Gone are the days when intimate partner violence evokes images of battered women rushing out in the dead of night to a domestic violence shelter with their children and nothing but the clothes on their backs.
By now, we are all aware that domestic violence is a pattern of behavior where one person attempts to control another. But it is not just physical – it can be verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, or psychological abuse.
They all play an equally poisonous role in contributing to the insidious rot of abuse. Because that is exactly what abuse is: a slow decay that is quite literally soul-destroying if not recognized and squashed immediately.
Four Behaviors Considered Domestic Abuse
We don’t need to rehash the stats; they are disturbing, with close to 40% of women experiencing some form of abuse in their adult lives. But what is even more unsettling is the long-term impact of psychological abuse, most importantly the covert and subtle type that has proven more harmful than overt psychological abuse or direct aggression.
In fact, this type of abuse can be so poisonous that victims experience depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and difficulty trusting others. Collectively, tactics used to psychologically abuse another person fall under the umbrella of coercive control, an evil attempt at domination and robbing an individual of their independence and freedoms within a relationship.
It is a wonder that our school children are not taught the warning signs as part of their curriculum. Here are four lesser-known yet insidious behaviors that are abusive.
Have you ever gone out to dinner with that couple that seems picture-perfect on the outside? They are charming, with idyllic houses, successful careers, and beautiful children.
The evening is going well until one of them makes an inappropriate jab, thinly veiled as a ‘joke’ about the other. There is an awkward silence until he/she nervously laughs and brushes it off, at which point the rest of the group picks up on her cue and joins in the laughter.
Inside, she is dying, the very person that should build her up and protect her is breaking her down in front of others, publicly robbing her of dignity. Which brings up the question: if he treats her like that in public, what happens behind closed doors?
Turning you against friends/family
It starts with mild intolerance toward your friends but, before you know it, you are hiding the fact that you are going out with a certain friend or group. Your friends express that they sense an air of arrogance from your partner or perhaps admit feeling unwelcome around him/her. They are correct.
This person is attempting to isolate you from people that care for you or people that may express alarm and remind you that you deserve better. Abusive people know exactly what they are doing, which means they do not like it when others catch on as well. This may thwart their attempts to gain more control of your life and have you more dependent on them.
It is easier for you to be in conflict with friends/family that accept you wholeheartedly than with your partner, so one by one, you distance yourself from those that truly do have your best interests at heart.
Undermining confidence and sense of self-worth
It all comes down to control, and what better way to gain control over someone than to rob them of their confidence? If someone feels useless and worthless, of course, they are more beholden to the abuser, who has cleverly positioned themself to pull the puppet strings.
A convenient upside is that the more you buy into your partner’s narrative and are blinded to your own strengths, the better they feel about themselves. An objective person would peel back the curtain and see what is really going on here. A petulant child at best, a pathetic charlatan at worst, trying to fill their cup by stealing from yours.
Convincing the victim(s) they are crazy
The term gaslighting is so prevalent in today’s speech that it barely warrants a definition. Originally named after the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” in which a husband leads his wife to believe she is mentally unwell by surreptitiously turning down the house’s gas lamps, the phenomenon is employed to negate a victim’s reality. The injured party is slowly terrorized, eventually unable to trust his/her reality and intuition, an offense so malicious it ought to be criminalized.
Expanding upon this, during my time working with divorcing clients, many mothers express fear of losing their children because of false accusations of being “crazy” or unstable. Situational anxiety resulting from their hostile partnership has understandably led them to seek support in the form of a therapist and /or antidepressants.
Sadly, rather than following suit and receiving therapy for their legitimate mental illness, the culprit weaponizes the very need for therapy or pharmacological support that he/she created by threatening to take the children. Too many women are trapped in toxic situations by this very threat.
Unfortunately, the coercive control tactics described above are all too common, perpetrated across all socioeconomic brackets and education levels. In the United States, legislators, family law professionals, and even members of the mental health community are not always adequately trained and informed to recognize the signs of psychological abuse and coercive control.
Countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, and France have recently recognized nonviolent coercive control as illegal and punishable by a prison sentence. Increasingly, states are looking to expand definitions of domestic abuse to include coercive control, mostly for its role as a precursor to violence.
However, critics rightfully point out that such laws would be incredibly challenging to enforce and prove, with a large degree of subjectivity required in identifying what warrants a punishable offense.
Regardless, psychological abuse is death by a thousand papercuts, leaving an individual feeling unbalanced, isolated, and worthless. Until such time that the United States catches up and creates policy to address pandemic levels of psychological abuse, the best we can do is advocate for education at the individual and community level.
Protect yourself whether you are in a state with coercive control protective laws or not. Contact your local domestic violence program for support. Contact the Domestic Violence Hotline for confidential help or information regarding resources in your area. 800-799-7233
 HELEY, E. (2021). Criminalizing Coercive Control within the Limits of Due Process. Duke Law Journal, 70(6), 1221–1295.