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.