by Jon Atack


In an abusive relationship, one partner dominates the other. Freedom of choice is taken away, and one person becomes the other’s servant, or even their slave.

Abusive relationships rely upon coercive control. The psychological prison created by a dominant partner can also lead to sexual abuse and physical violence. Self-esteem is undermined through gaslighting. Even strong-willed and independent people can be reduced to compliance and subservience in a toxic relationship. Through manipulation, a partner can be reduced to complete compliance. They will defend the predator against others and return to the relationship, if they are not offered the proper help to overcome their dependence.

People often blame the victims of domestic abuse and suggest that they should simply leave the abusive partner, but our psychology is more complicated than that. Predatory people usually create a relationship before they begin to abuse their victims – unless the victims are already conditioned to accept abuse. Before physical abuse begins a framework of coercive control is created. The target’s resistance will have been undermined.

An abusive relationship is a state of mind: a two-person destructive cult where the abuser uses a web of fear, guilt, obligation, and confusion to maintain absolute control. Most often, the abused partner is manipulated into believing that the abuse is less severe than it really is, by trivializing and minimizing. They may be convinced that the situation is temporary and will work itself out, if only they work harder, or even – worst of all – that they deserve the maltreatment, because of some past failing. Although most people suffering from domestic abuse don’t start out with low self-esteem, it is the inevitable result, so many abused partners come to see themselves as unworthy of love, and are convinced that if they leave the abuser no one else will ever love them.

Victims of coercive control in domestic relationships can find themselves confined to the house, forbidden from contact with friends and relatives, and forced to perform endless menial tasks based upon capricious rules. Their human rights are severely curtailed under the control of a human predator. They will often have been seduced into the relationship with a deliberate pattern of recruitment.

Societal expectations also play a major role in an abused partner’s unwillingness to leave – until recently, divorce was taboo; even now, many people in abusive relationships are urged to “work it out” rather than “throw away” the marriage or relationship, with a heavy burden of guilt placed on the partner who couldn’t make it work. Another significant factor is a very real fear of violent reprisals to those who leave – a substantial percentage of spousal murders occur just after the abused partner has fled the relationship. Those who leave often face not only the disapproval of society but financial hardship, as the abuser often creates financial dependence as part of the controlling relationship.

If the abusive relationship occurs within a high-control group, the chances of leaving decrease even further, as the group controls all relationships, so that the group is often spoken of as the “third person in the marriage bed.” Groups that follow strict patriarchy or “male headship” often do not recognize abuse as a “proper” reason for divorce; many former abused women tell of being directed by church elders to pray more and be a more “loving”, submissive wife.

In the majority of cases – perhaps 80% – the victims of this form of coercive control are female, but domestic abuse is not limited to women: men abused by their wives unfortunately face scorn and ridicule, especially if they are physically larger than their tormentors, and often do not speak out for fear of being viewed as “less of a man” for being abused. The very existence of abused husbands proves that domestic abuse is not about physical strength, but emotional and psychological dominance. However, a society largely ignorant of the realities of coercive control has difficulty recognizing that men are also vulnerable to manipulation in a romantic relationship, and male victims of domestic abuse are still largely under-represented and ignored. Domestic abuse also happens in same-sex relationships; although we are still in the early days of societal acceptance, it is clear that those in same-sex relationships can and do experience the same patterns of behavior as heterosexuals.

Victims often develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder. In the 1970s, psychologists Margaret Singer and Camella Serum noted the similarities between returning prisoners of war and victims of domestic abuse. Psychologist Steven Morgan called spousal abuse “conjugal terrorism”, noting the similarities between the behavior and attitudes of violent husbands and political terrorists.

Professor Evan Stark’s Coercive Control shows that undue influence is the basis for domestic violence, and that to prevent this violence, we must understand coercive control. It is up to each of us to halt the cycle of violence – and recognize the patterns of coercion that keep the abused partner captive.

In the UK in 2015, coercive control was made a criminal act, leading to the prosecution of spousal abusers. We need to alert society to the characteristics of human predators and their techniques of seduction and recruitment.

Read about Family and One-on-One Cults here.

Domestic Abuse Resources

The Hotline – help for those experiencing domestic abuse in the USA Domestic Violence Helpline – help for those experiencing domestic abuse in the UK Child USA – help for abused children in the USA Childline UK – help for abused children in the UK
Domestic Violence Research – a database of research and information on domestic abuse National Resource Center on Domestic Violence – a resource archive of information and research on domestic abuse