Very recently, I received an e-mail from the sister of an abuse victim. It seems the writer’s abusive brother-in-law has instigated hostilities between himself and his victim-wife and her family. At one point, he threatened to seek a restraining order against his wife’s parents, and they no longer have contact with her. As a result of this craziness, the victim’s family is strongly considering relinquishing the poor woman to her chosen fate based on their belief that she is either apathetic or condones the abuser’s behaviors.
The victim’s sister contacted me in an effort to better understand why her sister would accept these happenings. She provided some background and then posed these questions to me:
“When you were in your abusive relationship – were you cruel also? This has been going on for two years. I’m starting not to care about her – she’s a faint memory and the pain they have both caused – well her own parents are shut down and done. If you shut off family – did they take you back?”
The situation she and her parents are facing is all too familiar. Isolation is one of many powerful weapons in the abuser’s arsenal. The questions are good ones that call me back to darker days. For abusers will almost always incrementally work to separate their victims from many, if not most, means of emotional support – friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and particularly family members.
Isolation gives the abuser control over his victim’s comings and goings. His needs and desires take priority, while his victim becomes his trembling lapdog. She becomes ever more dependent upon him for the smallest measure of attention, approval and sustenance. The victim becomes wholly preoccupied with what she must do to gain his favor on a moment-by-moment basis to avoid inconveniencing him, to avert his wrath.
If that means she must prove her loyalty by disowning her family, she will. She cannot afford to risk giving him anything less than everything he asks, no matter how her heart breaks. She has already been taught to doubt her own emotions and convictions, and because of the intensity of his convictions, she chooses to believe that his contorted version of truth must somehow be true.
What the victim doesn’t realize is that she has been set up. The abuser is terrified of the possibility of losing control. Because family members could expose him and empower her if they catch wind of his maltreatment, estrangement between victim and potential rescuers is critical. To that end, he must create a scenario that allows him to secure her absolute loyalty while alienating her from those who could pose a threat to his fiefdom.
Over time, the abuser lays the groundwork of getting his victim to doubt her own judgment while convincing her that he is actually her protector, that she owes him her allegiance, and that her family cannot be trusted. Then, he will exploit any scenario that pits him against her relatives, sets himself up as the innocent party, and forces her to choose.
I know. I’ve been there.
Upon reading the writer’s heart-wrenching e-mail, I was burdened by the full weight of her question: “…were you ever cruel?” And in that moment I buried my face in my hands and broke into tears. The simplest answer: Yes, I was.
Although I wasn’t deliberately hostile, many years ago I did the exact same thing the writer’s sister has done. I stood by my abuser out of a sense of obligation and what I hoped would be perceived as confirmation of my loyalty – and turned my back on my family.
My history provides a spot-on example of the abuser’s successful use of isolation as a means of maintaining his domination. My husband had begun to drop offensive remarks about my family – my parents and sisters and their families who had been there for us, people with whom we had enjoyed barbecues and birthdays and Christmases. He began to insist that my family members were nothing more than a bunch of sick, selfish back-biters who hated and used us. He sowed the seeds of discontent for years, and following a major family fight that he initiated, he told me bluntly that we would no longer have anything to do with them.
Most of my family members live in very close proximity to us, and our kids were close to their grandparents and cousins. Nevertheless, believing I was honoring my marriage vows and his demands for submission, I honored his demands and grieved in painful silence.
Occasionally I petitioned him to consent to meet with a counselor so that we could work out our differences, but he would have nothing of it. It would be a waste of time because he already knew he was in the right. He forbade me and the kids from seeing anyone on my side of the family. I was not allowed to mention their names.
My sisters tried to maintain contact with me, and I would speak to them in business-like terms and tell them I couldn’t see or talk to them. A couple of years later, I convinced my husband to go to counseling with me regarding the situation in the context of our children’s family relationships. In counseling, I agreed not to see my family if he would only allow the kids to have a relationship with their grandparents and cousins. Although it would have been preferable if the counselor had probed deeper into the problems that plagued our relationship, at least she supported my request in light of the children’s desires. She urged him to allow limited contact, and he finally agreed. My family was very happy to receive our kids back into their loving circle.
Later still, my mother initiated counseling with my husband. He went out of obligation but received none of her efforts to reach an agreement or reconcile and their session ended with him storming out of the counselor’s office. I honestly don’t remember how long it was before I was allowed to spend any time with my family again.
When I finally left my abuser, my step-dad and mother took my kids and me in. I began to share some of the dreadful secrets I had carried during my marriage, and they asked me later why I stood by him all those years. The truth was that I felt I had no other choice. Under the directives of the church and in an effort to go to every length to save my marriage, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. But, I know now that it was crazy. It was sick. It was wrong.
Abusers know how to keep us walking on eggshells, living in subservience, swirling around them in their narcissistic universe. They know how to indoctrinate us in the art of unbalanced, ungodly submission. As victims, we attempt to survive based on the premise that a predator is less likely to eat prey that lies still…
I know now that isolation holds us captive and dependent and leads to a slow and lonely emotional death. Abusers know this. They don’t care.
Surely, if I could undo my many foolish decisions I would. But, I can’t. What I can do is move beyond my failures and into what God really has and wants for me. Any measure of regret I carry has been eclipsed by the joy of knowing that, with God’s help, I broke free, saw the truth, and am now in a position to help others to identify the abuser’s tactics and then encourage them to follow my example – by getting out and discovering that this life was never meant to be lived in isolation.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion; who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle.” Psalm 103:2-5
Amen and Amen.
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