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Yes, Abusive Partners Brainwash Their Victims

Abusers deliberately make their partners feel disoriented, dependent and worthless. Learn how to recover from this type of control

Domesticshelters.org  | By Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD

“I felt like he programmed me.”

“I wasn’t myself.”

“I couldn’t think for myself. I really couldn’t think at all.”

“I would look in the mirror and feel like I wasn’t there.”

The above quotes from survivors of domestic abuse show the effects of mind control, also known as brainwashing. An abusive partner can make you feel extremely disoriented—sometimes not even knowing your own thoughts. The abuser overwhelms your views, desires and opinions through mind control. Over time, you may lose a sense that you even have a right to your own perspectives. This is called perspecticide—the abuse-related incapacity to know what you know.

Brainwashing Tactics

How do abusers take over their partners’ minds? Here are some ways, suggested by abuse survivors I have met in workshops and support groups:

  • Blocking their partner from making decisions about things that matter
  • Keeping their partner sleepy and even malnourished
  • Pushing their partner to consume alcohol and drugs
  • Slipping drugs into their partner’s drinks without their knowledge
  • Restricting access to information
  • Exhausting them physically (through forced labor in or outside the home)
  • Enforcing impossible rules with punishments for “disobedience”
  • Humiliating and injuring their partner through sex
  • Manipulating their partner through lies, the silent treatment, and gaslighting
  • Making their partners “crack” mentally by torturing them. For example, by denying them needed medication, locking them in a room, forcing them to listen to two talk radio stations at once, denying them access to showers, or forcing them to harm their own child or pet.

One survivor described what she endured as “a blitzkrieg of mental abuse,” as her husband told her that she was stupid and useless. She said that, eventually, she came to believe that her husband was right, “Maybe he is the only one who loves me or will love me.” She began to think of herself as pitiful, which made it even harder for her to defend herself against the next verbal assault. Even years after leaving the abusive situation, some survivors report that it is difficult to get the abuser’s voice out of their heads, leading them to believe that they are worthless and unlovable.

Reasons Abusers Brainwash

Abusers use mind control for the same reasons they use intimidation, isolation, putdowns, control of the finances, and a host of other tactics, according to Craig McIntosh, LCSW, who has more than 20 years’ experience with batterers and sex offenders. “They need to feel control over their partner and the dynamics of the relationship. Often, they are driven by crippling attachment anxiety. But I would suspect that most abusers who go to the trouble of intentionally creating crazy-making scenarios do it out of a sadistic need to watch others suffer.” McIntosh describes abusers deliberately causing their partners to doubt their perceptions and ultimately their sanity. He added that abusers use this kind of gaslighting not only to make victims feel as if they are crazy, but also to cover up lies such as criminal activity or infidelity.

Hard to Leave or Stay Away

Brainwashing can make it extremely difficult for a person to leave an abusive partner. If a victim makes plans to leave the relationship, the abuser may double down on his verbal assaults, or lock him or her in a room as a punishment, or create “scenes” in public that lead others to think the victim is crazy. Making a partner miserable and then comforting her leads to trauma bonding. The victim becomes accustomed to turning to the abuser for consolation, which reinforces their attachment, even though the abuser was the original source of the suffering

Mind control also influences survivors to return to the abuser after a separation. Survivors are thoroughly accustomed to coordinating their lives around the abuser’s wishes. Sometimes they feel lost and empty when this central person is “gone.” They likely also feel responsible for the problems, since the abuser has blamed them.

Tips for Recovery

Surviving brainwashing in an intimate relationship can be compared to surviving brainwashing in a cult or prisoner of war camp. Time alone will not heal these wounds. Survivors and experts suggest the following specific steps for coping with the effects of mind control after you have left the abusive situation.

  • Psychotherapy (especially a trauma-focused therapy with someone who understands domestic abuse)
  • Journaling
  • Reading about coercive control
  • Learning to be in the moment (mindfulness)
  • Avoiding romantic relationships and dating until you feel you are well and whole on your own
  • Avoiding sex until you are far along on your recovery journey
  • Rediscovering interests that you may have abandoned, and finding new hobbies and interests
  • Getting in touch with your body through sports, dance, yoga, massage, or other activities that get you moving
  • Finding new friends and renewing old ties with friends (not former intimate partners)
  • Volunteering. You can build self-esteem by doing esteemed acts.

One survivor, Jenny, offered the following words to people newly emerging from domestic abuse that included mind control: “Know that you are not an empty shell. You may not be the person you once were, but maybe you’ll be a better person than you ever expected. Empowered. A SURVIVOR.”