Areas of control in abusive relationships

In the light of the strong response to last month’s article, I decided to continue with the theme of domestic violence in this edition of the paper. Abuse is any behaviour that is designed to control and subjugate another person through the use of force, fear, humiliation and verbal or physical attacks. This is not the occasional outburst of temper. It is the systematic persecution of one person by another. Verbal abuse is not a lesser form of persecution than physical abuse. The person who is verbally abused is just as scared, feels just as helpless and in as much pain as the person who is physically attacked.


    One area is where victims are vulnerable to control is money. The way money is managed in a relationship is often indicative of trust and respect. It may represent freedom. Giving or withholding money may parallel giving or withholding affection.
    Some abusers work and provide, but keep tight purse strings. Some abusers hold the belief that “I’m working to bring in the money so I’m the boss and what I say goes!” In an abusive relationship, the person uses his earning power as a weapon to gain control. Many victims find themselves having to ask permission to buy things and having to report on every cent. Some abusers give their partners no freedom by taking over the purchase of groceries and other household goods. If the partner is working, the abuser may take an attitude “you are working – you pay for xyz” ensuring the victim has too little money left to achieve any degree of financial independence.
    Many abusers believe their partner is inherently greedy and manipulative and become secretive about money – what the abuser earns, having secret accounts or hiding assets. Many withhold money from their partners while spending freely on themselves and they will not tolerate being questioned about this. Some abusers plead poverty and are not hard workers. They blame others for repeated hardships. As we said last month, the partner may end up rescuing the abuser repeatedly.
    The abuser is intent on controlling the partner’s social life. He may make going out so unpleasant or embarrassing that the partner may choose to stay home. He may humiliate his partner in public. Some abusers are charming and friendly in public, but launch into a tirade about the outing in private. One may hear how stupid one’s comments were, how unintelligent one’s friends are or one may be faced with so many degrading comments about oneself as a person that the pain after the outing does not seem worth it. Your family may be criticised as a way of demeaning you. Many abusers point out problems in their partner’s family as a way of making them feel inadequate. One may be told that one’s father “was only a tradesman” or some other unjustified, demeaning remark to hurt one.
    Most people are sensitive about themselves as sexual partners and, predictably, this is an area of potential abuse. Many victims find themselves being criticised about their weight, physical appearance and sexual performance.
    In a good relationship sexual feelings co-exist with love, friendship companionship and support. The longer the relationship the greater the intimacy and sensitivity to the other person’s feelings. In an abusive relationship, when the ability to negotiate and share is lacking, the openness needed to discuss needs and desires is usually missing as well. This is especially true of sensitive topics such as sexual needs. The longer the relationship goes on, the less caring and concern the abuser shows and the more he is likely to criticise the femalepartner’s desirability as a woman.
    Abusers are threatened by any rivals for their partner’s affection. Unfortunately, that includes children. The children often become weapons because of the abuser’s mistaken belief that in his house he can do as he wishes. Moms are often berated by the abuser about the time and energy they invest in the children. The children are seen as competitors for Mom’s affection rather than dependent little people in need of nurture and care. Most Mom’s with abusive partners find themselves attacked as mothers. This is an area where most women try very hard to be “good Moms” and are sensitive about their performance.
    Sometimes the mom becomes so desperate she draws the children in as support for her. Mom may tell the children about her fears or loss of love for their father. This puts huge stress on the child, who feels pressurised into taking sides. The child may feel tense and guilty about loving both parents. On the other hand, the abuser may, of course try to getthe children to gang up against their mom. The abuser may tell the children how useless and incompetent their mom is, or how selfish or unloving she has become in an effort to get them to turn against her and side with him. Some abusers become abusive towards the children, physically or verbally. Many children end up angry with the mom who could not protect them.
    Children living in abusive homes generally end up with huge amounts of anger and fear. They are terrified by the abuse, either of themselves or their parent. Their feelings often show up in the form of physical ailments, bed wetting, poor performance at school, nightmares, bullying, fighting with peers or siblings, substance abuse, self-harm, or other ways of acting out. The effects of abuse are insidious and pervasive.


  1. Take stock of the relationship. Consider how you “buy into” the abuse. What makes you accept it?
  2. Make two lists. Write down all the labels your partner uses against you on one list. On the other write down what you really are. Include the good things others have said about you, now or in childhood – What would a beloved pet have said if it could talk?
  3. Check how you treat yourself. Observe your thoughts. Typically you may say to yourself –
  • How could I be so dumb?
  • I’ve messed up again.
  • I’m so mad with myself.
  • I’m sick of myself.

There is no need to add to the abuse yourself. When you catch yourself putting yourself down, tell the thought “Stop! Go away! I won’t listen!” Then picture yourself in a safe, peaceful place. (Going for therapy and learning guided imagery can be helpful with this.

4. Nurture yourself. Make a list of nurturing activities such as maybe going for a walk, reading a magazine, listening to music, sitting in the sun, get a massage or manicure, go to a show, have a soothing bath, play sport, play with a pet etc., Find things that comfort you and use them when you are hurting. Do something daily to give you pleasure. It is essential that you don’t just think about these activities. You must do them. Most of all, don’t give up. You can set boundaries and you can heal. Nurturing yourself is a first step in breaking the pattern of not caring for you.

5. These interventions are fairly cognitive and superficial. It is wise to go for therapy to learn to act differently and set boundaries. Working with a therapist, you can think and share in a safe environment and discover how the abuse is perpetuated. You can experiment through role plays and other means how to act differently. Having support can break the isolation and loneliness of these relationships. By setting boundaries you can learn to change the dynamics between you. You are not alone and a support group can be of great value.

The ideas for this article come from the following reference:

REFERENCE: FORWARD 2002. Men who hate Women & Women who love Them. Bantam Books: USA



Olive Branch 37 Wordsworth Avenue Farrarmere Benoni
Tel: 072 122 4766 / 011 849-7473.
Dr Barbara Wade is an accredited member of Saaswipp (the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice) and practices in the field of individual and family therapy, as well as specializing in all forms of trauma