Being in a toxic relationship often feels like standing in the middle of a thick fog.
In that type of hazy environment, you can’t sense directions, you don’t know what’s up or what’s down, and you can’t make out anything clearly. Did you see something, someone? Or was it just an illusion?
In a very similar way, the climate created by domestic abuse can make it very unclear if what you think is happening is actually taking place. You may be questioning your judgment about a lot of things you perceive. Is it them? Is it you? Are you making too big a deal of this?
And just when you get a sense that “yes, something is wrong” and you’re ready to leave the relationship, they find a way to knock you off balance with sly control tactics.
So, what type of methods do people who create toxic relationships use to keep control over their partners?
5 Prevalent Control Tactics in Domestic Abuse
Considering these five points may help clear that fog a bit and allow you to see what might be going on in your own relationship.
What it is: One of the most common control tactics occurs when your partner isolates you, separating you from all the people that normally serve as your support network. In other words, they remove those that would anchor you to the truth and what’s morally right in the midst of the fog of lies, confusion, and disorientation.
Sometimes, it’s obvious, as when your partner throws a fit and demands you can’t spend time with others. Often, though, it’s much more subtle. For example, you may want to go to a party or spend time with friends and family. They then decide that exact moment to say, “But I really wanted to be with you tonight. I’ll miss you.” So you end up giving in and staying home with them.
Additionally, this tactic may include spreading lies about people in your life. Your partner may say things like, “Oh, they don’t really love you. I’ve heard them talking badly about you behind your back.” This way, your partner doesn’t have to do any of the splitting up. You end up distancing yourself all on your own (it seems).
The impact on you: This tactic intends to keep you disconnected from the very people who would most likely keep you safe. It cuts you off from the people who would help you remain grounded in who you are and in the reality of the situation and the friends and family who would most easily spot the signs that something is off. It effectively keeps the cycle of abuse going, as it may completely cut off your access to outside support.
How to address it: The most important step to counter this maneuver is to stay connected to others, even when it feels impossible. Keep channels of communication open with family and friends, even if brief or irregular, and perhaps also seek out a support group or therapist for help if some are available in your area.
2. Physical Intimidation
What it is: We typically think of physical abuse as hitting, punching, or perhaps kicking another person. But physical violence doesn’t necessarily have to be directed toward you to count as domestic abuse. Your partner may instead be cruel to your pets, punch walls, or behave destructively towards beloved objects in the house. For instance, to intimidate you, they may break a favorite possession of yours—something that has sentimental value to you because it represents your connection to a friend or family member.
The impact on you: Control tactics that aim to intimidate create a sense of fear without ever hurting you physically. You may believe that you can’t say anything about it because doesn’t qualify as abuse since the violence wasn’t directed at you directly.
Again, it creates this fog of a gray zone. While you may be determined to walk away or call the police if they hurt you personally, you might feel you can’t say anything about these types of incidents. Often, your partner is counting on you feeling this way, using it to prolong the cycle of abuse and most likely makes you feel insecure, trapped, and powerless.
How to address it: When you recognize that this kind of behavior is still violence, if at all possible, report those actions yourself or with support (many police departments do acknowledge it as physical violence). It’s also a good idea to keep track of these incidents with a log, but only if you have a safe place to keep one. (Here is a log to keep track of control tactics you might find useful.)
What it is: An intentional effort to convince you that your understanding of a matter is mistaken or that something is not happening or not a big deal. The term comes from a 1944 movie in which the perpetrator would manipulate matters to make the victim lose their grip on the truth and question their reality. This included planting missing objects on the victim to make them doubt their ability to recollect events correctly.
The impact on you: This scheme can have a very strong effect on your mind, to the point where you may question your own sanity. You begin feeling unsure, lose your instinctive sense of judgment, and eventually believe the distortions. You may say that you think things are happening, but nobody else sees it since your partner cleverly manipulates matters. It’s designed to cause isolation by making people turn away from you. And that isolation only compounds the problem because now others confirm that there is something wrong with you, not your partner.
How to address it: To counter control tactics that intend to make you feel as if you’re crazy, it’s of utmost importance that you have people in your life that can help ground you. People that you can talk to and that can keep affirming your reality. Don’t keep the things you’re experiencing a secret, even if you feel it sounds crazy.
What it is: Your partner brings someone else into the situation to gain an advantage. This can be anyone from whom they may feel a threat and that could perhaps help you. By creating conflict or manipulating that person, they get them on their side. Sadly, often this may be your own therapist, the person that you went to help for in the first place.
The impact on you: Control tactics like this one attempt to break the tie between you and the person that may be able to help you. In effect, your partner removes your support and begins controlling the other person as well, often without that person ever realizing it.
How to address it: Try to objectively verify anything you have been with that person themselves. Do this before you ever act on the information given to you. Make sure you regularly keep in touch with those you trust and love.
Moreover, the triangulation maneuver is the biggest reason why couples therapy often doesn’t work in active domestic abuse situations. It may be hard for the therapist to realize that the offender is controlling them this way if they don’t know the background and interaction between you and your partner very well. The best thing would be for you to get your own individual counseling. Of course, only if it’s safe to do so.
What it is: A method of sucking you back in when your partner realizes you’re trying to leave the relationship. This can be a negative behavior—like threatening suicide—that causes you to worry and maybe think, “Oh no, they’re going to do something horrible,” and you stay because you feel responsible. It may also be a sudden positive behavior or improvement—like showering you with attention, gifts, or promises—perhaps saying, “I’m going to therapy, and I’m all better now,” to suck you in with hopefulness and win back your trust.
The impact on you: This tactic redirects energy from you to your partner, knocking you off balance just when you feel strong enough to perhaps walk away. Keeping you engaged in that way is often a key device to keep the cycle of abuse going. It assures that you sustain the toxic relationship and your partner can continue to maintain the power and control.
How to address it: If you’re unsure that promises are true or positive behavior will last, take a step back (if it’s safe to do so) and wait for the “honeymoon” period to end. If it ends and your partner is still on a healthy path, continuing their progress even when they do not feel they have as much control over you, then this is a sign of healthy, longer-lasting change.
If your partner is using negative behavior to hoover, look for ways to assist that don’t require your full energy and attention. Make suggestions for them to get the help they need without securing that help for them. If your partner refuses to help themselves, consider that this might be a sign they are looking to take your energy from you.
Talking about these domestic abuse control tactics with someone you trust—a friend, a beloved family member, or better even, a counselor—can help you understand and feel validated. It’s important to get a sense of what the other person may be doing to you and why you respond a certain way.
As you get a sense of the toxic pattern, it will help lift that fog of confusion. It can be like spotting a lighthouse in the midst of the obscurity that gives you a point of reference. It helps you find your way out. From there, you can maintain your distance so as not to get knocked off balance again and become lost in uncertainty once more.