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