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Living with an abusive and controlling partner can feel like living in a cult, except lonelier. Victims' own viewpoints, desires, and opinions may fade as they are overwhelmed by the abusers'. Over time, they may lose a sense that they even have a right to their own perspectives. This is called perspecticide; the abuse-related incapacity to know what you know (Stark, 2007). Perspecticide is often part of a strategy of coercive control that may include manipulation, stalking, gaslighting and physical abuse.
Erasing A Person’s Thoughts, Feelings and Perspectives
Abusers often try to confuse and destabilize their partners, to increase their control. They achieve this through physical or psychological means, or both.
- Gail’s boyfriend worked part-time and slept during the day. She worked during the day. He frequently kept her up all night, criticizing her or insisting that she accompany him to bars, so she would be confused, tired, and unable to think clearly.
- Sara’s husband deliberately preyed upon her insecurities. He told her that she had no friends because she was “book smart but not people smart.” In fact, she had lost friends because of his actions, but she came to believe she was unlikable.
- Pat pushed his viewpoints on Chris and grew furious anytime Chris asserted separate views. Pat also frequently lied, and Chris felt obligated to go along with these falsehoods. After a while, Chris lost track of what was true and what were Pat’s inventions.
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Deciding How You Should Spend Your Time
Abusers make their partners narrow their worlds. Once isolated, it is easy to lose one's sense of self.
- Doug insisted that Val watch him play video games rather than doing what she wanted. He demanded that he be the center of her attention at all times. Gradually she accepted this as an obligation and could hardly remember her own hobbies and interests.
- Corey’s husband only “allowed” her to socialize along with him, with other couples. He did not permit her to leave the house without him, even to shop for food. While at first this was difficult for her, over time he convinced Corey that she was a “homebody” and that couples should do everything together.
- Whenever TeyShawn tried speaking on the phone or seeing friends or family, his boyfriend, Angelo, grew angry with him. After a while TeyShawn severely curtailed his social life. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.
Abusers insist on controlling minute aspects of their partners' lives. Over time, victims internalize the rules and forget what life was like when they were freer to make their own choices.
- Herman drew up an extensive chores chart and insisted that Marta keep a detailed log of her activities.
- Ken gave his partner, Steve, a list of expectations for his diet , workout routine, and grooming. Ken chose Steve’s clothes and implied that their relationship would be over if he did not comply.
- Darnell expected Sara to dress modestly when outside the home but insisted that she dress sexily when they were alone together. He told her to stop speaking to the cat, reading magazines, or sleeping on her back. He chose her makeup, dictated her bedtime, and weighed her daily. He meticulously controlled the way their house was organized, down to how towels were folded and food stored on the shelves. To avoid explosive conflict, Sara followed Darnell's demands and began to see them as "normal." Defining You
Abusers make their partners feel badly about themselves. Because they are isolated, people victimized by perspecticide begin to believe the negative descriptions of themselves and lose self-esteem.
- Imani’s husband told her repeatedly that she was a gloomy, depressed person by nature . He told her that she was selfish to ask for changes in their marriage since she would never be happy anyway. Over time, she stopped asking.
- Lori’s boyfriend told her she was oversexed and that he needed to keep an eye on her or she’d be out of control. He had sex with her at least once on most days, which was more than she wanted, but he told her it was what he needed to do to keep her “honest.” Over time, she stopped protesting the way he monitored and forced himself on her. She accepted the idea that the sex was “for her own good.”
- Clarice’s husband, Dre, did not have a job for the first decade of their marriage. Clarice worked long days in a professional position and when she returned home, Dre berated her for “choosing work over family.” In front of the children, he defined her as cold, unloving, and non-maternal. Clarice constantly felt obliged to prove that she was a good mother. The children joined their father in blaming Clarice for “not being around much,” as if she was making a deliberate choice to be out of the home for long stretches. Setting the Terms of Living as a Couple
- Kelly’s husband insisted that they share a toothbrush and that they use the same water or wine glass at all meals. He couldn’t seem to tolerate her having anything that was hers alone. Kelly dreamed of being able to close the door when she showered but her husband wanted to be able to see her at all times.
- Lily pushed her boyfriend to share all his social media and email passwords and when he refused, she secretly installed a keystroke logger so she could access them against his will. When he found out and confronted her, she replied, “Loving couples keep no secrets.” He gave up on the idea of Internet privacy.
- Karen told Carmen that she should never say “no” to her; pleasing her should be her Number One and only priority. Carmen tried hard to follow this rule, and grew ashamed when she had longings of her own.
- Julie who was exhausted from working full-time and raising four children while her husband stayed home, chronically unemployed--would wake up at night with her husband’s hands all over her. He told her that it was her duty as a wife to be intimate with him, or he’d have to look elsewhere. Soon she learned to give in quickly, so she could get some sleep.
People subjected to perspecticide often blame themselves, as they feel despairing and disoriented. It can be hard for them to figure out exactly what’s wrong. Controlling partners serve as a filter for the outside world, gradually forcing their victims to lose the support of family, friends, and coworkers. Isolated and controlled in this way, victims lose self-esteem and have trouble remembering what they once thought, felt, and believed. There is hope, however, for victims of perspecticide and coercive control. And recovering one’s own perspectives and life is mighty sweet.
For more information on how to recognize perspecticide and reclaim your sense of self after a controlling relationship, please check out Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
Editor's Notes: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Massachusetts and Author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. Illustration by Liz Bannish. All survivor names have been changed to protect privacy.
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