When I deliver training about domestic abuse issues, I inevitably disappoint a proportion of those attending the event. Those who are disappointed have usually come with an expectation of receiving a “Signs of Domestic Abuse” checklist. Their extremely valid logic is that a list of signs of abuse will enable them to effectively and efficiently diagnose abuse. Nobody wants to get this stuff wrong, particularly when the risks of harm are so great. However, abuse is not diagnosable via a checklist.
Fiona’s husband Phil won’t let her work. He demands she stay home and care for the children; his dinner to be on the table and the children to be in bed as soon as he walks through the door. Though this is complicated by him never arriving at the same time every night. Fiona waits anxiously, trying to keep the food hot and the children quiet, hoping that this time he will arrive at 6pm, rather than 11pm like he had the other day. When his food had been tasteless due to it having been kept warm for hours, he had hurt her so badly.
Jane’s partner George insists that she works full-time while he stays home with the children. He controls all their finances and Jane has to beg him for enough money to buy sanitary products. He has told the children that she is a bad mother and encourages them to mock her, spit at her and kick her. He has told her that she will taint them with her badness. If she tries to cuddle the children, he punishes her painfully.
How would a checklist operate here? One abuser is preventing his partner working, the other forces her to work. Both abusers are controlling their partners, but no checklist would adequately allow for both women’s situations to be covered.
In reality, the only way to offer appropriate support and help to both Jane and Fiona is through gaining a deeper understanding of abusive behaviour. There isn’t a shortcut. Building awareness and knowledge, seeking to identify and reject the myths we believe about abuse and abusers, and working with specialist services are the only ways to ensure we and our communities are safe for women and children subjected to abuse.
One of the resources I have developed to help deepen people’s understanding of abuse comes from the work of psychologist Albert Biderman, who in 1956 published a report into the methods of eliciting false confessions from prisoners of war. He identified eight different torture tactics; isolation, monopolization of perception, exhaustion, threats, occasional indulgences, demonstrating omnipotence, degradation and enforcing trivial demands. I have personified these tactics to make them easier to recognise:
The Isolator undermines our relationships with friends, family and work colleagues. An abuser will try to take from his partner anything that gives her strength, and destroying her relationships is part of that. It is also why a Christian abuser will only allow his partner to have an empty faith that he can use to control her (making her submit, telling her to forgive him, insisting that God hates divorce) but the abuser will not allow her to build an authentic
relationship with God.
The Brainwasher intends to devalue his partner and ensure she has no other perspective than the one he wants her to have. He will cause her to feel worthless, useless and stupid. There is a myth that only those with low self-esteem begin relationships with an abuser; in fact, she may have the highest self-esteem going, but he will gradually erode that, expertly manipulating her until she feels to blame for everything he does. He does this through
minimising his behaviour (“it was only…” “but I just…”), denying he has done anything wrong, and shifting the responsibility for his behaviour onto his partner, childhood, mental health problems, diabetes, stress or whatever else he can think of. He will tell her she is crazy; he may hide or move things to leave her convinced that she is going mad. The tactics of the Brainwasher are often referred to as “gaslighting”.
The Exhauster keeps his partner up late at night, refuses to do his fair share of the household tasks and goes on and on and on to wear his partner down. He is like a child using pester to get a new toy, except he’s a grown man and his goal is to wear his partner down so that she will be more malleable and easier for him to control.
The Threatener may use physical violence, but he doesn’t have to. His physical size, the weapons he owns, or his general demeanour may leave his partner constantly frightened, without him ever having to physically hurt her. He may threaten to hurt their children, pets, her family or he could threaten to share private information about her if she doesn’t do what he wants. He leaves her feeling convinced that no matter where she goes or what she
does, he will always be able to hurt her.
The Nice One when someone first starts a relationship with an abuser, he will be charming, caring and seem like an ideal partner. It does not serve his purposes to be abusive until he has reeled her in. This anecdote shared on Twitter recently detailed how abusers work, with a quote from one perpetrator who said, “If you really want to do it right, if you really want to lock her down so she can’t get away” you need to give it 1 – 2 years. The Nice One first of all operates in this way, to mould her into someone who can be easily controlled. Then he emerges every so often to prove to her that things can be better, that the person she first fell in love with is still there.
The All-Mighty uses physical or sexual violence to prove that he has all the power. He might also use extreme psychological torture to prove that he can make his partner do what he wants. He may smash his partner’s precious possession, he could burn or shred cards or other mementoes which are irreplaceable and mean a lot to her. His partner becomes convinced that if she leaves he will kill her or the children, and her fears are not unwarranted. The majority of women killed by a partner are killed within months of leaving him.
The Humiliator increasingly shames his partner. This may be through coercing or forcing her into degrading sexual activity, or by mocking her in front of her friends, family or children. He will find her insecurities and use them to degrade and humiliate her. Society constantly tells women we’re not good enough. We need to be hairless, use soaps to stop their genitals smelling, that ageing is bad, as is putting on weight, that if we work we’re failing our children and if we don’t work that we’re lazy. There is much for the Humiliator to capitalise on to degrade and shame his partner.
The Demander makes constant demands of his partner. These may seem arbitrary; he doesn’t want the food on his plate to touch, she must answer the phone within three rings, she must always have her phone calls on loudspeaker, she must account for every penny she spend. But these demands further his control, while also giving her the illusion of having control, “If I do all these things, then I’ll keep him happy and he will love me and not hurt me”.
All abuser’s use many of the tactics identified by Biderman, and while it would be nice to have a checklist for the signs of abuse, as even this whistle-stop tour of an abuser’s behaviour shows, an abuser’s behaviour and intentions are much more complex than any checklist will allow for. Instead, we must build literacy about abusive behaviour, recognising our lack of knowledge and committing to learn more, because women’s and children’s lives really could depend on us.
Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist, and author of Out of Control: Couples, Conflict and the Capacity for Change. You can find out more about Natalie’s work here, and order your copy of her new book here.