Following is the first in a four-part series on coercive control.
Nearly a 100 years ago, Ernest Hemingway wrote a book about bullfighting. In it, he described in loving detail the ambush of a trapped animal by a dozen armed men, surrounded in turn by a thousand bloodthirsty fans cheering until the last fatal blow was struck, reminiscent of gladiator days.
Now, in our modern, evolved era, we have boxing or MMA to slake the common man’s taste for bread and circuses.
And for covert abusers, we have social gatherings.
Covert abusers are notorious for sabotaging holiday events and intimate occasions, portraying themselves as the hero and finding novel and ingenious ways to cast their partner in the role of adversary.
Beware of anniversaries, Christmas, Hannukah, other people’s birthdays – any occasion where there might be an expectation of kindness, generosity or intimacy, or where the covert abuser is not the center of attention.
Take Easter weekend, for example, before heading over to the neighbors for a gathering he doesn’t want to go to, won’t be the star of and feels pressured by his wife to attend. As they are dressing for dinner, he begins to explain to her why, if she ever leaves him, no other man would ever want her. Whatever charms she once possessed have long since dried up, along with her looks, skills and anything else she might once have been able to offer the world – or their marriage.
What he has long forgotten and has almost made her forget is that before they were married, she ran her own business, did some modeling on the side and wrote a book that became a best-seller. After she married him and became pregnant, he persuaded her to give up her career and move with him across the country. He insisted there was no need for her to work; he was earning plenty of money, and she owed it to their children to be there for them since he’d be traveling so much in his new position.
In the end, she gave in and put her own dreams on hold to support her husband’s. Because that’s what you do when you love someone.
And that’s what you do as a covert abuser.
The control was subtle at first, so subtle she hardly noticed it: the raised eyebrow, the casual question about cost, followed by an evening of the silent treatment when she came home with a new dress. Over time, the punishments gradually increased until the evening she went out to celebrate her girlfriend’s birthday. She came home a little later than anticipated – had texted him to let him know – and found all the doors locked.
She knocked. She texted. She called.
She spent the night in her car, too embarrassed to call her friend.
The next day she woke up to a list of assignments, new rules she was expected to follow if she wanted to continue to be let back into the house. Dinner would be served at exactly 6 p.m. every night. The children would be in bed by 8 and she would make herself available to him for the rest of the evening. A five-page document contained the rules for doing the laundry and putting it away. Any infraction would be met with hours of derision, threats and berating that would last into the wee hours of the morning.
Once she had threatened to leave him.
Because he had explained to her as quietly and patiently as if she were a child struggling with long division that if she ever did leave him, he would destroy her. He would take the children. She would have nothing. She would be homeless. A bag lady. Living out of her car. And did she know how many ways you could kill someone and make it look like natural causes?
Now that she had given up her career to raise their children and moved across the country, now that he had seized control of their finances and she had to beg for money for groceries, now that he had the upper hand in a game she hadn’t even realized they were playing, she stepped back, stepped down and focused on maintaining whatever peace she could, because with all his money, public influence, connections and winner-take-all mentality, she knew he would take the children.
Tonight her focus will be on making it through dinner with the neighbors. She has done something to displease him today, but has no idea what. All she knows is that somehow he is going to make her pay.
Part 2 in the series will detail what happens at the neighbors’.
Ruthven Darlene, M.A., is founder and director of the nonprofit WomenSV, which provides a range of services for women – and some men – experiencing domestic violence. For more information, call 996-2200 or visit womensv.org.
Confronting Domestic Violence: The covert abuser casts himself as hero