Isolation: Another Weapon in the Abuser’s Arsenal

isolationVery 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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13 thoughts on “Isolation: Another Weapon in the Abuser’s Arsenal”

  1. What saddens me about this is that those on the outside of the relationship and those who have never experienced domestic violence have no idea how badly some of us are being abused. We always put on a happy front or else we face further punishment.

    The abusers know when the changes in their victims are occurring, and this is part of the reason they initiate isolation from others. It enables them to gain complete control. Once they isolate us, there is little danger we are going to break through the silence and tell his/her secret.

    In my case, while I was still allowed to hold a cell phone, my abuser would routinely check the calls and texts to make sure they matched as detailed in the online account. He also did the same with the MagicJack he had for the notebook. Then it progressed to only being allowed to call in his presence. When he caught me trying to call, he took both cell phones with him when he left, and if my family called while we were home, I was not allowed to answer it, and he never let me call them back.

    He also had the password to my email account and checked that regularly as well. If I refused any of his demands, I was punished physically… pretty severely at times, even for things he did. I complied most of the time, but I did contact them when I was out of the house and he wasn’t with me. However, when he found out, I was duly punished.

    It wasn’t cruelty. It was survival. I suffered, too, perhaps more than them in some ways, because above the abuse, I endured four years of losses. I missed the first several years of my nephew’s life, a nephew who calls me Aunt Amy because his father and mother told him to. He has really only known me for the past eight months, and while he is starting to warm up, he is still distant from me. It hurts to see him get excited to see my sister and run off to her and not give me another thought. I have missed hospitalizations, funerals, weddings, all because my abuser refused to let me have contact with them. I was too busy walking on the egg shells to play monkey in the middle.

    1. Sweetmarie, your comments were very painful to read. Now that you have escaped and you know that what you lived in was not your fault, I hope you are rejoicing in your new-found freedom. This is your life now!

      All the best to you,

      Cindy

  2. The sad thing it is not always a man abusing a woman. Sometimes it is the woman that abuses a man and isolates him from his family. We have this scenario in our family. My brother was the one being abused and isolated from his family. It took 30 years and him almost dying from heart problems before he finally got out of the situation. I am a strong Christian but I do blame his church for the continuation of the abuse. They always sided with my ex-sister in law and the pastor was not equipped to do the counseling. He should have sent them to a professional marriage counselor that knew what to look for and probe.
    Thank you for your openness and willingness to do such an article.

    1. Hello, bcraft…

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. There is no doubt that husband-wife abuse goes both ways. It is simply too confusing to write “him or her,” “he or she” in every sentence. And, as a woman, my ministry it almost exclusively to women, although I have worked with a few men, too.

      Also, like you noted, it seems like in the majority of cases where the church is involved, the church does not simply fail to identify the abuse; it enables and preserves it! It is an offense against the abused marriage partners, makes a mockery of the beautiful intent for godly marriage (not simply “Christian” marriage) and, I am convinced, breaks the heart of God.

      Most pastors and laypeople who counsel do not understand the horror of abuse. They just don’t “get it.” That is why we do what we do. Our goal in this ministry is to educate those in the church and help those who are in abusive relationships – whether in or out of the church!

      Thank you for taking the time to share. If your brother needs any support, please direct him to our website. We have a wealth of information there that may help him.

      All the best,

      Cindy

  3. This very thing is happening in our family right now. Please help us pray for our daughter and granddaughter. For our daughter to see the truth and be set free. Thank you so much for such insight, it helps me know how to pray and gives me a better understanding of my daughter’s situation.

    1. I am so sorry. She probably has no idea that what she is dealing with is abusive. If the opportunity presents itself, let her know that you know she is hurting, and something is wrong. She needs permission to open up and share her secrets… If she becomes defensive, back off and give her room to think about it. And, if she is open, feel free to refer her to me.

      Thank you for letting me know. I’ll be praying for your family.

      Cindy

  4. My ex-idiot, during the year of counseling following his moving out, while I was getting my eyes open and understanding the abuse. During this year he hacked all my emails three times. I remember sitting in one counseling session with him, his pastor, his accountability partner, my pastor and my accountability partner. I was terrified. ( in that year only 2 counseling sessions was I ever in the same room as him) So, it is obvious I am terrified. I have talked and emailed all of them about the abuse. And he justified his hacking the emails because he was “the administrator on the computer” . ( this was the second hack, after that he was never allowed in the house because of it, My boundary, not the pastors or counselors). They casually rebuked him but not with conviction and let him get away with it with a , “Sorry I was stupid” apology!! Ugh!! And I just let it happen. It is so isolating knowing that everything you say and write will get read.

  5. It looks like it’s been almost 2 years since this was posted, but I just came across it and I think it was a total God thing. I think this is happening with a friend of mine. At this point, her husband has threatened to file a restraining order if I contact either of them again. It’s been super confusing for me because I don’t know how much is coming from him and how much is coming from her. I think this seems like an accurate description of what might be going on and it gives me the faith and courage I need to reach out to her again if I ever get the opportunity.

  6. Just left mine of being abused for 3 years. I am 23. I met him when i was 19 years old. He texts me even though i told him im over it all and done. I lived with him all that time until towards the end of year 3. I recently got in a car accident where i almost died and i broke my hip. I am in recovery with my parents . Boy did it open my eyes and teach me alot in the 4 weeks already. I am very traumatized wiyh everything. Like even when people talk to me i have to be careful who i surround myself with because i feel unsafe. Im very confused as to why he still acts like he wants to be my friend and then the minute he asks me if he can take me to dinner i say no because I wanted to rest and watch a movie with my parents(really i didnt want to fall in his trap again) he got so pissed and said wtf there wont be a next time and im still kind of confused as to why he was like that to me if in his head he loved me. He knows im the best thing that has happened so why does he continue to ruin everything and then plays the victim? IN HIS MIND HE REALLY THINKS HE IS THE VICTIM AND HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG😣 why? In his head he really thinks hes the victim but then only rare occasions he actually realizes how he is. He cant help it supposedly maybe there is something mentally wrong with him.. why though does he do this , this undending cycle of insanity? Hes not happy and he will never be if he continues being how he is. He has so much hate for himself its so sad to me. But please.. why? I cant gey the answer from him bc he doesnt even know. Ive been researching but dont seem to find what im looking for…thats the only thing i need to know i feel to finally be free for good and finally move on Mentally and emotionally. Please help me</3

    1. Hello, Katrina. Dear one, I am so sorry to read your story and to know how deeply you are hurting.

      Let me say from the outset that there is nothing wrong with you, but there is terribly wrong with the way your boyfriend treats you. It is abusive. Why he is abusive is irrelevant. The countless ways he finds to rationalize his treatment is also irrelevant. He is hurting you, and he is unhealthy, but you are responsible for taking care of you, not him. Abuse is a dynamic, which means that it is essentially always the same – the tactics are the same, the mindset is the same, and as abuse victims, we tend to respond the same. So the important thing is to acknowledge that you’re not making him you treat you this way. It is not your fault. He wants to control you using a combination of confusion and fear.

      You cannot fix him. You cannot help him. You cannot change him. That is not your job. And love doesn’t treat people like that. But, you also need to know that as soon as you figure that out, he will suddenly “change.” He will cry and apologize and bring you flowers and tell you “it will never happen again.” Don’t believe it. That’s all part of the game. You need to get away from him and keep him away from you for an extended period of time (which may mean getting a restraining order in your case). This is the only way to detox and step back and begin to see what is really going on in the relationship. But the odds are extremely low that the man you are describing has any intention of changing – so you’re going to have to do all the changing. Hear me: there is nothing you could have done to prevent this, but there is a lot you can do to break free and learn what it means to be truly loved and cared for, but it will not be easy. He will turn up the pressure or he will attempt to shame you into taking him back.

      Just say ‘no,’ and see how he responds. You already have, and look at how he treats you! That is not love. If you had a friend in a similar situation, what would you tell her? I think I know…

      Please feel free to e-mail me from the About Cindy/Contact Cindy page. And you might want to consider scheduling a coaching session if you can. It is fee-based, but reasonably priced, and a lot can be accomplished in a single hour. You can find more information on my website.

      Katrina, I can help you to walk through this, but you are going to have to stand your ground, and know that he will not make it easy. I have been where you are, so I know.

      But you are not alone, and you are not crazy. And you need to get him away from you. Someone who really loves you wouldn’t make you feel the way you are feeling right now. You might want to check out, “Leaving An Abuser: What to Expect and How to Stay Grounded.” http://www.hurtbylove.com/leaving-an-abuser-what-to-expect-and-how-to-stay-grounded/

      Please keep in touch. I’m here to help.

      Cindy

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