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It’s easy to spot an abusive partner when they’re yelling at you or threatening violence. When they throw objects across the room, there’s no mistaking that they’re trying to scare their partner. When they call their partner a derogatory name or push them into a wall, these are clear indicators that they’re choosing abuse as a means of power and control.
But when abusers choose more subtle tactics, a survivor can find themselves doubting their own intuition. This is where it can get tricky.
What Is Non-Verbal Abuse?
Many survivors have told DomesticShelters.org that they didn’t realize they were being abused until after they left their partner and had some time to reflect. They knew something was off, they knew they didn’t feel safe or they described the feeling of walking on eggshells at all times, but they couldn't see it as abuse.
If this is describing your relationship, keep reading. Below, some of the silent-but-potentially-dangerous forms of abuse that can keep a partner trapped.
The Silent Treatment
While those of us in healthy relationships might find ourselves shutting down from time to time when angry with our partners, abusers use this tactic maliciously and often. The silent treatment can be used as an isolation tactic—an abuser refuses to acknowledge their partner simply to watch the power it holds over them. A pattern may then emerge where the abuser explodes in anger following the silent treatment or may expect the survivor to beg and plead before the abuser acknowledges them again.
“Many abuse survivors have said enduring insults or shouts was somewhat less damaging than the silent treatment,” writes Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, in this piece for DomesticShelters.org. “When they were shouted at, at least they knew what was on the abuser’s mind, and said they felt better able to assess their own and their children’s safety. Stone-cold silence can reinforce the feeling of powerlessness and fear.”
Abuse can lie in subtleties that only a survivor might recognize. If you've ever seen the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy,” you’ll remember the scene when Julia Roberts’ character opens up the kitchen cabinets in her home to find all of the canned goods lined up immaculately with the labels facing outward. At that moment, she knows her violent ex-husband she thought she had escaped from had broken into her house.
Abusers know what can trigger their partner’s sense of fear and dread. This might look like…
- Leaving a weapon, like a gun or a knife, laying out in the open.
- Installing security cameras in or around the home, reminding the survivor they’re being watched.
- Taking the survivor’s phone and looking through it without asking.
- Locking a survivor out of a bank account or canceling a survivor’s credit card.
- Stealing a survivor’s car keys so they can’t leave the house.
- Giving the survivor a certain look that the survivor knows means the abuser is angry.
- Ushering the survivor out of a social gathering or family event without discussion.
- Leaving a newspaper open to a story talking about a woman being murdered by her husband.
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Coercive control refers to the range of tactics abusers use to dominate their partner. The essence of coercive control is an abuser who makes rules for the victim to follow and punishes them if they believe their rules have been violated. Coercive control can include verbal and physical abuse, but also more subtle tactics that can seem, at first, like they’re rooted in care and concern. This includes:
- Love-bombing. An abuser showers their partner with extravagant dates and gifts and takes interest in everything the survivor enjoys. This builds up a survivor’s self-esteem, which is exactly when the abuser will begin to tear it back down. The survivor might then feel desperate to get back to that good feeling that was in the beginning of the relationship, living for the moments in between abuse when they feel loved.
- Gaslighting. An abuser uses statements like, “That didn’t happen” or “You’re imagining things” to make a survivor doubt their version of events. Leaving a gun on the bedside table? That wasn’t a threat—you’re so dramatic, the abuser might say. Yet the survivor’s gut feeling is that they’re in danger.
- Isolation. This can include both isolating a survivor geographically, such as moving to a rural area or a location where they know no one, or isolating a survivor by insinuating that they don’t need to see anyone else but the abuser. The abuser may act upset anytime the survivor wants to go out with friends or see family. They may try to love-bomb at the same time—those friends aren’t good for you; I’m the only one who truly loves you.
What to Do When You Recognize Non-Verbal Abuse Red Flags
The earlier you can spot the warning signs of abuse, oftentimes, the easier it is to escape. The more ensconced a survivor becomes with an abuser—moving in together, having a child together—the more barriers exist to leaving. However, it’s never too late. Abuse almost always escalates, so the most important thing is to reach out for support and find a safe way and time to escape from a partner who demonstrates these red flags.
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