate boundaries. They hate you having any power over your own life. They view you as property, as things to be dominated, and when you say “no”, it shows that you are not entirely under their control and they are not the masters of all they survey. The insecurity and vulnerability in these monsters cannot allow this independence of thought to continue unchecked. It’s a threat to their sense of self. Poor little darlings.
To most abusers, “no” is just a bump on a path that leads to “yes”. ‘You might say no,’ they think, ‘but I will get my own way. You will back down. I will win.’ Bullies are conditioned to think this way, because life constantly gives them evidence that this works. Every time they successfully override another’s boundaries, it validates this kind of behaviour, and reinforces their potential to do it again. That’s why a leopard never changes its spots, and once an abuser, always an abuser.
How do they get you to say yes when you already said no?
They have various tools at their disposal, various tactics, some blatant and some hidden, some violent and some insidious. My borderline ex exposed me to all sorts of different tactics and techniques over the years we were together, and those when we weren’t. There is no one-size-fits-all. All they have in common is a deliberate, pernicious, evil disregard of your boundaries and your selfhood to meet their own selfish needs.
The quickest, simplest way is starting with the behavioural explosion. Within seconds of asserting yourself, you find yourself caged with a wild animal. Physical violence, verbal abuse, threats, shouting – it doesn’t matter which. Your abuser shuts you down quickly, reminds you who is in charge and shows you what happens should you dare to forget it.
It’s terrifying staring into the face of the beast, and they know that. That’s why they do it. Flooded with fear and discomfort, you’re likely to agree to anything, just to feel safe in this particular moment. No matter how much saing “yes” will harm you further down the line, all you can think of in the face of this aggression is surviving right now.
The explosion in public is a different beast, with humiliation, rather than threat, the primary goal. Generally, this has a gender-specific dimension due to how society at large responds to abuse. Experiments using scripts and actors show that when male abusers are aggressive to female victims, strangers tend step in and intervene. When the exact same scripts are gender-swapped and it is a female abusing a male, strangers point, laugh, whip out their cameras, and enjoy the show.
In my experience as a male survivor of domestic abuse, the public explosion was one of the worst experiences. People look at you as though you caused it; as though you provoked it; when all you did was say, “No.” People staring, pointing, laughing at you while your abuser shouts at you, is horrible, isolating, and soul-destroying. You say “yes” just to make it stop. You say “yes” whenever you’re in a public place because you’re terrified of a repeat showing. They know that – that’s why they do it. They can just give you a look – a look that says, “if you say no, I’m going to humiliate you in front of all these people ” – and you meekly go along with whatever they want.
Denial is a subtler tactic. They simply ignore your refusal and keep acting as though you said yes. The thinking is, ‘if I ignore it, they’ll eventually forget they said no’ or ‘they’ll soon realise it’s not worth the effort resisting.’ This can be used in conjunction with gaslighting in order to undermine your confidence in yourself and your decisions. “But you never said no! You agreed to it, don’t you remember?” Plus the behavioural explosion: “Why are you refusing to do this when you agreed to it? You’re ruining our plans for nothing!”
Another tactic is forcing a concession from you. “You don’t want to go? Well how about just for five minutes?” As soon as you agree – you concede – your abuser acts as though you agreed in full. They’ll either take advantage – when you arrive, five minutes becomes the full three hours that you refused to do – or again try gaslight you into thinking that, by conceding, you actually agreed.
Emotional blackmail is a given when an abuser is faced with a negative. “After all I’ve done for you. Why are you so unkind to me? Don’t you love me? Why can’t you just do this one little thing for me?” Or using the kids: “You’ll really upset your daughter if you don’t do what I want. Do you want to hurt your daughter? You’ll screw her up. None of the other children will like her unlesss you do as I say.” You feel guilty for having boundaries.
There is often an element of bribery to this. They start being nice to you, reminding you of just how good things can be. They buy you things. They offer sexual favours. They turn into the ideal partner. Then, when they revisit your refusal, you feel obligated to walk back on your “no”. Things are going so well, you’re afraid to rock the boat. Life will be more pleasant if you just say yes.
Abother subtle technique is something I call the ‘false misunderstanding‘. That’s where they hear what you say but wilfully ‘misunderstand’ it and act as though you agreed. Then, when it’s time do the thing you’ve already refused to do, they pretend that you weren’t clear – therefore, you’re saying “no” right at the last minute, and how can that be fair? Or they reveal they’ve already paid for it and can’t cancel, so you’re obligated to go along with it. This is another form of psychological abuse: it makes you doubt yourself, and wonder if you really were clear about things – when, of course, you were.
Announcing things in public – things you’ve already refused to do – employs peer pressure, shame and humiliation. You agree to go a park with friends on the condition you don’t go to a restaurant afterwards. As soon as you reach the park, she says, “By the way, I’ve booked the restaurant for 2 o’clock.” Now, if you hold them to the boundary you set, you appear awkward, churlish and difficult. Your abuser wins again.
Abusers often use outright lies to you to get you to agree to things, and lie about what you agreed to. You agree to visit their family for the day. When you arrive, you discover it’s actually for three days. “But I told you it was three days, don’t you remember? You never listen to me. It was always three days and you agreed to it.” How do you argue with someone who can’t be honest about what they’re doing and about you’ve said and done? You can’t maintain boundaries when you’re in a maze of deception.
There are often threats involved when you say no. “Do it or I’ll divorce you. Do it or I’ll hit you. Do it or I’ll abort your baby. Do it or I’ll tell everyone you hit me. Do it or I’ll take away your children. Do it or I’ll turn them against you.” Whether or not they’ll act on these threats is immaterial: all that matters is that you believe they’ll act on them. Fear makes you fall in line.
And lastly, the horrible tactic: full-blown gaslighting. They show you the text message you sent them that says, “No, I won’t do that,” and say, “See? It doesn’t say you won’t do that. You never said you wouldn’t.” So your mind boggles. You think, ‘was I not clear?’ You read and re-read your text, searching it for ambiguity. How could they use your literal refusal as evidence that you never refused? You feel like you’re taking crazy pills. Nothing makes sense!
Through these cunning, aggressive, manipulative – evil – methods, an abuser makes your boundaries porous, pokes holes in your sense of self, and runs roughshod over your refusal to obey. The word “no” really dies leas to “yes” – at least in their minds.
Is there anything you can do about it?
Frankly – sadly – no. Once an abuser, always an abuser. You can’t fix people. Someone who doesn’t respect your boundaries doesn’t respect you, and they never will. The only way to escape this torment is to escape, physically, mentally and emotionally. Leave. Call the police. Go to a refuge. No matter how hard that is, staying is harder.
Unfortunately, leaving an abuser is the ultimate “no”, and you can expect all of the above behaviours and threats to jump into overdrive either to draw you back or to punish you. The only way to protect yourself is to go ‘no contact’ as every communication will be filled with manipulation, blackmail, threats. Every communication with an abusive ex is a danger to your physical and mental wellbeing and you have to protect yourself.
When you have children together, it gets trickier. You can’t ‘no contact’ because you have to keep the lines of communication open. In that case, you have to dig deep, remain firm, keep discussions to an absolute minimum and only about the children, insist that this is all done in writing so that you have a record of what was said, and second guess everything they tell you, because everything is likely part of a larger plan to get you to say “yes.”
Look after yourselves. The most important thing in this is you.
How does all this work in practice?
Check out a real life case study of these tactics in Part 2 for a demonstration of what happens when you say no, what to look out for, and how you can resist.
Co-parenting with an abuser isn’t co-parenting: it’s a war.
Abusers – sociopaths, narcissists, borderlines – can’t relate to other people, can’t feel empathy, and have no restraints on how they treat others. Lacking meaningful, reciprocal, loving relationships, their lives are reduced to one thing: winning. For them to win, somebody has to lose.
Unfortunately, that person is you.
This win-lose dichotomy dictates how they approach parenting. Everything is a competition that results in either victory or defeat. There is no acceptable difference; there’s no agree to disagree and both views are valid; there is a straight line with zero deviation.
My son says, ‘I love daddy.’ My ex hears this as ‘I don’t love mummy.’ If they say they like the toys I bought them for Christmas, she hears that as ‘I don’t like the toys mummy got me,’ so she goes out and buys those exact toys so they have nothing at my house she doesn’t have at hers. If they say they’re looking forward to something I’m taking them to, she takes them to it first.
The children asked if they could call me if they wanted to. ‘Of course,’ I said. I asked my ex to let them call me if they wanted to. She refused. They don’t call her on the one day out of every fourteen they don’t see her, so she will not let them ring me on the rest because that would be ‘unfair’.
I guess my question is: unfair to whom? Certainly, it’s unfair to the children, who want to talk to me. But the welfare of the kids never comes into it.
When my daughter has to go home to her mummy, she cries because she doesn’t want to leave me. It breaks my heart. So, trying to be a good co-parent, I told my ex about this and asked her how we could smooth this transition. Her response? ‘She cries when has to go to you too.’ Nothing to help the situation, no empathy for her daughter’s tears, nothing but another fucking battle.
Can you imagine how fragile your ego must be to constantly live on the defensive? Can you imagine how dissatisfied with yourself you must be to have your pride so easily wounded? Can you imagine just how aware of your own shortcomings you are to constantly scream, ‘You’re not better than me, you’re not better than me, you’re not better than me’?
And that really cuts to the crux of the problem. Being a good parent is immaterial – being better than me, or rather, being seen to be better than me is all important.
The problem she faced when we lived together was that she wasn’t better than me – far from it. She hated me for being and doing what she couldn’t. No matter how many times I told her it was a team effort and we were on the same side, it didn’t matter – the only way she could be the ‘good’ parent was to convince the world that I was the ‘bad’ parent.
Of course, this was a hard sell, because everybody knew I was a great dad. Everybody. Especially the kids. They loved me and respected me more than her, because I put in the time, I laid the groundwork, and I was their full-time parent 24/7, while she dipped in and out here and there, never after 9pm or before 8am, never when they were ill or upset, and never when people weren’t looking.
She could have worked to earn their respect; could have worked on her parenting abilities; could have co-parented with me. But that was too much effort.
So she decided to destroy me instead. That way, she would be the only parent, making her the ‘good’ parent by default. It didn’t matter if she damaged the children in the process. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t cut out for single parenthood. The only way to achieve ‘victory’ in the parenting war was to crush me, break my spirit, turn my children against me, and then throw me to the wolves. So that’s what she set out to do.
She came close. I have PTSD as a result of what she did to me, and after I was removed from the house for my own safety, she and her family did everything they could to alienate me from my children. They did everything they could to break me, to make me walk away, things so heinous, I thought that I might die.
But I clung on. With all their millions, they weren’t able to shake me loose. I might have been penniless, male, with no family name to rely on, but there was no chance I was ever going to walk away from my children. I might only have ended up with every other weekend, but I’ve managed to maintain the continuity of my relationship with my children.
They might have been able to convince a judge that she was the more suitable parent to live with, because she was rich, owned the family home, could afford a nanny, and was a woman; they might have been able to convince people who didn’t know me that I was a horrible guy and a worse father; but they were never able to turn my children against me.
My children know I’m a great dad. And that continues to drive her insane.
If co-parenting with an abuser you live with is tough, co-parenting with an abuser you don’t live with is ten times There isn’t even the pretence of a discussion. There’s no negotiation, no consideration, no meeting in the middle.
Every issue I raise is treated as a declaration of war. Every suggestion I make is rejected purely because I suggested it. Courts, Children’s Services, they seem to think that if separated parents aren’t communicating, they’re both equally to blame, but gosh darn it, one person can cause all the trouble entirely by themselves.
Co-parenting with an abuser is a cold, hard, emotionally-draining and heartbreaking slugfest. Every reasonable request you make for the children is unreasonably refused, regardless of the emotional damage it causes. My daughter says she hates her mum; her mother is a liar; she wants to come live me. How do I make her life easier when my ex punishes her for loving me?
I don’t regret having children with my ex, because creating my children are the greatest thing I have ever done in this world. But I wish to God I didn’t have co-parent with her. Co-parenting with an abuser leads only to pain.
Yet, in a way, abusers sew the seeds of their own downfall. My children already see the difference between their mother and me. They already know that their mother is unkind, unstable and a nightmare to live with. How are they going to feel about her when they’re older? She will find herself a lonely old lady with children who won’t talk to her, and me? I’ll be the proudest grandad you ever did see.
I said “no” to my ex the other day. She sent me a string of nasty texts, but couldn’t hurt me directly. So instead, she took it out on my children.
Abusers use any means at their disposal to control, coerce, belittle, humiliate, degrade and damage you. They know that your children present a weak spot in your defences, because you’re normal, and you love your children, and you’d do anything to protect them from harm. They exploit this vulnerability to take advantage of you, because unlike you, they have no compunction about causing their children harm, so long as it facilitates its aim of punishing you.
My abuser weaponised the children before she was even pregnant. When we were trying for a baby, she told me that if I didn’t get her pregnant, she’d end the relationship. Once our daughter was born, she told me that if I didn’t like the way she was treating me, I knew where the door was, but she’d get custody because ‘the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you.’
When she was pregnant with our son and I was offered a job, she told me she would abort our baby if I accepted it. If I asked her to give the children a bath, she told me I had to do it or she’d leave them unattended in the bathtub. When I made plans to see friends, she told me she would go out and leave the children home alone, forcing me to cancel.
The children were a means to control me: to keep me jobless; to isolate me; to force me to remain in a situation where I was being abused; to coerce me into doing every night feed for five years, every bedtime and almost all the baths; household chores; pay for everything; do anything she wanted me to do. My children were a means to turn me into a slave.
But it was worse than that. She used them to damage me emotionally as well, trying to break me down to make her feel good. Abusers are so painfully insecure, they live in a dichotomy of win/lose. If their victim is happy, that means the abuser is unhappy. If the victim is loved, it means the abuser is unloved. If the victim is successful, or popular, or liked, it means the abuser is a failure. And they can’t allow that.
That’s why they abuse. The more they push you down, the more they raise themselves up. So undermining you with your children; threatening your children; telling your children lies about you; making your children lie to you; and turning your children against you, are how they feel good. By the end, I was circling the drain, clinging on by my fingertips, and still it wasn’t enough. She wouldn’t be happy until I was broken, so she pried those fingers loose one by one.
After I was removed from my home for my own safety – after the victim is forced to flee in the night, and as a man, generally without the children – my abuser, as all abusers, gained a new weapon: she could control access my children, and therefore continue to control me, punish me, and thereby make herself feel good, even though I was no longer physically within her reach.
The abuse doesn’t end when you leave – it just takes on a new form.
You will see them four hours per week, at times that are convenient to me, in locations chosen by me, and only under conditions that I impose, otherwise you will not see them, despite having parental responsibility and an entitlement to 50% of their time. It has nothing to do with their welfare and everything to do with punishing you for leaving.
No, you can’t have them 50% of holidays. You will have the crumbs that are left over around the plans I have made.
No, you can’t see them on their birthdays. No, they can’t speak to you on the phone. No, I will not share the handovers – you will collect them and return them.
Of course, I took her to court – her whole family, really – and lost, because she was overwhelmingly right: the courts do side with the mother, and her multimillionaire parents could indeed afford better lawyers than me. But I secured every other weekend – four nights a month, as though that is fair to the children – and 50% of holidays. And that drives her insane.
She doesn’t like being told what to do. She doesn’t like that I have rights. So she continues to use the children to control, chipping away a few hours here and there, because that means she has escaped anybody else’s control and can remain in the seat of power.
She texts me when I have the children to ‘remind’ me of things I already do anyway and to provide information I’m already aware of – ‘make sure they clean their teeth, I want them to have a hair wash, their party is at 2, don’t forget I’m picking them up at 4’ – all so that she can disturb what little time I have with them and continue to exert a modicum of control.
She accepts invitations to every party they’re invited to, even if they barely know the person, to disrupt my weekends. She tries to book clubs in my time, and throws a hissy fit when when I refuse to take them – texts, emails, threats, solicitors letters – and employs emotional blackmail, saying the kids will be damaged by not going to these things, even though they don’t want to go.
She took away my Father’s Day by arranging my son’s birthday party on that day, inviting everybody in his class, and then saying, ‘Oh, sorry, I forgot. But it’s done now, and he’ll be so upset if we cancel.’ Even though she was breaking the court order, what could I do? If I insisted on my rights, she would tell my son he couldn’t have a birthday party because daddy wouldn’t let him.
If you’re prepared to use your children to hurt the other parent, court orders aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
The last bugbear between me and my abuser, the last major element of control she exerted over my life, was my daughter’s dance lessons. Midday on a Saturday, right in the middle of the only day I have the children midnight to midnight, three towns away, meaning we could never go out for the day, go away for the weekend, go anywhere, really, without having to hurry back for handover.
Every time the term would end, she’d book the next. If she didn’t want to take her, because she had plans for Saturday, that was fine; but if I ever dared not take her, boy, was I in for trouble.
I took my daughter to dance lessons for two years. For the past six months, she has been saying she doesn’t want to go. Of course she doesn’t; she sees me so rarely, she doesn’t want to waste three hours of a Saturday doing something she doesn’t particularly enjoy.
I knew it would cause a ruckus, but I waited until the end of term, and told my abuser I would no longer take my daughter to dance class. My weekends with the children will now be my weekends with the children, as I am entitled to.
Cue the behavioural explosion, the nastiness, the manipulation, the threats, because she doesn’t want to give up the last major weapon in her arsenal to control my life. It’s made worse by the realisation of her own impotence: she can’t make me do things anymore. I have escaped her control. If life is a win-lose dichotomy, then she well and truly lost this one. So I was prepared for the nastiness.
I wasn’t prepared for her to take it out on my daughter. Because she couldn’t hurt me, control me, coerce me; because she could no longer make me her lapdog; she exploded on her.
She is being punished by my abuser – her own mother – because I won’t take her to dance class anymore. She is being punished by my ex’s entire family, because I won’t take her to dance class anymore. They can’t punish me, so they are punishing my daughter by proxy.
She is bearing the brunt of my abuser’s rage, alone, behind closed doors, in a house with no witnesses, and I know exactly how frightening that can be. There is nothing I can do to protect her.
My daughter is six.
The reality of having children with an abuser is that they will be harmed. My actions in protecting myself from controlling and coercive behaviour means my children will suffer as a consequence. So all I can do is offer them a safe place on my weekends, shower them with the love and affection they don’t receive at home, and pray that this is the last time they are caught in the crossfire.
A forlorn hope: I just have to be there to pick up the pieces, trust in their resilience, and pray that she doesn’t traumatise them as much as she traumatised me.
I’m in imminent danger of physical attack. I don’t know where it’s coming from. I don’t know who is doing it. But within the next few seconds I’m going to have to make a choice between fight or flight.
My body is flushed with epinephrine and noradrenaline. My heart pounds, my muscles jitter, I feel sick to my stomach. I am hypersensitive to every sound, knowing it presages an incoming attack – voices, car engines, footsteps. I am ready to face a life-and-death struggle that is about to tear my world apart.
Except I’m not in any danger, at all. I am completely safe. I just think and feel as though my life is on the line.
I’m having an episode of PTSD – locked in something called hyperarousal – and boy, it’s the worst I’ve ever had. I’m on high alert, expecting any minute, any second, to be the victim of actual bodily harm. And knowing it’s not real does nothing to stop my body behaving as if it’s real.
Since there is no threat, no fight and no flight, these hormones, this stress reaction, can’t dissipate, keeping me stuck on the edge of the precipice, bursting with energy, muscles twitching, bowels emptying. Then it turns inwards, pushing me into panic, tightening my chest, making it a struggle to breathe. Hypervigilant for signs of danger, my nerves stretched to breaking point, terrified every second that I’m being attacked.
It has been five days now and I can’t switch it off, no matter how many times I tell myself that I’m safe. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think about anything other than my fear and the danger I feel I’m in.
Five days I’ve been jumping at every noise – doors closing, a neighbour’s TV, my stomach rumbling. Paranoid, now, after so long, that people really mean me harm. Hearing threats in the cooing of pigeons; in the screams of foxes; in the wind blowing through the trees. Interpreting every outside stimulus as though it’s going to kill me.
I’m terrified, exhausted, unable to function, trembling as I force myself to cook dinner, unable to eat more than a mouthful. Midnight, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, the hands circle the dial and I go around with it, wired, strung out, nauseous.
Nothing distracts me. This is like being stuck in a horror film – being hunted by a shadow through a haunted house with all the exits nailed shut and escape a diminishing possibility.
I’ve tried to run. I took myself into the countryside to escape from my thoughts. I tried to practice mindfulness and meditation while communing with nature – anything to get my body to calm down, regulate itself, and revert back to its proper state. All I did was obsess over every potential danger I might be in or might ever be in.
I know I’m not in any danger, but my body acts as though I am and my mind follows suit, imagining dangers so visceral that I get into a feedback loop of bad feelings leading to bad thoughts to bad feelings to bad thoughts, over and over, forever escalating, never shutting down.
I manage my life to avoid potential triggers. I’m successful for months at a time. It lies dormant for months, and then it’s suddenly triggered, and I am back there again, back in the trauma, reacting as though it’s all happening again.
I know what triggered it this time: I said “No” to my ex, my abuser, provoking a slew of text messages, followed immediately by hearing the man upstairs shouting at his wife. Two events – a handful of angry and manipulative text messages, and a voice raised in anger – neither of which places me in harm’s way, and neither of which should be anything more than a nuisance and an annoyance. Yet together, they unlocked a door that I was fighting to keep shut.
Since then, I’ve been so on edge, I feel like my mind is falling apart, that my safe space, my home, the thing that was keeping me together, is no longer a haven, it’s been invaded by the anger of the man upstairs, by my ex bringing her abuse into my own living room through my phone, and now every sound is his voice, her voice, the voices of all the traumas I’ve ever experienced, and I’m a child again, lying in bed, paralysed with fear; I’m a teenager, listening to the violence downstairs; I’m in my twenties, locking myself in my room as glass breaks and wood smashes; I’m in my thirties, desperately trying not to say or do anything that might provoke my abuser into exploding on me again, hurting me, or taking it out on the children.
I don’t know what to do. Five days of the worst terror I’ve felt in my life. I’ve thought of asking my doctor for sedatives. I’ve thought of falling to my knees and praying to anything that might listen. I’ve thought of ringing a crisis line to have myself taken to a psych ward, but how would that impact my access to my children? They live with my abuser, the one who caused my PTSD, and she would seize on this as ammunition to take away the only good thing left in my life, like she took away everything else. So what the hell do I do?
Don’t ever underestimate the effect of long-term physical, mental and emotional abuse. Don’t ever think that because someone didn’t go to war, didn’t see people maimed and killed in battle, that they have not been damaged beyond the point they can lead a normal life. These are the struggles we go through, unsupported, ignored, maligned, stigmatised, written off and misunderstood.
I just hope to god I calm down soon.
As time goes on, you dare to believe that life is getting better. Things calm down with your abuser. They start acting like a reasonable, rational person and you no longer dread the sight of them at childcare handovers and sports day. You become comfortable with the way things are. It’s not what you wanted, but it’s bearable.
You forget you have PTSD. You forget what they did to you. It’s hard to bear a grudge when they’re being so nice. It takes so much energy to keep your defences up, to always be on the lookout for the next cutting blow. So you let down your guard. You start to think that they’re not so bad. Maybe you exaggerated things. Maybe things are going to be okay after all.
That’s when they pull the world out from under your feet. Again.
I don’t know why I fall for it every time; why I allow myself to be lulled into a false sense of security. I should know better by now. One of my rules is ‘always expect an abuser to behave as an abuser, then you won’t be surprised when they behave as an abuser’. So why do I let her do this to me?
I know that the pleasant upward surge is really just the wave she sucks me in on, lifting me high so that she can crash me down into the rocks. I’m an expert in this. I’ve experienced it a hundred times. Yet every time, it seems so unexpected.
The repetition heaps humiliation on top of the pain she causes. The truth is, I’m not angry with her. She is what she is. No, I’m angry with myself. I feel like such a fool. I am so upset with myself. I thought I was smarter than this. I am ashamed of how vulnerable I am to her manipulation; of how I can’t maintain my boundaries; of how easily she can pull the wool over my eyes.
I’ve been told I need to start taking responsibility for my behaviours in relation to my abuser. I’ve been told I need to stop allowing her to toy with my emotions and stop reacting to what she does – essentially, to toughen up. But this is victim-blaming at its finest. I didn’t ‘allow’ her to abuse me for 12 years, in the same way a rape victim doesn’t ‘allow’ her attacker to violate her. The blame is on the attacker, on the abuser. The responsibility lies on the manipulative sociopath who enjoys exploiting my good nature, turning my virtues into vulnerabilities and revelling in the destruction she causes. She is the one with something wrong with her, not me.
And yet, while the blame lies entirely upon the abuser, there is perhaps a modicum of truth in the suggestion that as abuse survivors, we have a responsibility to learn how to protect ourselves. Our abusers will never stop wanting to abuse us, and our natures are such that we will always be at risk, no matter how remote, to their further machinations, so I have added to my rules of social interaction.
1. Always expect an abuser to behave as an abuser, then you won’t be surprised when they behave as an abuser.
2. Be polite, be firm, but do not be friendly, or you’ll mistake them for a friend.
3. Safety is more important than keeping things amicable.
4. If things seem to be going well, raise your defences and prepare to be attacked.
5. Don’t think of them as your ex, the person you love(d), the mother of your children; think of them as ‘your abuser’ and never forget that’s what they are.
Armed with these rules, I hope to keep my abuser at arm’s length so that she can never again pick me up on the crest of a wave and slam me down into the rocks; she can never again sucker me into believing things could be amicable between us; and I will never again question whether the fault lies with the abuser and her nature, or with me and mine.
My domestic abuse support group was cancelled two months ago. Let me make that clearer: the only support group for male survivors of domestic abuse for at least a hundred miles suddenly and unexpectedly abandoned us.
There was no warning, no fanfare, no real explanation. On the day of the group, mere hours before it started, those of us who were relying on it for our mental health and our recovery received a text message from the organisation to say that, ‘effective immediately’, the group was cancelled for the next six weeks as staff were needed to cover holidays elsewhere (i.e. the refuge and the women’s support groups). In the meantime, here’s a number to call if you’re in crisis. The end.
We asked why. We asked for an explanation. Nobody replied.
I attended the group every week for eighteen months. For eighteen months, I cried, raged, debated, learned, and started to heal. During that time, I went through suicidal crises, episodes of self-harm, binge-eating disorder, PTSD. The group always had my back. It was immensely reassuring to know that, once a week for two hours, I could sit with people who understood. Who shared my pain. Who told me that, no matter what, I’d get through this.
For the first six months after I fled my abuser, nobody would listen to me tell my story. I felt like a ghost, seeing the world from behind frosted glass. I reached out to my doctor, social worker, domestic abuse helplines, the police, mental health services, my MP – none of them gave a damn, not least because I am the male survivor of a female abuser, and everything is overwhelmingly geared towards female survivors of male abusers. I thought I was going crazy.
And then the group started. That first day when I attended – when I told my story and was heard – it was like waking up from a bad dream. I felt validated, human, real. People nodded, looked at me with concern, and said, ‘How awful. How hard that must have been. The behaviour you describe – that is categorical abuse. It is exactly what abusers do. You didn’t cause it. You didn’t deserve it. You’re no longer alone.’
Over time, I met more survivors, heard more stories like mine, listened as they poured out their hearts, facing the same struggles that I did. It helped me to understand what I had gone through. I watched some men recover quickly, and then relapse, others get worse for months on end. I saw men go back to their exes, only to be brutally and violently assaulted, then hide away in shame.
And I saw men heal. I saw the light coming back into their eyes, their shoulders lifting. Some of the men entered the group crushed, and left it standing tall. The effect was profound, miraculous even. It is amazing how powerful it is to be heard.
Some of the men were big, tattooed, bearded bikers with hearts of gold. Some were small, skinny, submissive types. Men in their sixties, boys in their twenties. Professionals and blue-collar workers, those with Masters Degrees and not even O-levels. Wealthy, poor, healthy, disabled. But no matter our background or how we were suffering, the group was a place for us, where we could grapple with the new reality we faced. A place where we were accepted and could feel safe.
We waited the six weeks for the group to restart. We struggled. We tried to support one another, but without the formal context of the group, it was hard. If you meet one or two others in a pub, it’s not easy to talk about the violence you’ve suffered, the mental health problems that have resulted, and the pain that you’re feeling, when you’re worried about the teenage girls at the next table overhearing. We counted down the days until the group resumed.
The day before it started back up, we’d still heard nothing. We chased them up several times, to no avail. We started to worry.
And then the day of the group – the very gosh-darned day – we got another text to say that the group would not currently be running. But it might start up again at some point. And that was it.
You can imagine how we felt, and the effect that it had. For many of us, that group was the one thing holding us together. Given that there are no courses for male survivors of domestic abuse – no Freedom Courses or Pattern-Changing like there are for women – it was all we had. And now it is gone.
I sent them a written complaint, saying that I could not understand how, after all the good they had done for eighteen months, they could suddenly drop the group and leave so many vulnerable men with no support. How they could not spare a single staff member for two hours a week in a venue that they already owned. I even offered to run the group myself for free.
They never even replied.
One of the men contacted the police and asked for help. Their only assistance was to send him a domestic abuse help sheet, which he passed on to me. It listed a number of helplines for women, and one for men. But it’s not helplines we need – it’s a support group. A place where we can be helped and heard and validated. It’s not hyperbole to say that it’s a life-saver.
The sheet said that there were three support groups in the county and provided the numbers. I rang all three. The first two were of the very organisation that had just cancelled our support group. The third said they ran groups for women, but had never run any for men, nor had they any plans to do so.
And that, dear readers, is where male survivors of abuse find ourselves in Twenty-First Century Britain. One space in a refuge for every forty spaces for a woman, and most of those don’t take children. No courses to help us now or in the future. One support group that is dropped without anyone caring one jot about the lives that it affects. Not even the decency to reply to my complaint or even consider my offer to run the group myself.
Some of the men I talk to are really struggling now. Some of them are circling the drain. The group was their lifeline, and now it has gone. For most of us, the loss of the support group will affect us for the worse. Given the deterioration I’ve witnessed over just the last two months, I dread to think what the next two months will bring.
It’s particularly galling that the women’s support groups (plural) and courses are still running, while our only source of solace or comfort in this world has been taken away from us. Yet still on TV, I see domestic abuse campaigns telling us how we need more support for female survivors of domestic abuse.
Do abused men not matter?
Everything you want to ask
What is Coercive Control?
Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate of Family Relationship became a crime in the UK in 2015. In short, Controlling Behaviour is a pattern of acts where an abuser makes their victim subordinate to and dependant upon them – very much a master/slave dichotomy – while Coercive Behaviour is the use of threats, violence and intimidation to harm, punish or frighten their victim.
I suffered both.
While the legal distinction of the two is useful in a courtroom, in the real world the line between Control and Coercive Control isn’t so clear. From my experience, coercion is just part and parcel of a range physically, mentally, emotionally, financially and sexually abusive behaviours designed to dominate and control you. It’s all controlling. It’s all demeaning, humiliating, manipulative and wrong. It’s the same crime.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if your abuse isn’t physical, it isn’t as bad. For me, violence was just an extra tool. The threat of violence, the behavioural explosions, the taking away of my dignity, were just as harmful, just as destructive and just as difficult to recover from.
From a legal point of view, it’s important to note that for coercive control, your abuser doesn’t ever need to lay a finger on you. If they have made you fear that violence will be used against you on just two occasions, it’s coercive control. Otherwise, you have to prove that the behaviour had a significant effect upon you e.g. physical or mental health deterioration or changes in your day-to-day activities.
For both, the behaviour has to be engaged in ‘repeatedly’ or ‘continuously’. For survivors of abuse, I’m sure we can all think of dozens if not hundreds of incidents that fulfil these criteria. I filled 200 pages with emails documenting the things my abuser did to me.
How is it prosecuted?
Lol. Badly. In my case, because the violence and threats of violence had occurred behind closed doors (though for some incidents I had witnesses), the police couldn’t use that to prove I had been made to fear physical violence on two occasions. Furthermore, while my medical records said that I was being abused and that my mental health was declining, they did not say that my mental health was declining as a direct result of that abuse, thus there was no evidence that the abuse I suffered had a significant effect on me. Therefore, the police were unwilling to investigate further as it wouldn’t stand up in court.
Yes, they could prove that I was abused and that my partner was an abuser; they simply couldn’t prove that the abuse caused me significant distress. Essentially, I couldn’t prove that I had suffered enough for my abuser to be prosecuted. My breakdown, tranquilisers, antidepressants, depression, anxiety and PTSD could have been caused by other things, not just the abuse. Therefore, my abuser got away scot-free.
I imagine the fact that I’m a man and my abuser was a woman meant the odds were stacked against me from the start, but I don’t think women have it easy either. The police seem to have few specialists in this type of crime and successful prosecutions are few and far between. In my experience, and those of others I’ve spoken to, the police like things that are neat and easy.
Controlling and Coercive Behaviour isn’t neat and easy. By it’s very nature, it mostly occurs out of sight in your home. Physical abuse is still prioritised over mental and emotional abuse, and easier to prosecute if there is evidence of bruises. I think all cases should be rigorously investigated and vigorously prosecuted. Unfortunately, that’s not where we are right now.
How does it work?
It’s actually very simple. Your abuser cuts you off from outside influence, often gradually, often without you noticing. They impose their wants and needs over your own. You become distant from family and friends. You start to give up your hobbies and interests. Your dreams die. You become isolated. You lose your freedom and the ability to escape. You become a prisoner in a relationship that was supposed to be built on love and trust, and is now characterised by exploitation and fear.
Abusers remove you from outside influence – anything from which you could derive pleasure or comfort or even an alternative viewpoint. Friends, family, hobbies and dreams connect you to a wider world outside the confines of your home – a world of ideas, of emotion, of gratification, enjoyment and pride. To people who might tell you that things aren’t right in your relationship. Those things are a threat to your abuser’s control of you, so they need to be taken away.
The aim of this behaviour to make you dependent on your abuser. They are your only friend, your only family, your only interest. They are your sole source of self-esteem and your only frame of reference for the world. They dominate your headspace so you can’t see what’s really happening. You don’t have time to yourself simply to think. Everything has become about them. Keeping them happy and fulfilling their needs is now your only goal in life.
You rely on them for your emotional and psychological wellbeing. The person that hurts you is the only one who can make you feel better. You crave their approval – some validation that you’re a good boy, that you’ve done right, that you’ve made them happy. When they show you kindness, it’s like nectar. You try to pretend the bad times never happen. You feel safe. So when they hurt you again, you do whatever it takes to make them happy again. You can be safe if only you try harder.
That’s how Controlling and Coercive Behaviour works.
What techniques do they use?
Any and all. It’s a multi-pronged attack on everything that makes you you. From talking to dozens of survivors of this type of abuse, the common factor is a complete disregard for their victim’s boundaries – physical, mental, emotional, social, familial. There isn’t a line in the sand that they will not cross. We’re told to stand up to bullies, but the word ‘no’ is like a red rag to a bull to these people.
Simple obstruction is the easiest way of controlling someone. Right from the start of the relationship, my ex would get in my bed and refuse to get out. Take my car keys and not give them back. Stand in the doorway and block me from leaving. When an adult behaves like that, there’s very little you can do. If you touch them, it’s assault. Abusers know that. It’s easier to just give in and do what they want.
Dominating your time and headspace is another key tactic. Constant phone calls and text messages. Wanting to see you every free minute you have in the day; unable to give you time to yourself. Reading your texts and emails. Stalking your social media. Everything becomes about them.
Belittling and putting down your interests, achievements, ambitions and dreams is pretty much Controlling Behaviour 101. “They’re all stupid. They’re silly, like you. You’re not exactly a success. You’re a fat loser, a disgrace to be seen with. Nobody likes you. You’re lucky I put up with you, because nobody else would have you. You’re so ugly. You’re so mean. You’re such a horrible person. You’re scum.” This lowers your self-esteem further, keeping you broken down and therefore compliant.
Emotional blackmail and guilt-tripping are very common. “You don’t love me, you’re being mean, you’re so selfish, how could you do this to me? You’re meant to be my boyfriend. You’re going to leave me, aren’t you? Everyone leaves me. You said you’d be there for me no matter what. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.” More than anything else, abusers seem to want you to pity them. If you’re a good, empathetic person, you want to be kind to people, especially when you feel sorry for them. Abusers use this to their advantage.
They make things very awkward when you see your parents or friends, insisting on coming along or otherwise sabotaging your arrangements – needing you to support them with urgent emotional crises, for example – until it becomes easier to cancel plans and not make any more. The same applies to hobbies, education, jobs. Anything that doesn’t revolve around them and their needs becomes too much effort to maintain.
Direct threats are commonplace. “Give me money, or I’ll tell the children you don’t love them. Do this, or I’ll tell our friends you hit me. If you ask me again, I’ll hit you. If you accept that invitation, I’ll abort your baby.” I stayed far longer than I should because my ex used to tell me that if ever I left, she would get custody of the children because “the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you.” I stayed because I was terrified I would lose my children. And I was right to be.
Bribery is another common technique, often tinged with threat. “If you do x, y or z, I will give you sex/allow you time to yourself/let you see your friend,” the implication being that if you don’t do as you’re told, sex will be withheld until you do, she won’t give you time to yourself, and you won’t be able to see your friend. Of course, the promised bribe often never appears after you’ve given them what they wanted. But there is another aspect to bribery. Gifts come with strings attached. When they buy you something, when they do something for you, you owe them now. You’re beholden to them. You have to do what they say.
One of the worst and most effective techniques is anger, pure and simple. Abusers often say they have an ‘anger problem’, but this isn’t true. Anger is just another technique they use to control you. They only get angry when you’re not obeying them. I lived in fear of my ex’s ‘behavioural explosions’. When she kicked off, she would shout and scream and pull at her hair and bite herself. Behind closed doors, it was terrifying. In public it was embarrassing and humiliating. Just the threat of a tantrum kept me in line. It was easier – safer – to let her get her own way. Fear keeps you in line. Even when things are good, they’re good because you’re doing everything you can not to trigger an aggressive response.
Violence – threatened or otherwise – is another aspect of control and domination. Hitting someone dehumanises them. It makes them an animal. You sink lower, losing the will to resist, the confidence and self-esteem to get away. You start to blame yourself. You come to feel like you deserve to be treated this way. And you believe her when she tells you she was provoked. “If you hadn’t wound me up, I wouldn’t have hit you. If you hadn’t walked away from the argument, I wouldn’t have had to follow you. If you’d been a better boyfriend, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Gaslighting – denying reality and making you think that you’re going crazy – is one of the most insidious techniques in a Controlling and Coercive relationship. Abusers often deny that things had happened – “I never hit you, it didn’t happen, you’re just making it up” – or alter recollections of events to suggest that your perceptions are faulty. They have a mastery of manipulating things to position you as the aggressor and themselves as the victim. “I lied to you to protect you, because I knew you’d get upset if I told you the truth, so really, you’re the one with the problem.” Or, “I had to hit you to stop you, because you were going crazy. Don’t you remember?” While the constant belittling and undermining damages your emotions, your identity and your perception of yourself, gaslighting destabilises your mind and makes your doubt yourself. It’s one of the worst things a person can do to another.
With these techniques, there’s no limit to the control a person can have over you. They can control when you eat and when you sleep, what you wear, how you style your hair, where you can go, with whom and for how long, what you can do, where you can work, children, pets, money. They control everything.
How does it feel to be in a Controlling and Coercive Relationship?
Pretty shit, obviously. But a lot of the time, you don’t even realise it. You know something’s wrong – you can feel it – but because your abuser dominates your mind and your emotions, you can’t quite get a handle on what’s going on. You spend your life fighting fires, going from one crisis to another, unable to stop, take a breath and see the bigger picture – the whole freaking world is on fire, and nothing that you do will make it any better.
From speaking to other survivors of Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, one thing is clear: while we started our relationships on an equal footing with our partners, we ended them broken down shells of ourselves at our lowest possible ebb. We were traumatised, depressed, isolated and alone. We’d lost our hobbies, our jobs, our interests, our personalities. The things that used to make us feel like us had been stripped away. We’d been hollowed out, turned into lifeless creatures that looked like us on the outside but had none of the substance inside.
Our abusers, however, hadn’t changed at all. They were the same person at the end of the relationship as they were at the start. They hadn’t grown, they hadn’t developed, they hadn’t suffered: their behaviour was unchanged. Their attitudes, values, belief systems, were unaltered. We were the ones whose behaviour had changed. We were the ones who thought differently about ourselves.
Before I left, while still under her spell, I thought I was the worst person on the planet. I thought I was an angry, hate-filled, violent, ugly, despicable monster. It wasn’t until after I left that I realised how effective her control had been: the person who hit me, threw drinks over me, cut off my beard with kitchen scissors; who shouted and swore and threatened and blamed; who blackmailed and manipulated and stole and lied; somehow convinced me that I was the bad one.
Why did you stay?
The easiest answer would be to say ‘fear’. It makes it nice and neat. She was a bad person, and I was afraid of her. She was the criminal and I was her victim. But that’s not the whole story.
I loved her. If it was bad all the time, that would have been easier, but it wasn’t. She gave me just enough honey to keep me hooked. Whether that was a deliberate tactic or not, it worked. It kept me craving the sweetness. And like a lot of survivors of this kind of abuse, I struggled – and still struggle – to blame her. I divide her into Jekyll and Hyde, with Jekyll all the things I loved, and Hyde the uncontrollable monster that lived with us. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome: to make sense of it, I piled all the abuse and all the responsibility onto Hyde, so that I could love Jekyll. I pretended that Jekyll was as much a victim of Hyde as I was. I invented a fictitious person that I could love, and spent years trying to make that person a reality.
And that’s the other reason I stayed: I wanted to help her. I cared about her. I wanted what was best for her. Everyone else abandoned her, and I didn’t want to be that person. The good times were good enough that I couldn’t give them up. I couldn’t stop hoping that one day, things would improve and we’d have the relationship I’d always dreamed of. So I always gave her one more chance. I always let her cross one last boundary, always thinking that this time – this time – things would be different.
I could have left many times – certainly before the children were born would have been easier as she couldn’t hold them over me – but I was mentally and emotionally bound to her. I saw her as a drowning victim that I had jumped in to save, and even though she was pushing me under, I thought that if I let go, she would sink. I therefore sacrificed myself to keep her afloat. Ultimately, that was my decision, and while she was to blame for everything she did, I have to address the thing in me that made me susceptible to this kind of abuse.
Why do they do it?
Is it deliberate or learned behaviour? Do they know what they’re doing is wrong? Are they conscious of their behaviour or is it instinctive? And what made them that way?
Ask a hundred different survivors, they’ll give you a hundred different answers. For me, I think abusers are horribly insecure and filled with self-hatred. They’re so uncomfortable in their own skin that controlling another person, trapping them and degrading them, makes them feel better about themselves. In particular, if they can take a person that has all the characteristics they don’t – kindness, empathy, tolerance, compassion – and beat the goodness out of them, it makes them think they’re not the outlier, they’re not the one who is fundamentally wrong inside.
I don’t think they feel guilty about what they do. I don’t think they feel regret. They’re good at faking these emotions. They’re good at hiding what they really are. But deep down, they’re predators. A lion doesn’t care about the antelope he slaughters.
Nor do I think they can be redeemed. From everything in my experience, it seems that these people can’t change. I hate saying that, because I hate the idea of giving up on someone – anyone. But it’s true.
You can’t fix someone who doesn’t even know they’re broken.
Is the behaviour conscious and deliberate or instinctive and learned? Are they responsible for it or are they so damaged they can’t help it? It doesn’t matter. The fact that they do it is enough.
What happens after a Controlling and Coercive relationship?
You rebuild. Dream new dreams. Reach out to old friends, if they’ll have you. Try to find something that gives you comfort. And swear you’re never going back.
It’s not as easy as all that. Your abuser gave your life meaning for so long that finding another purpose in life is tough. All your dreams revolved around them. Your only comfort comes from them. The only one who can make you feel better is the one you had to leave because they were destroying you. And now everything feels empty, and you’re alone.
You do the things you used to do, the things that used to make you feel good, and they feel different now, as you’re different now. You can’t return to the person you were.
That’s where I find myself now. Struggling to find new meaning, the new me, as I move forward to what I hope is a happier and healthier future.
Are you ever tempted to go back?
All the time. I think all survivors are. All you want to do is escape the cage, but you come out and find you’re in a desert. It’s dry, it’s hot and dusty, and there’s nothing you can see from here to the horizon.
Except behind you. Behind you is the cage you just escaped from. And it’s familiar. It’s enticing. It holds meaning and purpose and it promises comfort, albeit tempered with pain. Things might be different if you go back. You’ve shown your abuser that you’re not going to put up with their behaviour. They’ll be different this time. Things will have changed.
But I know I can never go back. Lions don’t care about the antelopes they slaughter. They are just food to them.
What can I do to help someone in a Controlling and Coercive relationship?
Probably not a lot. People told me I was being abused – I didn’t believe them. When you’re in an abusive relationship, you’re bound to your abuser by love, fear, guilt, dependence, often housing, money, children. They’re your everything. You have to break something in yourself in order to leave.
If you pull the person out of that relationship, they’ll go back. They have to hit rock bottom to see for themselves what everyone else can see. They have to choose to leave. As hard as it is to accept, you can’t fix someone who doesn’t want to be fixed – even when they’re the victim of abuse.
Maybe tell them you’ll always be there for them. Tell them they can come to you to talk anytime. Tell them about support groups, helplines. Advise them to see their doctor. Show them this blog. You can show them a way out, but ultimately, they are the ones who have to walk through it.
I always told people that I had to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I’d tried everything, because if I left, I was the one who had to live with my decision.
Now I live with it. I own it. And I know it was the right thing to do.
I hope this has helped you better understand Controlling and Coercive Behaviour.
If anyone has any further questions they’d like answered, respond in the comments and I’ll add them to another post.
I’ve always considered myself a modern man. I’ve never been afraid to get in touch with my feminine side, I love talking about feelings and relationships, and all my best friends are women. I don’t have a killer instinct, I don’t like confrontation or aggression, and I’ve never understood the obsession with competitive sports.
I even did a course in Gender Studies at university where I wrote essays about ‘The Patriarchy’ and the artificial creation of gender norms based on notions of biological sex. And this was twenty years ago, before it became mainstream.
I’ve always believed that it’s okay for men to show emotion. When I’ve been with men as they’ve cried, I’ve been sympathetic and supportive and assured them repeatedly that there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s entirely okay. I always maintained that crying is entirely normal, understandably human, and nothing to be embarrassed about.
So why, as I recover from the abuse I suffered, do I feel so ashamed crying in front of people?
Throughout my life, whenever I shed my tears I do it in private, behind closed doors, and entirely alone, as though to have witnesses would somehow un-man me. I know it’s not a sign of weakness to cry, but it is ingrained within me, as it is drummed into all men, that “Boys Don’t Cry.”
At my first school, I was known as a Cry-baby. Everything would set me off, every day. When I was 8, we moved and I started at a new school, and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t cry in front of these new children. Tears attract bullies, I told myself. Tears expose weakness. They make you vulnerable. So I’ve spent a lifetime keeping my tears in check, and been very successful at it.
Until the day I ended my marriage to my abusive wife. Since then, I can’t count the number of people who have seen me cry. Far more tears have come in public than in private. And every single time, I try to fight off the tears, try to control how I’m feeling inside. I try to hide it.
They come when I least expect it. They come for silly reasons, and for important ones. I hear a sentimental song, and I cry. I see families out for the day with their children, and I cry. I see Wellington boots lined up on a porch – a daddy pair, a mummy pair, and two child pairs – and I cry.
I cry for the children I miss. I cry because they don’t live with me; because they’re not growing up in a loving household with their daddy. I cry because I’m not there to take them into school in the morning or tuck them in at night. I cry because I can’t hold their little hands or wipe away their tears.
I cry when I go somewhere I once went with my family; I cry when I go somewhere new without them. I cry in parks and at the beach; I cry at the cinema; I cry in the support group. I cry in front of friends and support workers and other survivors of domestic abuse. I cry in cafes and at dinner parties. I cry in the bath and in bed; on the sofa; in the car. I cry while walking the clifftops, while cycling in the forest. I cry; I cry; I cry.
I cry for the person I used to be and the things I used to do. I cry for the emptiness I feel inside. I cry for the loss of my future dreams and because nothing feels the way it should. I cry as I search for meaning in this new life that was thrust upon me against my will.
I even cry over my wife, the person who brought me to this place. I cry when I think of our wedding, for the happy future we never had. I cry on her birthday; on Valentine’s Day. I cry on our anniversary. I cry that we’ll never grow old together, because despite knowing that she was bad to me, and bad for me, a part of me still loves her and always will.
People tell me it’s normal – that after having to keep it locked inside all the years I was being abused, it’s no surprise that as I start to recover from the trauma, a backlog of emotions comes pouring out. I’m sure they’re right.
But it doesn’t stop me feeling humiliated when it happens, like my dignity is being taken away again, the way it was for all those years.
I think the reason I’m so ashamed of doing it is because it’s a reminder of what she brought me to. Each time I cry in front of people, it’s a new trauma that adds to all the others. That’s the legacy of abuse – a never-ending series of indignities, vulnerabilities and exposures that last long after the abuser is out of the picture.
I just wish I knew how to stop welling up when I’m out and about in the world, because even though we all know that men have emotions the same as anyone else, nobody wants to see a grown man cry.
At the end of December, I received a letter from my psychiatrist that spelled out, in black and white, that I have been formally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the abuse I suffered during my marriage. It was the first time after leaving her – the first time in nineteen months – that somebody actually acknowledged what she did to me and how it affected me.
Trouble is, I’d known it already for the better part of a year-and-a-half. It wasn’t like I was hiding how I felt. In the days after I left her, my doctor put me on sleeping pills and astronomical doses of antidepressants because I was so afraid and agitated that I was climbing the walls. I startled at the slightest noise, leapt to my feet if a dog barked, a car drove past, the postman came up the driveway. I checked the doors and windows were locked a thousand times a day. I planned escape routes in case she turned up because a ‘helpful’ neighbour had informed her where I’d gone when I fled the home for my own safety.
I spent weeks curled up in a little ball, my chest tight with fear, my heart pounding, tormented by flashbacks, soaked in sweat, unable to sleep. On those occasions I did manage to drift off, I was plagued by nightmares. My hair fell out in clumps. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than trying to keep myself safe, jumping at shadows, hypervigilant to the slightest threat.
I hadn’t realised how much I feared her, not until I left. The twelve years I endured her Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, I had pushed it down, ignored it, focused on keeping her stable and trying to manage her explosions. Once I was away from her – the first time I’d ever been more than a few hours apart from her – that’s when the terror rose up and swallowed me whole.
Every childcare handover, every meeting with Children’s Services, every communication with the police, with my doctor, with my solicitors; every time I received a message from her (several hundred a month); every night when I dreamt of her; I was retraumatised. Having to repeat my story again and again, my chest ached, my throat closed up and I struggled to breathe.
But nobody seemed to care.
I begged my doctor for help. I begged to see a psychiatrist, but I was rejected by the mental health team because, apparently, I wasn’t bad enough. I developed an eating disorder and put on several stones, but apparently it was the wrong type to be treated. I started self-harming, but my injuries were apparently too ‘superficial’ for intervention. I contacted my doctor more than twenty times in a year, but I didn’t see him once – I was simply told to keep taking my medication because I wasn’t ill enough to be seen.
I told him about the nightmares, about the fear, the anxiety, the pain, the self-hatred. I once spoke to him on the phone for twenty minutes about all the memories that kept haunting me, the incidents I couldn’t get out of my head; that I tossed about in bed all night in the dark, unable to sleep, my thoughts spiralling round and round. In my medical records, it simply read: ‘Trouble sleeping; prescribed Amitriptyline.’ Nothing about the trauma I had suffered, or the downward spiral I found myself on.
It wasn’t until I took myself off my antidepressants and had a major mental health crisis that I was finally allowed to see a psychiatrist.
He was rather blasé about everything I told him – ‘You’re thinking of killing yourself? Everyone is. You feel empty and lost? Yeah, that’s normal. You’re having nightmares? Of course, it goes with the territory’ – but he did suggest I might have PTSD and then sent me on my way. That was six months ago.
The people I told about the PTSD doubted it – counsellors, friends, social workers. The impression of PTSD is that it’s something suffered by soldiers, police officers, people who have witnessed death and serious injury. Nobody seemed to credit that years and years of physical, emotional, psychological, financial and sexual abuse could damage a person – especially not if that person is a man and his abuser is a woman. They acted as though PTSD was the latest trend that all the cool kids say they have to make themselves feel special, as though I was being a drama queen for even suggesting it.
I even had people telling me I was weak because I had ‘allowed’ myself to be affected by her. I needed to ‘get off my arse’ and get on with my life. I needed to ‘get over it’. I needed to ‘stop feeling sorry for myself’. It was as if it was somehow my fault if I was having nightmares and struggling to cope with the damaged confidence and self-esteem that comes from over a decade of abuse – abuse that I can’t get away from, since I have to see her every week to hand over the children, and endure her continuing attempts at manipulation and coercion.
Clearly, being hit with coat-hangers or having your beard cut off with kitchen scissors isn’t being shot at; being deprived of sleep for five years and doing everything you can to keep your partner from flying into a violent rage isn’t seeing your buddy step on an IED; and having drinks thrown over you and water poured on your side of the bed isn’t dragging a dying person from a wrecked vehicle. The threats to abort my babies, to make me homeless, to take away my children, isn’t the same as fighting an enemy actively trying to kill you, and having someone read your emails and your text messages, steal money from you, lie about you, and take away your dignity, is not the same as having incoming mortar bombs.
But that doesn’t mean it was nothing.
I’ve spent almost two years trying to be taken seriously, trying to get someone – anyone – to acknowledge that what I went through mattered. When the police declined to prosecute her, they said it was because with Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, you have to prove that a) you were abused, and that b) the abuse had a negative impact on you. While they could prove she abused me, they said, they couldn’t prove it had an effect on me…despite the fact I reported it several times to my doctor and Social Services, the eyewitnesses, my testimony, the testimony of friends and family, emails, text messages and my own pleas for help. Indeed, they said that while my medical records stated that I was being abused and that my mental health was declining, they did not state that the decline in my mental health was as a direct result of the abuse, and therefore the case would not stand up in court. Brilliant.
All this time that I’ve been ignored, all this time that I’ve been struggling, all the blows to my self-respect and all the times I’ve been made to feel invisible – the letter containing my diagnosis of PTSD, coming more than four months after the appointment, is vindication. It makes me real. It makes what I went through real. It restores to me my sense of self that was taken from me. It is the first, the very first, official acknowledgement that I am not crazy, I’m not making it up, I’m not weak, I didn’t ‘allow’ her to affect me, I’m not being a drama queen, I’m not making it out to be more than it was – it happened, and my pain, my suffering and my trauma matter. What she did to me matters. I matter.
Yes, I still have nightmares almost every night. Yes, I still feel anxious at every childcare handover, every time my phone beeps with a text message, and every time there’s a knock at the door. Yes, I’m still so terrified of people and what they might do to me that I shy away from anything even resembling a relationship. But those four letters on a piece of headed paper – PTSD – have given me back some of the dignity that I lost.
It’s not a great thing to have, but I’m grateful to be told I have it, even if it came way later than it should. And if nothing else, it is proof both that she abused me and that this abuse had a negative effect on me. I now have enough evidence to have her prosecuted for Controlling and Coercive Behaviour. I just need to decide whether I want to put myself through that hell again.