Is it Abuse? Part 3: Coercion, Threats, Using the Children & Intimidation

One of the most common ways abusers control their victims is through coercion and threats. In the years I have worked with victims of domestic violence, nearly all of them have confirmed that these behaviors were used regularly in their homes. Some abusers threatened to leave their families and not provide for their basic needs, some threatened suicide in order to make sure they got their way, some threatened physical harm, and others just threatened to humiliate their partners somehow. In several cases, I’ve seen abusers go out of their way to make their wives look incompetent.

After years of living with control and manipulation, my friend Jill became seriously depressed, and ended up taking antidepressants. Her husband made sure he let the pastor know how concerned he was about his wife’s erratic behavior, her “inability to parent properly,” and her “dependence on medication.” Of course, the church had no idea of what really went on behind closed doors, and Jill knew better than try to tell them. At the same time, Jill’s husband made sure she knew that if she decided to leave the marriage, he would have no trouble having her declared incompetent and getting full custody of the children. For Jill this threat was far more powerful than bodily injury ever could have been. Her husband’s threats were highly effective in promoting his selfish interests. Even though none of his claims were true, they were powerful enough to keep her in a miserable situation far longer than most people would have  stayed.

Using the Children

Abusive people generally aim their threats directly at whatever their victims value most, so that means threats involving children are very common in these situations. In fact, many women stay in horrible relationships far too long, because they know if they leave their spouses may hurt the children somehow if they leave. Such was the case with my friend Bethany. She had endured unending criticism and relentless threats from the beginning of her marriage. Her husband was well educated and powerful, and had won full custody of his children after divorcing his first two wives.  He was quick let Bethany know that if she ever tried to leave him he would have no problem doing the same again.

He constantly bullied and belittled her, and unfortunately  she sometimes lost her temper. During these times he secretly recorded her outbursts to use as evidence if he ever needed it for court. One day she got up the nerve to threaten divorce, but he merely laughed at her and assured her he had enough evidence to make sure she never saw the children again. In the meantime, his cruelty was also aimed at the children. In fact, I ended up reporting it to Child Protective Services, but even then he ended up coming out their investigation looking good. In the long run, Bethany is still in a terrible situation, because she believes that at least if she stays she can serve as a buffer between her husband and her children. Sadly the older son has become abusive to his mother just like his dad is, but the fear of losing him keeps Bethany paralyzed and afraid to leave.

Unfortunately, Bethany’s story is not an exception when it comes to domestic violence. In my own limited exposure, I have seen abusers intentionally use and misuse their children multiple times in order to punish their mothers. It is not unusual for them to attempt to turn the children against their mothers. Basically abusers will do whatever they consider necessary to maintain control, regardless of the consequences to the children. I have seen women frozen in fear, because of these types of threats, but those who decide to leave usually tell me they made the right decision. Living in fear of a man will never lead to the life God intends for you. Ask Him to help you devise a plan to leave, and be sure to utilize all the resources available to you. Your local domestic violence shelter can help you devise a safety plan, and connect you to legal resources to help you with custody issues. Be sure to find a way to document the abuse that is occuring, and keep a copy of your documentation with a trusted friend or advocate.

Intimidation

Besides using their children to hurt their wives, abusers make regular use of intimidation techniques to instill fear and attain unfettered power in their families. Intimidation can range from a harsh look to extreme physical violence. Most abusive people have conditioned their victims to know when they are about to snap. As a result, a single angry glance can cause wives and children to freeze up or change their course of action. If a nasty look doesn’t get the desired result, or if the abuser is feeling particularly grumpy, he may resort to more physical tactics such as throwing and smashing things, destroying her property, or even abusing the household pets. When I was working in our local domestic violence program, one of the clients told me that her husband killed her dog in front of her and the children, and countless other victims told me that their family pets often received the brunt of the abuser’s wrath. One lady told me that her husband filled her car with poisonous snakes to make sure she didn’t go anywhere. These were more extreme cases, but less dramatic measures are still highly effective.

Intimidation usually escalates in intensity over time, and if the abuser does not feel his demands are being met. Some of the behaviors often seen in the progression of violence include: blocking her exit from a room, punching walls and throwing things, screaming, and raising a fist. If an abuser still feels he is not in control, he may resort to more physical measures like grabbing, shoving, kicking, hitting and worse. An interesting thing to note here is that, even when hitting occurs, many abusers, in an effort to keep the abuse hidden, maintain enough control over themselves to make sure they hurt their victims in way that doesn’t leave obvious bruises. Most of us who live with severe intimidation convince ourselves that our partners are out of control when they use anger to intimidate us, but that is most often not the case. For the overwhelming majority of those who use control and violence, it is a choice. We’ll talk about that more in future posts.

Part 3 in a Series. Today’s post covered three of the 8 tactics abusers use as listed on the Power and Control Wheel. For more on the Wheel, see my previous posts.

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