Behind Closed Doors – shedding light on Psychological & Emotional Abuse & how to leave

Starting the week of 30 March 2020, compared with the week before, the “Respect” phone line has had a “…26.86% increase in calls in the week. The Respect phone line website recorded an increase in hits of 125% in the same period.” The Domestic Violence committee in their meetings stated that they know that this is an area terribly underfunded, but there is help out there, and in this article, I speak to a survivor of psychological and emotional abuse and she gives her insights and advice on how to finally set yourself free.

Control through power and control through “weakness” is still control

1. Control through Power - gaslighting

We are familiar with the behaviours of abuse through power, often in the form of gaslighting:

- Systematic manipulation of the abused's memory (eg. taking things from where the person knew they put them, hiding them and asking the person to look for them)

- Shows of kindness (words, actions) while also making comments to the abused such as "are you mad?"

- Projecting behaviours onto the abused if they dare to question anything eg "Are you accusing me?"

- Making the abused believe they are always in the wrong eg "It's you who thinks that, darling".

- Blatant lying eg. clearly flirting with someone in front of the abused and then saying "I was just talking" if they dare to question it.

- Isolating the abused from others who might bring some reality to their perspective (sometimes with extra lies that help elevate the abuser's position "They don't like me, and all I'm doing is looking after you - you don't need people like that around you."

This results in the abused not being able to trust their own judgment helping to make them completely dependant on the abuser. The sporadic positive reinforcement offered by the abuser colloquially termed “breadcrumbing”, will often be enough to keep them hoping to recapture what it was like at the start of the relationship.

2. Control through “Weakness”

Perceived weakness – or weakness which you may believe to be real – can yield as much mastery over others.

However, at the other extreme, perceived weakness can be as (counter-intuitively), domineering. The partner who'd rather you stayed home because they would “struggle coping”; the passive aggressive suggestion that “…if you were to leave, who else would care”; many a client with a phobia has reported affecting those around them with their fear (my own husband now has to look twice in any new building for stained glass - and I am not proud of that).

As compassionate human beings we have a tendency to want to help; to read “red flags” as a “cry for support” and a “real desire to change”. Sometimes, this is the case, on other occasions, it is part of the manipulation.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to tell the difference, so it is essential to build up your own strength and your own sense of your value. Remember also that you cannot save people from themselves, and neither should you allow them to take your soul either.

I had the opportunity to speak with an incredibly strong woman – a mother of two, a successful business owner, and person who was abused for 13 years, and until the last 4, many close to her would not have known. So good are we at being able to cover up what is happening behind closed doors.

She is now out of that toxicity, she is taking time to heal through therapy, she has built a network of good friends and family around her, and free, at the age of 30

started a blog "Airing Her 30 Laundry": in order to raise awareness of Psychological and Emotional abuse and to encourage any others in her position to seek help and claim back their lives; and kindly gave me an interview (names are changed):

AT: Would you have ever considered yourself a “victim”?

AH30L: I was never hit, strangled, sexually assaulted, I felt - how could I have been abused? How could Sean be a perpetrator and not know it? I am a good mum, I own a business and a home, I have a great social life, how could I be a victim of domestic abuse? It is only now that I have the knowledge and can recognise certain behaviours and patterns, it is only now that I know that manipulation, gaslighting, blackmailing are all forms of mental abuse.

AT: Please can you give us an insight of what you went through for 13 years with Sean, especially how things got worse in the last 4.

AH30L: The last 4 years of my relationship with Sean were most definitely the hardest, the first 9 were just prep for what was to come. They say coercive control is drip fed, it’s so slow you don’t even realise it’s happening until for some it’s too late.

In the beginning we were just teenagers, looking back I was in awe of Sean. He was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, mature, exciting, hard working. Now I translate that into a money driven drug dealer who had to keep up with big boys to be taken seriously. The cars, the money and the drugs all contributed to what lured me in and ironically they all contributed to what pushed me out.

I was pretty successful in my late teens, I built a business, had lots of friends, was able to buy my own home and I guess I became the trophy girl. I feel like Sean knew his upbringing and the life he led wasn’t going to lead him down the right path but if he stuck with me he’d be a home owner, he would have to have a legit job and eventually become a father and provider. Everything seemed to fall into place, the dramas of our teenage years disappeared and we became normal adults, isn’t that how the story goes?

AT: Were there any “red flags” which you might have “ignored” – and why?

AH30L: Sean experienced a lot of trauma growing up and a suicide meant that there was a complete divide in his family right around the time our daughter was born. He completely (and I thought understandably) lost the plot. I stood by his side and watched this man I knew disappear, there was nothing behind his eyes anymore and he became distant.

He was depressed. So depressed he could have an affair. Or two or maybe even three!

But - he blamed every bad decision he made from this point on, on his past but he punished me for it because now there was nobody else left.

Every time he got caught we would play out a 3 phase cycle of psychodrama:

- “The psycho” phase - where he would change the locks to our front door, smash our house to pieces, claim to want to kill himself.

- Then he’d enter the “Feel sorry for me” phase - we got him into rehab for addiction, he once told me he was homeless, he’d send love songs and voice notes of him crying saying he’d gone days without sleep or food and he’d say the stress was giving him skin conditions and making him sick.

- Then I’d feel sorry for him and once he knew this he’d start the “I need you back” phase where he would shower me with gifts and acts of kindness, he’d beg and promise that things would be different, he’d get help, he’d never have so much as a wandering eye!! This never lasted long.

After months he’d wander out of the house and disappear for days. I’d get called crazy for questioning him, I was a bitch, a whore, a nutter, apparently I was controlling him for not letting him stay out all night.

It wore me down, I knew after years of trying that something wasn’t right but he always said and did the right things at the right time no matter how wrong they were in the first place.

AT: What was your turning point?

AH30L: It came to an end the last time Sean disappeared. He sent me a text to say he wasn’t coming back this time he’d met someone new. She was 17. She was the age I was when I met him 13 years ago. She was barely legal to be in a relationship with a 31 year old man and closer in age to my son. It was at this point where I thought “no more” I will not let my children think this behaviour is acceptable, I won’t have my son think this is how you treat women and I will never allow my daughter to think it’s acceptable to be treated in such a way.

AT: An abused partner often takes 7 attempts to leave before they finally do it - What gave you the strength to go?

AH30L: I thought I was completely numb. Really though I was exhausted from the constant calls through the night, my walls were built so high now and the name calling didn’t hurt, my panic attacks were just part of me and the smile I painted on my face became a permanent mask to hide the pain I really felt. I was exhausted. Not reacting to Sean infuriated him and his behaviour spiralled.

I started logging things with the police and eventually they called me in. They handed me a card which had the number of a domestic abuse agency and helpline on it and it was at this point that things started to click - I had become the victim in a coercively controlled relationship. They asked if I wanted to press charges as Sean was repeatedly causing chaos but in all honesty I was too scared he would kill himself if he knew how against him I really was.

One night the police took matters into their own hands, he had threatened to kill himself and told me it was my fault for not taking him back, he went missing for days and once the police eventually found him safe and sound at work they arrested him for coercive control and harassment. He got let off with no charge.

From this I was able to get an occupation order to stop him from circling the house and coming in when we were out and a non-molestation order so he couldn’t contact me. This was hands down the hardest decision of my life but I believed if I didn’t go ahead with this one of us was going to die. I did it to give us both the time and space we needed to move on and find ourselves.

It took me 4 years, thousands of pounds in legal fees and 2 court orders to feel I was finally free. My Domestic Violence worker put me on something called the “Triple R” course where I sat with women like me (some were still in relationships with their abusers and others just out of it) to help us to acknowledge what happened, different types of abuse and look out for it in future relationships. I had no idea these agencies and groups existed (the freedom program is also great and free!) which is why I feel passionately about sharing their work on my Instagram account now which focuses on surviving domestic abuse, something I still don’t think I’ve fully come to terms with.

A sadly common factor in Domestic Abuse of the Psychological and Emotional kind is that it is often the compassion of the person being abused that hooks them in. I am absolutely not saying that compassion is wrong, but to remain mindful. Of course people deserve support at a time of need, but there is always a fine line between helping empowering them, and increasing their dependency.

Three tips to hand power back to them in the early stages:

1. Consistently take them at their word. If they say "I'm ok" or "I'll be fine" - don't push - tell them you respect their decision and they know where you are if they change their mind. This may encourage them to be more open about their feelings

2. Don't take "fishing" bait. Instead of responding to lines such as "I'm so awful" [insert negative word here] with reassurance, as the question "Why do you say that?" - this opens a dialogue which can be very helpful if there was a truth to the statement.

3. Finally try this affirmation for yourself "My time and energy are valuable resources and I spend them wisely."

But it is the advice from my interviewee that will be the most essential within a situation such as hers.

AT: What, in your experience, should people who want to leave an abusive relationship be wary of?

AH30L: I am no expert, although I know many! I can only go on experience but for those of you suspecting you may be in an abusive relationship, here is what I would have done had I have known:

- Keep a diary ( I only did this at the very end and this is where my blog started) keep it for your records should you need it and for your sanity, you will need it!

- Speak to women’s aid, refuge or safer places, they all have free help lines.

- Save some money in an account that isn’t joint, legal aid is very hard to get, I fought nail and tooth to get it just to take me to court once, thankfully that was all I needed.

- Don’t be afraid to tell your friends and family, you may have already been isolated but this is a time where you will need support, your back bone will not be strong enough in the end, others will have to hold you up until you repair.

- Take time to heal.

I don’t have much contact with Sean now, he sees our children very little and phone calls are always short. I use the grey rock method* to deal with him and it really works. I only reply to anything child related and he is blocked from all social media.

*The “Grey Rock” method is a technique for dealing with psychological abuse – responding as if you are a “grey rock” – not feeding the desire to have an effect. This includes:
- Keeping necessary communications short
- Remaining private about what you are doing
- Disengaging and disconnecting
- Retaining your value and sense of self

It is important to remember that you are having to do this with someone with whom you often share a history and a multitude of deep emotions – it is not an easy task.

Be strong.


MIND - helping someone else

MIND - seeking help yourself

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To read Airing Her 30 Laundry and hear her story in full. Please CLICK HERE.

Audrey Tang is a Chartered Psychologist and author. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter/IG: @draudreyt. For her Online show with easy to follow resilience-based exercises for building inner strength, please visit The Wellness League Channel on YouTube.

©2019 by Resilient Health: Wellness before the point of crisis.