Emotional Manipulation and Coercive Control
Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Power and misuse of power create issues in relationships and great harm to those being manipulated and abused. All misuse of power is about exploitation and tactics of mind control. From gaslighting to screaming insults and other games of messing with the victim’s mind. Emotional manipulation and controlling behaviors can take many forms in relationships where there is an imbalance of power. Understanding coercive control which is a pervasive process of mental abuse helps you understand the dynamics of why people stay in unhealthy relationships and what to do if you are living under controlling conditions.
The need to dominate others thought abuse is passed down through the generations. Living with domination encourages the less sensitive to the needs of others children to imitate bullying and other emotional abuse behaviors applied to dominate others. Learning to deal with misuse of power in your relationship may prevent your child from taking on some of a behaviors of the manipulative and abusive parent.
Experts in the mental health field call this emotional, mental or psychological abuse or coercive control. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines psychological and emotional abuse as: “the systematic perpetration of malicious and explicit nonphysical acts against an intimate partner, child, or dependent adult.”
In legal terms, coercive control is ongoing behaviors designed to control friends, money, education and employment, monitoring the victim’s activities and using threats of violence that have a malevolent intent. It is micromanaging another person’s life to impose negative consequences for non-compliance with their demands. Coercive control behaviors are recognized as the beginnings of domestic violence in the courts by the United Kingdom, Colorado, Illinois and Arizona. Mary Ann Dutton and Lisa Goodman defined coercion as “a dynamic process in which a batterer makes a demand and threatens a negative consequence for non-compliance with the demand.”
Psychologist Lewis Okun compared the coercive control behaviors of woman battering with the coerced persuasion of pimps who control prostitutes. The ongoing controlling behaviors bring about the ‘‘breakdown’’ of the victim’s personality with constant threats and isolation. The woman’s adaptation to this onslaught of mind games resulted in loss of self-esteem, guilt, identifying with the controller’s aggressiveness, fear of escape and the inability to plan for the future. He compared tactics of coercive control with the mind-control techniques as related by prisoners of war during the Korean conflict. Okun stressed that any “normal person” would react in becoming confused and overwhelmed losing their sense of self.
Evan Stark showed that coercive control is part of the total model of domestic violence, and the dynamics of domestic violence can be best understood through examining the behaviors that take away a person’s fundamental human rights of autonomy. Domestic violence expert, Lundy Bancroft in his classic book, Why Does He Do That? identified abusive behaviors that some men use to dominate their partners. This includes the heady rush of power that getting his way brings about. And then there is the “hook” or those behaviors designed to pull the abused partner back in. Crying, profuse apologies and promises to do better keep the woman off balance. Occasional indulgences, gifts and acts of kindness are interspersed with threats, mind games and enforcing trivial demands.
According to the research, it is mostly men who commit domestic violence. Men who have the need to control women look for partners who are vulnerable, empathetic, submissive, and codependent. They test a potential partner out by making small demands and observing how the woman gives in. Women who set realistic boundaries regarding fair treatment at the beginning of a relationship are weeded out.
Sandra L. Brown, author of Women Who Love Psychopaths, says that the best victims for brainwashing are typically: previous victims of abuse or neglect, perfectionists, resourceful, self-sacrificing persons who are dependent, vulnerable with poor self-esteem and excess guilt. The abuser attacks the victim’s sense of self by saying derogatory comments to try to define the victim and cause her to break down and doubt her values and identity as a good and competent person. (“You’re stupid. You can’t do anything right. You are a slut.”)
Angry and aggressive men often believe and often state that they cannot control their behavior. This belief enables them to continue to avoid taking responsibility for manipulative, abusive behavior. While this can happen when a woman is controlling and jealous, coercive control is often an insecure man’s way of remaining in charge. This is a form of “male privilege” where the man believes that he has the right to dominate and control his partner. He does not have this belief concerning friends and the boss. Offenders are also able to control the way and the amount in which they abuse. The emotional manipulation can be premeditated although it may seem to the survivor to happen out of the blue.
Typical Control Tactics
They don’t give you a choice. You have to do what they say because you’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
They call you names, tell you that you are crazy and take every opportunity to put you down.
They monitor your outings and you phone and accuses you of things that you did not do.
They become angry if you don’t give in to what they want. They use anger to intimidate you.
They let you know that they are somehow above you and what you do is insignificant.
They hide things from you and don’t answer phone calls, text messages, or emails right away.
They gossip about you and share your secrets and insecurities with others.
They puff up and brag about what they do and demean your accomplishments.
They claim to always know what is best for you and pressure you to allow them to make your own choices.
They become angry when you give needed feedback or tease them.
They have an internal core of shame and feel bad if confronted.
They can never let you have the last word. They can’t lose an argument.
They don’t have the ability to compromise. They can only see things through their way of thinking which is all about them.
They may punish you by withholding sex, affection, or even conversation giving you the cold shoulder.
The Women Who Love Them
Coercive control should be examined in terms of the relationship and the dynamics of exploitation. It takes two people to set up this unhealthy situation. The abuser knows that their exploitation holds a promise to the victim that suggests it will meet some deep seated need within. Exploitive relationships create toxic trauma bonds. Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships tells us that, “Those who (exploit) read their victims well. They appeal to the emptiness and the wounds of others.”
The woman is typically stuck in codependent beliefs and behaviors which she views as “love” that she can’t let go of at least at first in the early stages of the relationship. Some abused women are highly committed to their relationship and keep hoping for a change in his manipulative behavior. They live on false hope that he will change for the better. Some are fearful that their partner cannot cope with a separation and become violent.
Some abused women are committed to their relationship, love their partner, and hope for a change in the relationship. They live on false hope that he will change for the better. They stay as they are financially dependent or fear retaliation and even murder from their partner. Some are fearful that their partner cannot cope with a separation and could not make it on his own. Some fear that he will attempt suicide, as he may have threatened.on and could not make it on his own or feel sorry for him. Some fear that he will attempt suicide as he has threatened.
Other Recognized Forms of Abuse
Legal Abuse is secondary trauma of going through a harsh, coercive, manipulative court process during and after divorce determine to break the person down and create high legal fees. Perpetrators gaining custody of children is a nightmare for some women. Coercive tactics threaten a child’s well being as it teaches patterns of manipulation and emotionally aggressive behavior as a means of control others. The abusive, vindictive parent who previously had little interest in parenting tries to get custody of the child drawing out the legal procedures for several years to avoid paying custody or to get back at the other parent. Mind games are played with the child held as pawn to keeping the coercive control and abuse going.
Manipulation of a child’s mind to interrupt their attachment bonds with the other parent in a negative way is abusive. Parental Alienation is where one parent uses lies, put downs and other manipulative behaviors to maliciously enlist the children to disparage the other parent and cut them off emotionally and sometimes breaking the healthy parent-child bond.
Exposure to Continuing Abuse May Lead to a Mental Health Diagnosis
Women who have experienced emotional manipulation may have symptoms of an Acute Stress Disorder as the controlling tactics cause them to lose their sense of integrity to the self. Many individuals who have experienced coercive control in the past along with abuse are diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As a response to severe stress, the individual may have a decrease in emotional responsiveness, often finding it difficult to experience pleasure. They have trouble concentrating, expressing their thoughts, feel detached, experience the world as dreamlike, or have increasing difficulty recalling details of the traumatic event (dissociative amnesia). They may have recurrent recollections, images, thoughts, dreams, illusions, flashbacks, reliving the event, or distress on exposure to reminders of the event. They may be hyper-vigilant and try to avoid people and places where the trauma occurred. They may become anxious, hyper-aroused or depressed. They have difficulty sleeping, exhibit irritability, an exaggerated startle response, and motor restlessness.
Seeking Help: There are Many Resources to Help Break the Toxic Bonds of Abuse
Education is key in helping people break into this power imbalance. Support and being validated for the trauma that they’ve gone through is part of the healing process for the woman and child who’ve been caught in these control issues. Individual therapy with trained clinicians and group therapy helps the traumatized individual regain their sense of self.
Currently there are many new blogs, workshops, web pages, books and Facebook pages that describe the manipulative relationship dynamics. Many people in our society are “outing” unhealthy, selfish patterns of behavior of their parents and former partners where people’s basic human rights are being trampled. Lay people and professionals alike are stepping forward to educate people as to the risk factors for abuse and help emotionally abused people learn their rights and stand up for themselves. You can be part of this movement by sharing this and other information on narcissism and sociopathic behavior.
Start with Educating Children about Coercive Control and Abuse
Teaching adults about the characteristics of narcissism and about setting healthy boundaries is a good start however, the information needs to reach young people who are not aware of destructive love relationships and how it can damage their self-esteem.
Children from happy families often grow up and make good marriage choices while children from unhappy families are more likely to marry negative or angry partners. It has to do with how the child learned to cope with negative emotions, process threat and regulate their emotions. Healthy parents model positive ways of dealing with conflict and stress. They teach their children about working with feelings and self-soothing while unhappy and stressed parents are too overwhelmed to pay attention to the child’s emotional needs. This study shows that children from happy families learn to disengage from negative emotional experiences while children from strained families don’t disengage but move their focus away from negative stimuli.
Another study showed that children are choosing romantic relationships earlier than in the past. Children as young as age twelve reported dating violence. Arguments and accusations of jealousy have increased in romantic relationships of young people. Fighting is the new norm as it gives great drama to relationships. Girls, as well as boys, are participating in accusations, name calling, manipulations and physical acts of aggression. Young people need to understand destruction patterns of attraction, dependency, manipulation and control. They need to be taught how to avoid people who won’t listen to healthy boundaries. Naive, vulnerable girls who are needy and seek attention and love are especially at risk for allowing unhealthy relationships as they don’t have the emotional maturity and skills to break out of toxic partnerships.
Teach your children to not put up with bullying classmates but move away from them and choose kinder friends. I’ve had a number of anxious ten year old girls brought to see me in therapy with a problem of having a popular friend who is also a bully. Learning about how to pick true friends and learn skills to move on helped the girls decrease anxiety. Staying in a bad situation causes and not knowing if you should leave or how to leave causes situational anxiety—move out of the situation and you are no longer anxious or depressed. How to slowly disengage from unhealthy relationships and stopping the narcissistic supply to the bully are skills that can be learned so that the negative friend does not turn on your child and begin to bully them.
My book, The King and Queen of Mean, helps children of selfish or personality disordered parents understand the behaviors of manipulation. It’s tough being a child of a selfish or hateful parent or relative. This book gives a light-hearted explanation about the self-involved or cruel behavior of family members. It encourages your child to observe how people treat each other so that they can make informed choices as to who they want to become. Education about abusive behaviors is so important in helping children choose healthy friends and romantic relationships. As your child grows up, he or she will encounter the concept of personality disorders and draw their own conclusions about the actions of egotistical, self-centered family members.