Passive and Controlling Abuse: A Dictatorial Form of Emotional Violence

If you put together a list of all the primary strategies that abusers woman behind barsuse to keep their victims living a life of emotional paralysis, 99% of them would probably apply to the man to whom I was married for 20 years.  But as I read and hear other women’s stories, other more subtle patterns emerge, and among them is a practice I have struggled to identify even in my own history, a bizarre combination of passive and controlling abuse.

When we think of abuse, it is easier (in a manner of speaking) to imagine the yelling, threatening behavior, name-calling and other obvious means of instilling deep-seated fear and confusion.  But what of the calm, quiet, even silent methods an abuser uses to send a message, to remind his poor victim that she doesn’t matter, that he is always in charge?  What does that look like?

It hurts to remember these events from my past, but this pattern needs to be explored.  So here I go.

I knew when we began dating that my future husband had some major health issues, but in my insecurity, even his limitations represented an opportunity for me to prove myself.  But if I was attending an event or engaged at a get-together at a friend’s house, he would call the house and demand that I drop whatever I was doing to come and be with him, even if there was no crisis.  It didn’t matter if what I was participating in was something enjoyable to me; any protest or reason to delay was met with an inference that I needed to be more attentive to him and I was selfish if I didn’t.

Thus it began.

After evening church services, we would often go to a nearby café to socialize either alone or with others from the college group.  In the colder months, I would usually order hot chocolate and, when it was placed before me with a mound of whipped cream nestled on top, he would promptly grab a spoon, scoop off the cream  and eat it.  When I would object and tell him that I wanted it, he would laugh and say, “But I wanted it.” It seems like a relatively small thing, I know, but his message to me was not only that what I wanted did not matter, but that first and foremost, what he wanted was always more important than anything I might want.

After we were married (true evidence of the depth of my denial), there was a span of a couple of years when I was I being persecuted by a superior at my job.  Some days I would come home rightly upset by my supervisor’s latest effort to get me fired, and my husband would hasten me along during the few minutes I sought to share the stresses of my day.  “Uh-huh, Uh-huh,” he would mutter as I spoke.  I finally asked him why he was so intent on running me over when I needed him to listen to me, and he told me, “I just need you to get over your stuff so that you can be there for me.”  And that was the way it was.

Then, after giving birth to our first child, it became quickly apparent how profoundly exhausting it is to care for a newborn.  When our daughter was just a few weeks old, I was informed that I could not successfully nurse our daughter and we turned to formula, which at least meant that my husband could help me a little more with the closely timed feedings.  But he soon made it known that any additional assistance he might provide would have to happen on his schedule.  On weekends, I would explain to him that I was going to take a desperately needed nap, having been sleep-deprived for days on end.  He would allow me only an hour or two of rest, if that.  Then, from my slumber I would hear the bedroom door open, and he would come into the bedroom with our infant daughter in his arms and hold her in front of my face and say, “Somebody needs her mommy,” in his sing-song voice.  He was telling me that he had been inconvenienced long enough. He had better things to do, and I needed to get up and take over.

On some weekends, after having been up much of the night, I would awaken him at a reasonable hour in the morning and petition him to take over our daughter’s care for me, so I could return to bed to get some much-needed rest.  “No,” he would say emphatically and pull the covers up over his shoulders and go back to sleep.  There is not one instance I can recall over the course of eight years and giving birth to four children when my husband ever helped me in that regard.  And on the rare occasion that I made plans well in advance to go out with friends or attend an event with the understanding that he would take care of our little one, he would act like he didn’t remember or he would say, “Well, you’ll either have to take the baby with you, or you can stay home.”  Of course, I tried to reason with him, and I’m sure that, when all was said and done, he appreciated having another opportunity to shut me down.

Then there were issues with the finances.  Although early in our marriage, we were equally wise and frugal, after several years passed, I discovered that significant sums of money were being consistently withdrawn from our joint bank account.  But there were no receipts and nothing to show for the funds, and I would ask him how the money was being spent.

“On good things,” he would say.  When pressed, he would protest, saying, “I don’t have to give an accounting to you.”  Perhaps in some circumstances that might be considered acceptable, but we were struggling financially (probably for just that reason), and it was my responsibility to pay the bills and balance the checkbook.  Many times, sitting at the kitchen table with our bills before me, I couldn’t help but cry as I struggled to figure out how we were going to manage, and he would walk by and pat me on the shoulder and say, “You’ll figure it out.”  Of course, that meant that either our children or I would have to do without while he continued to buy whatever he wanted – and while additional funds continued to mysteriously vanish.  On several occasions I found large sums of cash stashed in an envelope in our linen closet, even while I was barely making ends meet.  When questioned about the cash, he would tell me, “That’s my money.”  Trying to explain to him that he had a wife and children with legitimate needs was like talking to a brick wall.  So in addition to my other responsibilities, I clipped coupons and shopped clearance and went without.  That was perfectly fine with him.

Then there were other seemingly little things.  At one point in our relationship, he stopped hanging up the bathroom towels after using them.  He would leave them in a heap on the bathroom floor, and when I would ask him to hang them up, he said he didn’t feel like it.  No amount of discussion would persuade him.  Guess whose job that became?  In addition to that daily annoyance, he also decided he didn’t want to help with much of anything around the house.  At one point, I asked him to help the kids with their schoolwork to relieve a portion of my load.  That didn’t last long.  His impatience soon sabotaged any teaching moment, and he began to treat the kids like they were stupid.  So I went back to teaching them myself, which was the outcome he intended.  In his passive-aggressive fashion, he had absolved himself of that responsibility and placed it on my already-overburdened shoulders while simultaneously hurting and alienating his children.

And since he was home on disability for many months as a result of his illness, and I was working full-time to support the family, I needed to him to at least drop off and pick up our kids from school.  After a few months of doing that, he announced that he wasn’t going to take the kids to school, as he wanted to sleep in.  Even though I had to leave for work before the kids had to be at school, he flatly refused.  So I had to seek out help from other parents for my eldest and rearrange my work schedule in order to get the younger ones to school.  And even though it was still his responsibility to pick them up from school, sometimes he just didn’t show up.

Then there were family vacations, if you could call them that.  I was responsible for planning the trip, making reservations, planning our menu, and buying the food.  That wasn’t so bad.  I was also responsible for getting together the lawn chairs and the beach umbrella and towels, packing up the ice chest and the food, packing for myself and all four kids along with toiletries and everything else and getting it outside to load.  My husband would pack his own suitcase and show up outside to load up the van.  Once it was packed, we would all climb in.  Suddenly, the man would say that he would be right back and hop out of the van.  And my heart would sink.  But I would try to chat with the kids and we would sit there and wait 10 or 15 minutes, and then I would go inside to see what was taking him so long.  I would find him wandering around the house, like he was looking for some excuse to be there.  I would remind him that we were all in the car waiting, and he would become irritated at me for nagging him.  It was his passive-aggressive way of telling all of us – and me in particular – that we weren’t going anywhere until he was good and ready.

Once on the road, I would put in a CD that all of the kids liked so that they could sing along.  We would have a wonderful time until…midway through the CD, he would stop the music and eject the CD and tell us that he’d had enough and wanted to listen to his music.  And we would all sit in silence while he listened to something that only he enjoyed.  He just couldn’t allow us to have that much fun.  He needed to make sure we knew that what he wanted was more important than us having a good time.  Then he would drive unbelievably slow in the fast lane, and if I would encourage him to pick up the speed a little or move into the slow lane out of respect for the other drivers, he would become angry and tell me that the other drivers would just have to go around him.  He knew his self-centered attitude bothered me, which I am sure gave him all the more satisfaction.

There were the summer evenings when he would agree to barbecue chicken or burgers for dinner, and I would ask him when we could expect to eat so that I could plan the rest of the meal.  Whatever time he suggested was never the time we ate.  He would dawdle and putter around doing God-knows-what.  “A few more minutes” would turn into two hours, and the kids and I would always be famished by the time the meat finally came off the grill.  He would get angry if I expressed any frustration and note how ungrateful the kids and I were in light of all of his effort.

The man also made sure we were late to everything – dinner reservations, family events, holiday celebrations, doctors’ appointments, and parent-teacher meetings.  At one point, I asked him directly why he was always late, and he told me, “Because no one is ever going to tell me when I have to be anywhere.”

And he meant it.  Many years into our marriage, I had a miscarriage and had to have a procedure to have our unborn child’s body removed from mine.  In recovery that afternoon, I called and left a message to let him know I was ready to come home.  He didn’t call, and he didn’t come to pick me up.  Hours passed.  Every other patient had been picked up by their loved ones, and the outpatient clinic closed.  The nurses did paperwork and turned out most of the lights and packed up to leave while they waited for my husband to arrive.  I apologized profusely and continued to call him.  It was an hour after the clinic had closed that he finally came to get me – unaffected and unapologetic.  And that evening, as I sat physically and emotionally exhausted on the sofa, he chatted away with his mother while the children sweetly took turns snuggling with me.  The man made it clear by his body language that he had no intention of acknowledging any emotional or physical need I might have.  Conveying even a smidgeon of sympathy might have deprived him of the supremacy he had worked so hard to procure.

Yet this was the same man who could hug me and tell me that he loved me every single day, and I so wanted that to be true that it kept me holding on, believing that he would one day see me and want to protect and take care of me and our kids.  But that day never came, and looking back I can see that it was all just one big, shameless power trip.  And part of me wonders – if I had shared these incidents with the pastor at our church or a Christian counselor – would they have identified these actions as abusive?  Or would they have condescendingly patted me on the back and told me that I needed to be more understanding and sympathetic to his physical limitations and commit myself to devoted, loving prayer?  Actually, that’s pretty much what did happen.  And I did strive to be more understanding and sympathetic, and I prayed my heart out and cried myself to sleep on more nights than I could count.

But now I know the truth:  a wicked man was intent on ruling and controlling every aspect of our lives.  All of it was cold and calculated, purposeful, intentional and detrimental to all of us who lived under it.  Lacking the knowledge or the will to stand up to him without doubting myself or feeling guilty or wondering what other people might think, I gave in, gave up, gave him what he wanted.  I foolishly gave myself and our kids away to the  insanity.

I’m so sorry I didn’t see it for what it was, so sorry I didn’t tell that heartless jackass to get out and go away forever.  Yet so many incidents didn’t seem overtly abusive, but took the form of a quieter, dictatorial kind of emotional violence.

There was nothing ignorant or innocent about it.  He knew exactly what he was doing, yet none of the actions described here left any scars – at least not visible ones.  Nevertheless, the message conveyed by controlling and passive aggression is this: “You don’t matter.  Your emotional, physical and social needs don’t matter.  Your heart, soul and mind don’t matter.  And your wounds and tears and scars – they don’t matter either.”

Those are lies.  You do matter – all of it matters.

So, dear reader, if you find yourself living under the dark shadow of this kind of abuse, then I pray you will remove yourself and your children from the presence of the one who feels nothing – except perhaps a sick sort of satisfaction – when he says and does those kinds of things to you.

Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved

17 thoughts on “Passive and Controlling Abuse: A Dictatorial Form of Emotional Violence”

  1. Thank you for this post. Feeling so guilty for not getting out, yet. Always seems to be a circumstance or my health that alters this. Continuing to plead with God for a better support system to move on.

    1. Hello, again…

      You need not feel guilty. Wisdom and timing are important. Keep your eyes open and look for options. Share your situation with those who might be able to help or advise you.

      I will be praying for you.


    2. I moved out with 8 kids and God. No support system at all. My family judged and said I was wrong, church people turned against me. God has given me my health back and provided!

      1. Hello, Trish.

        Wow! What a powerful testimony. I’m curious as to the specifics. If you ever have time, I hope you might e-mail me and share. I know others could be powerfully encouraged by what your story.

        Again, thank you for writing.


  2. Hey, Cindy, yeah, wow, know what you mean! Sorry all of us have to go through cruel, rude, nastiness like that…

    RE: what you wrote about getting some help with the babies reminded me of one time as a brand new mother, first time around, I ended up with a severe double-ear infection, double “swimmer’s ear,” that had been treated incorrectly by the first doctor causing me so much pain I literally passed out for hours one day until the second doctor saw me and began treating it correctly. He said my ear canals were so swollen that had I waited even a few hours longer to get a second opinion and the correct medication and treatment protocol it would have required surgery.

    Fortunately, my mother was visiting for a few of those days and could care for the baby. Then, she left. I was still in pain and had of course lost sleep (not to mention about 8 pounds in that week. It hurt so bad I could barely chew, swallow).

    I asked my ex to please get up with the baby that first night after Mom left, because I was beyond exhausted. He literally put his foot on my back and shoved me out of bed, asking me what kind of a mother I was to not get up with her own baby. Said, “you can stop faking now, your mother is gone.”

    Oh. My. God.

    And I had forty more years to go.

    He became much subtler and stopped the physical stuff after I left him the first time (about a year and a half after that incident). But the slow burn of contempt remained and his “passive aggressive” abuse also remained.

    In between the good times, of course, where I hoped and prayed and wished and tried, tried, tried to do the right thing..and repented of my own wrong doings and so on…you know the drill…

    The passive aggression is actually far harder to deal with, as you note, because they become so good at crafting their evil with enough plausible deniability that cognitive dissonance kicks in for the target which, of course, is one more thing that keeps her from leaving.

    As you know, what really set me free, finally, was when I truly understood that divorce is not the unforgiveable sin (thanks, in part, to YOUR writing on this topic) which happened just a few months’ prior to his last rage against me. Out of the blue…

    It still puzzles me how many Christians are so almost rabid about staying with abusers!

    On this, finally recovered, end of that whole experience, I am still praising God for leading me to safety, and to peace.

    It’s been a long, hard, painful three and one-half years of recovery, but worth every single solitary minute.


    1. Hello again, P.

      Your account is heart-wrenching and horrible, although it is not altogether surprising. I cannot believe you went through that double ear infection without any support from your husband, and that you lived like that for so many years.

      As hard as it is to read your story, I do appreciate the shared experience. Like you noted, sometimes it still feels like maybe there was something I could have done or something I did to deserve it, a piece of the puzzle that I missed. But, no. There is nothing we could have done to make our abusers NOT abuse us.

      Three and a half years out… Praise God! I’m glad you broke free – and I am honored and blessed to have had a small part in your recovery.



  3. Oh.My.Goodness! How I could relate to so much of your past experience, Cindy. 🙁

    My ex never helped at all when our boys were babies. I remember after my oldest son was born I decided to take an aerobics class to tone back up and just to get out of the house since I was a stay-at-home mom. The class was in the evening after my then-husband got home from work and could sit with our son for the 1 1/2 hours I was gone. I quit after about 3 classes because each time I came home my ex would be sitting on the couch watching tv with our son on his lap screaming bloody murder. He refused to do anything for him and who knows how long he allowed that poor baby to just cry. I would be up rest of the night trying to comfort my son and get him to nurse, while my ex would just go to bed.

    What is wrong with these people??!!! And to think I stayed 20 years and the past couple years have had to deal with my oldest son (who was the baby in the story) lash out at me because he chose to believe all the lies his father said about me after he left us. My son told me how hateful I was, how I ruined all of his birthdays and Christmases, etc etc. That almost destroyed me completely especially thinking back on stories like the one I shared and remembering so many others where it was me that took care of him and my youngest son, it was me who sacrificed so much for those boys and who rooted them on while their father tore them down, told them they were stupid and hated them crying as he belittled them.

    Fortunately, my oldest son treats me better but there is still an elephant in the room with us. Perhaps one day he will choose to believe the truth. For not I love him unconditionally and continue to stand beside him no matter what.

    Wow, what you shared made me cry as it brought back so many horrible memories. Yes, you lived with abuse and I lived with abuse, and so many women out there live with this type of abuse and are often told to just be more respectful and loving because obviously their husband is struggling with a lot which makes him act the way he does.

    No!!! These women need to hear it loud and clear — he is acting this way because he chooses to. Our struggles, our circumstances do not make us do anything; we all have a choice on how we treat others no matter what is happening in our lives.

    I pray that your words, that all of our stories of life after abuse, will speak loud and clear to others who read them so that they may gain the courage and confidence to say no more!


    1. Hello again, Amy.

      Thank you for sharing more about your history and your present situation – and for validating my horrible experience. It’s hard to share those things, because they are so bizarre, and the abuser’s motivations are so very hard to nail down. We grow accustomed to diminishing our own experience and choosing to assume the best of someone who does not deserve our goodwill.

      I completely understand the situation with regard to your sons’ decision to believe the tall tales told by their father. I have to believe that, as time passes, the man will not be able to keep the charade going, and your sons will see the truth. I have to believe that the elephant in the room will be exposed and will lose his power in your lives.

      If you are interested, you might want to check out “Seven Long Years.”
      It might be a little bit of an encouragement to you.

      I’m following your blog now. Just noticed that you have one!

      In His grace,


  4. How do get out? Especially when the kids don’t understand, and financially you can’t afford it? I told our counselor, in front of my husband, I wanted a separation, I need a break. When my husband said he wouldn’t do it, because if the kids, the counselor went along with him. And I’d want him to leavee and the kids in the house. He has family where we live. I don’t. It just seems impossible.

    1. Hello, Jennifer.

      I’m very sorry to learn of your situation, but I am glad you took the time to write and seek some feedback.

      There are a lot of issues at play here.

      First off, it is a sad truth that couples counseling rarely works where abuse is involved. Abusers know how to play the counselor game, and many counselors (who don’t really understand the abuse dynamic) put the onus on the abused spouse to figure out a way to make it work.

      With regard to separation, you might want to meet privately with your counselor (or find one who understands abuse) and see if you can get a stronger measure of support. However, if he is unwilling to leave, I would encourage you to pursue options that would allow you to leave and, I trust, take your children with you. Of course, your husband won’t like it if you leave, but ongoing suffering may require drastic action.

      Begin to tell your secrets, share your needs, ask for help. I know you prefer to be in your home with your kids, but your husband knows that and will use that to keep you bound to him. You may need to be willing to do what is uncomfortable to draw attention to the truth and demand better. Also, should you leave, your husband may recognize that he looks like a jerk for forcing his own wife and kids out of the house. Perception generally matters to abusers. Your leaving may provide some motivation for him to go stay with his family for a while and allow you and your kids to come home, just so he doesn’t look like the bad guy. No guarantees, just putting it out there for your consideration.

      If you haven’t already done so, I would encourage you to read, “Leaving An Abuser,” on the site, as well as “Checklist Blackmail,” two articles which identify some very common responses of abusers in these situations.

      Also, if you’re interested, I do provide phone consulting on a by-the-minute basis ($1.08 a minute/$65 an hour). It has proven to be very productive for those who choose to take advantage of this service. However, I am leaving town tomorrow evening and will not be available again until the first of August. Just so you know…

      You are welcome to contact me through the website as you have need.

      Let me just assure you that nothing is impossible. Identify every option and start pursuing them.

      I’m glad you took the time to write. I hope you will keep me informed.


  5. Jennifer,

    I understand your situation as related to my own “rocks and hard places” in my former marriage. The time I left for good was the second time, but after many years. The first time, I was pregnant and we also had a toddler, I had no money of my own, having quit work to stay at home with the kids, and I was living a few thousand miles from my family, so no local support.

    I encourage you to follow Cindy’s suggestions, ESPECIALLY to find a counselor just for YOURSELF and one who COMPREHENDS abuse. Not all do, and, unfortunately, many Christian counselors, if you are a believer, will just pass it off as the wife not submitting enough or some such nonsense. They simply do not comprehend the seriousness of life with an abuser. I’ll leave it at that.

    In the MEANTIME, I suggest you employ something called “going grey (or gray) rock.” The name comes from the idea to become as boring as, well, a grey rock. Until you can get away with your children, this may buy you a little mental respite and help preserve your energy for the work ahead. It also helps tamp down the abuser’s rage.Here are a couple of examples of how to “go grey rock”:

    Answer briefly and to the point. Minimize emotion as much as possible with him (this is hard at first but becomes easier). If he starts some kind of argument (because he will miss his drama), you either do not have to respond, or, say something very simple, such as “Hmmm that’s interesting,” and walk away.

    It’s also effective to respond with, “Let me think about that for awhile,” if he is the type who demands instant responses in order to take his verbal abuse to the next level.

    If he is the type who tends to come at you with what I call “the buckshot approach,” that is, he keeps adding more and different topics of accusation/blame into his diatribe in order to confuse you or ramp up the drama, simply go for a pencil and a piece of paper. Tell him something simple like “It’s hard to remember all your points, so I want to write them down.” Then be sure to ask him to repeat something if you don’t get it all. And insist on answering very minimally, each point, in turn.

    This can be very tedious at first, but they catch on pretty quickly, because it takes the wind out of their sails, so you may not have to do this more than a few times.

    Those are just a couple of “grey rock” ideas until you are out and away, which I hope is soon.

    God speed.

    1. Wonderful counsel. Gray-rocking is not an easy thing to do, because it requires quelling our emotions to some degree, but it certainly makes sense when it comes to basic survival until other options become available. Thank you for offering this helpful insight…

  6. Bullying is seen to be prevalent in organisations where employees and managers feel that they have the support, or at least implicitly the blessing, of senior managers to carry on their abusive and bullying behaviour. Furthermore, new managers will quickly come to view this form of behaviour as acceptable and normal if they see others get away with it and are even rewarded for it.

    1. I agree that bullying is a fairly common tactic designed to intimidate employees into submission (however unnecessary or unproductive). Nevertheless, depending on where you live, there are usually governmental regulations and protections designed to safeguard employees from such treatment. If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to see if there is a governmental agency devoted to fair employment practices with which you could file a report. If other employees are willing to report similar issues, that will lend additional credence to your complaint. As a whistle-blower, you may also be protected from any punishment or retribution for filing a complaint.

      Keep records of events and interactions. Build a case. And in the meantime, it might be wise to look for other work. I know that’s easier said than done, but no one should have to work under such stressful conditions. Depending on the business, sometimes reporting to management that you are being subject to a “hostile work environment” will trigger immediate attention, an investigation and efforts to address the problems you report. Keep that in mind, as well.

      I certainly advise against doing anything that might jeopardize your employment if you can avoid it with the intent of finding another, better position elsewhere.

      I hope you find success in your efforts to address this difficult situation and hope you will let me know what you decide to do and how things develop moving forward.



  7. The passive-aggressive behaviors are always so confusing! Abusers take advantage of our hearts, hearts that want to see the good in others, hearts that are giving and unselfish, hearts that try to “look at their own log” etc. It takes a lot of studying of the truth to really understand what forgiveness looks like, what constitutes fellowship, what we can overlook and what we should NOT overlook. Its like a whole new education. Then once you feel like you have a handle on what is happening, you try and elicit help and BAM! You are thrown back into the confusing mire, doubting your own gut feelings, doubting the truth that looked SO clear. It’s a miracle from God that anyone finds their way out of the confusion. You are a big part of the miracle, Cindy!

    1. You are very kind, Debby… I’m glad to know that you have benefited from what I have learned through this journey. I think we have all been subject to a tremendous amount of guilt and faith-based manipulation while abusers continue in their sick game. It’s sad, but hopefully as we spread the truth, others will begin to see this reality and amend their response – to help the hurting and condemn those doing the hurting.

      It’s good to hear from you and to know that you have become so grounded and strong.

      Thanks for taking the time to share.

      All the best,


  8. I learned today that my sons think their daddy is King of the House and that his word is law and I have to obey like they do. If what he says goes against what I said, then his ruling overturns mine or he gets grumpy. No wonder I feel unequal.

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