..or how to deal with your love spaghetti.
We all have baggage, about all kinds of things. My sister describes the state of something being psychological or personal "baggage" for someone—a trauma, compulsion, phobia, fear or obsession, for example—as “having brain spaghetti.” For example, apparently, she has spaghetti about me pinning her down as a child and tickling her until she screamed for mercy. She knows this because when her spouse tried to do the same, the experience she had as a child came flooding back as a complex tangle of fears, feelings, and mental images. Notwithstanding the trauma inflicted on my poor little sister, the spaghetti metaphor is a simple but useful tool for explaining how complex our experiences are, and I bring it up here because I believe a lot of people have spaghetti, most particularly about love.
So many hopeful love relationships turn sour and yet we continue to idealise love. Romantic love is so deeply ingrained into our psyches, because we are faced with it at every point in our lives—flick the channels or scan the pages of any women’s magazine and you will find not only stories and advice about romantic love but also advertisements and images in general that reinforce the importance of it. The current push for marriage equality is a case in point. Rather than pushing the boundaries of society and rebelling against heteronormativity,* as they used to, gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer people alike want to immerse themselves in the permanence of romantic love. In spite of this idealisation, almost half of all marriages end in divorce in the west. But that is not the point of this post.
What I want to talk about is the baggage we carry with us from previous relationships. In a world in which sex is readily available and encouraged, many marriages end in divorce because of a cheating partner. Other relationships are marred by abuse and violence. And yet it often takes a very long time for the victim to understand and appreciate the extent of the cheating or abuse. This is especially the case in psychological abuse, which is often much more covert and insidious than outright violence. John Updike, in is book, Couples, describes why this might be the case:
“It is not difficult to deceive the first time, for the deceived possesses no antibodies; unvaccinated by suspicion, she overlooks lateness, accepts absurd excuses, permits the flimsiest patchings to repair great rents in the quotidian.”
In other words, if you’ve never been exposed to a cheater or abuser, you are less likely to recognise the signs (the red flags), and to make or accept excuses for them.
While cheating is easily identified for what it is, once the cheater has been found out, the psychological abuser is sneakier. As I have argued here, romantic love relationships are characterized by the tendency of their participants to identify as a couple, and encourages a sort of fusing together of identities in which each becomes “the other half.” The goal of this fusion is mutual nurturing, which usually arises out of a sense of destiny and which is therefore perceived to be enduring. Regardless of whether the couple engages in social rituals of commitment such as engagement and marriage, romantic love is always accompanied by expectations of mutual sharing of lives, and most often, children and possessions. These expectations are mutually beneficial if they are indeed entered into mutually. However, romantic love is also characterised by a darker narrative of pain and tragedy, where it is recognised that the path to true love does not always run smoothly. It is generally socially acceptable, therefore, to anticipate that romance and love will be, by their very nature, “hard work,” requiring commitment and a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the other and the relationship itself. The abuser knows this and uses it to his or her advantage. Coercive control is able to flourish in romantic relationships because offenders intentionally exploit the romantic expectations of their victims.
Tools and Tactics
Coercive control includes, but goes beyond, an examination of physical violence by considering a plethora of on-going non-physical methods intentionally employed by perpetrators of romantic terrorism to maintain power and control over their victims. We explore some of these power and control tactics below under the following headings: 1) threats and intimidation, 2) humiliation, degradation and emotional unkindness, 3) restricting personal territory and freedom, and 4) crazy making.
Threats and Intimidation
The use of actual physical and sexual violence is a powerful tactic of control that incites fear, anxiety, despair and subsequent compliance in victims. However, actual violence inflicted against women’s bodies is not necessarily frequent or severe. It does not need to be when other non-physical forms of coercive control can induce victim compliance. Non-physical intimidation perpetrated against victims is far more frequent and includes verbal threats, threatening behaviour, and/or the use of social institutions to invoke anxiety and terror. Perpetrators may verbally threaten, for example, to physically hurt, disfigure, or kill individual victims, their children, other family members, new partners, friends and/or pets. If the victim dares to resist their control, the perpetrator may follow through on one of these threats to communicate what they are capable of doing. Threats to take victims’ children away and threats of perpetrator suicide are also common. Some perpetrators will make reports of child abuse to child protection services, initiating investigations against the victim with claims that she is neglectful or abusive. Others will use the family law system to fight for custodial rights, including full custody. This tactic is used, in part, to make good on threats to take the children away. The aim is to punish the victim for leaving and to help the perpetrator to maintain power of his or her partner post-separation.
Non-verbal intimidation may involve the use of threatening behaviours, facial expressions, and body language, or other symbolic messages that communicate clearly to victims that they are under threat. Women in abusive relationships are adept at identifying non-verbal threats of harm. Without saying a word, a particular look and/or bodily gesture is often all it takes to incite fear in victims and keep them in line.
Humiliation, Degradation, and Emotional Unkindness
Tactics that fall under the heading of humiliation, degradation, and emotional unkindness are all aimed at establishing perpetrator superiority via the disintegration of victim self-respect, worth, and esteem. Common ways of achieving humiliation and degradation include name-calling, put-downs, swearing, spitefulness, comparing the victim unfavourably to other people, denying victims their ideas and opinions, criticising and diminishing their strengths and achievements, telling them that their current relationship is as good as it will ever get for them, and shaming.
Abusers frequently yell humiliating tirades of abuse at their victims for hours on end, and will sometimes compare their current victims with previous partners (e.g. “my ex was a better cook/parent than you”). Victims’ ideas and opinions are also frequently denied or dismissed by the abuser. Eventually, the victim will come to learn that what she thinks is not important. The romantic terrorist knows that if they can make their victim keep their ideas and opinions to themselves, eventually, they will stop having them.
Restricting Personal Territory and Freedom
The methods exercised under this heading are aimed at depriving victims of social support, reducing their personal space, freedom, and crushing their self-identity. The victim becomes increasingly dependent on the abuser as their ability to resist is diminished and they lose their sense of self. Tactics under the banner of restricting personal territory and freedom include isolation, invasion of personal space and privacy, enforcement of trivial demands, and domestic slavery. Together these tactics can lead to feelings of perpetrator omnipresence in the lives of victims.
Hennessy notes that “Isolation is a pivotal tactic that controlling partners use in order to weaken their victims, prevent them from hearing others’ perspectives, and to bring them into line with their own beliefs and requirements.” Isolation from family and friends is a universal tactic of coercive control and can be achieved through a number of different techniques. Firstly, fear of consequences will result in social isolation if perpetrators become abusive every time a victim attempts social connectedness. In addition, perpetrators may attempt to physically isolate victims from the outside world by, for example, preventing access to transportation (e.g. they won’t let the victim have or use a car) and phones, moving to a rural location or another city where the victim does not know anyone, and using the legal system post-separation to prevent mothers from moving locations with their children.
Economic abuse is a common feature of intimate relationships marred by coercive control, with the distribution of money being sharply skewed in the abuser’s favour. Common tactics used to ensure this include taking or stealing the victim’s money, denying them access to money, not allowing victims to ever spend money on themselves, requiring detailed records or oral accounts of all expenditures, insistence that all purchases are pre-approved, providing women with a limited budget to run the household, forcing her to do without to meet the romantic terrorist’s demands for certain items, and making the victim accumulate debt, which can result in long-term damage to her credit history.
Discourses of romantic love provide a particularly viable means through which abusers can contrive social isolation. Intimate relationship fusion, protectionism, and jealousy all work well to restrict victims’ social connectedness outside of the abusive relationship. Keeping your partner close every minute of the day because being away from them is too much to bare, expressions of jealousy, demanding the prioritisation of the relationship, excluding pre-existing friendships so that every waking moment can be spent together—all of this can be interpreted as an endearing demonstration of love. Such behaviours are commonly expressed in the early stages of most romantic relationships. Jealousy is a good example of the coercive power of love. While jealousy is a common emotion in many healthy romantic relationships, romantic terrorists’ desire for power and control gives their jealousy a uniquely morbid and sadistic quality. Victims respond to it by cutting off old friendships and curtailing their social activity.
For victims, the pairing of love and overt abuse by romantic terrorists is psychologically confusing enough. The combination of fear and love is a devastating cocktail which is fed to victims and invades her spirit. However, when paired with mind games, a set of more subtle and underhanded tactics, romantic terrorism can be downright "crazy making." Mind games are deliberate attempts at psychological manipulation. Murphy says they are “covert, coercive, unscrupulous actions masked by everyday sounding communication.” The purpose is to brainwash the victim into compliance in much the same way as terrorist hostage takers and cults brainwash their victims. Crazy making is deliberately done to women by perpetrators to maintain power and control. During the process of brainwashing, victims know something isn’t right; they feel confused, unsure of themselves, exhausted, anxious and fearful, but find it difficult to "put their finger" on exactly what is the problem. In the early days of their relationship, victims may question the behaviour of the romantic terrorist, but slowly, surely, a skilled perpetrator will invade her mind and spirit, silencing her inner voice and replacing it with their own.
In the early stages of a new relationship, "love-bombing"* is used to ensnare the victim. Later, gaslighting,* transference of blame, mixed messages, contradictions in perpetrators’ private and public personas can be observed. These all result in the victim losing her ability to trust her own thoughts, because she is trying to be loved, because the perpetrator is also professing (albeit falsely) to love her, because she believes in the ideals of romantic love and what the perpetrator is saying to her, she is, as Hennessy so poignantly states, “like a person who has been secretly invaded by a virus and does not know why she is feeling bad.”
Perpetrators of romantic terrorism fabricate the truth on a daily basis in a bid to transfer the blame away from themselves. They will, for example, deny, minimise, and justify their abuse. Denial involves acting like they have never been abusive and controlling; like they have never caused harm to their victims, contributed to feelings of fear, trauma or anxiety. The perpetrator takes no ownership or responsibility for his or her actions—it is always the victim’s fault. If only she had done what she was supposed to… In other cases, perpetrators will blame drugs, alcohol, work stress, traumatic childhoods, and any other number of outside factors for their abusive behaviour.
Many romantic terrorists also present very differently in public than they do in private. This can create immense confusion in victims because family and friends may perceive the perpetrator as being very charming, loving and attentive.
Gaslighting, more generally, incorporates particular deceptive tactics designed by romantic terrorists to make victims believe that they are going crazy. Typically, the perpetrator changes the truth, challenging the victim’s memory of events in a way that is so convincing that she begins to question her own sanity. Gaslighting can occur on a spectrum from outright denial of an event taking place, to interspersing lies with truth which can be even more difficult for the victim to challenge. It is easy to see how the victim of these kinds of abuse can end up with spaghetti—or psychological and emotional baggage. If this is you, please check this site for further resources. My next few posts will consider ways in which people can reclaim their baggage (their emotional selves) and strengthen their resilience for the future.