When people ask, “Why do women stay in abusive relationships?” the answers are often too simple. There could be financial reasons, but if the abusive spouse died, would the victim wonder if they could support themselves to the point of doing nothing to advance their employability? (No.) There are the children to consider, but if the abusive spouse died, would the victim insist on finding a replacement right away? (No.)
Although finances and children are reasons victims cite for staying, one true reason they stay is a deeply implanted fear that they cannot make it in the world alone. My abuser implanted this fear so deeply in my mind that instead of recognizing the abuse in my relationship, I instead prayed that he would die. I consciously acknowledged the fact that he made my life hell, but the thought that I could divorce him remained outside my realm of consciousness. Abuse causes illness of the mind and body, and brainwashing sets both illnesses in motion.
What is Brainwashing?
Merriam-Webster’s concise encyclopedia states that brainwashing is a
“Systematic effort to destroy an individual’s former loyalties and beliefs and to substitute loyalty to a new ideology or power… The techniques of brainwashing usually involve isolation from former associates and sources of information; an exacting regimen calling for absolute obedience and humility; strong social pressures and rewards for cooperation; physical and psychological punishments for noncooperation, including social ostracism and criticism, deprivation of food, sleep, and social contacts, bondage, and torture; and constant reinforcement….”
I could have asked, “What is Domestic Abuse” and posted the same definition.
Brainwashing Works Best On A Special Type of Victim
Sandra L. Brown, M.A. says in her book Women Who Love Psychopaths that the best victims for brainwashing are women who are:
- perfectionists, and/or
- hold themselves to high standards, and/or
- persistent, and/or
- resourceful, and/or
- goal-directed, and/or
- self-sacrificing, and/or
- previous victims of abuse or neglect, and/or
- experience dependence, vulnerability, or incompetency issues.
If you are in an abusive relationship and do not recognize yourself in the first five or six bullet points, think back to the beginning of your relationship. Do you recognize aspects of who you were?
How Abusers Use Brainwashing Techniques Naturally
According to Ms. Brown’s book, abusers do not feel the way we normally think of what it means to feel. Due to childhood abuse or perhaps mental disorder, many if not most abusers detach from their feelings at an early age. Instead of feeling, they observe how other people behave, and then mimic those behaviors appropriately. In this way, abusers become expert behaviorists without taking a step inside a classroom.
They know what works and what doesn’t work to manipulate you to do what they want. And because they’ve detached from their feelings, abusers do not feel guilt for their manipulative actions. This is probably why abusers cannot take responsibility for what they’ve done to you or admit they abuse you (with lasting regret). They do not comprehend that any wrong took place and may think that your fear and tears are merely a show designed to manipulate them, and baby, they ain’t fallin’ for it.
In short, abuser’s use brainwashing techniques naturally because “the set-up” is all they know.
Lifton’s Brainwashing Technique
Robert J. Lifton was an early psychologist who studied mind-control and brainwashing. He broke the brainwashing technique down into the following categories. I’m going to change the descriptions to align with domestic abuse. (See the original list at ChangingMinds.org.)
Assault on identity
The abuser attacks the victim’s self-identity by making statements that define the victim, eventually causing the victim to break down and doubt their own perceptions of who they are. ( i.e. “You’re not good with money” “You are a slut!”)
Arguments in which the abuser expresses hurt or discontent leads the victim to feel guilty (these complaints may be completely fabricated or loosely based on fact). Eventually, these arguments cause the victim to break down and feel guilt and shame for almost everything they do and come to feel they deserve punishment.
“When the person is forced to denounce friends and family, it both destroys their sense of identity and reinforces feelings of guilt. This helps to separates them from their past, building the ground for a new personality to be built” (quoted straight from Changing Minds because I couldn’t say it any better – a.k.a. isolation)
The breaking point is best defined by it’s symptoms: Depression, crying jags, a nervous breakdown or panic attacks, vague overwhelming fear or explicit fears of dying or loved ones dying. Unconsciously, victims begin losing their sense of “who they are” and experience the fear of “total annihilation of the self”.
Just when the victim can’t take it anymore, the abuser offers a small kindness. The victim feels a deep sense of gratitude (more gratitude than is justified by the abuser’s act). Does it feel like a honeymoon? Yep.
The compulsion to confess
The victim may feel a compulsion to offer up an act of kindness to the abuser, as if the pain the victim caused the abuser is anywhere near the pain the abuser caused the victim. The victim, knowing that nothing would make the abuser happier than to agree with the negative statements made early on, may “confess” to being exactly as the abuser said they were (“You’re right, I did act like a slut by wearing that dress” “Please take over all the bank accounts – I don’t understand money”)
The channeling of guilt
The victim’s overwhelming sense of guilt and shame combined with the assaults on their identity and unsubstantiated accusations cause major confusion. In time, the victim feels that everything they do is “wrong” and “I can’t do anything right!” After the victim enters this state of confusion, the abuser can redirect the victim’s guilt toward anything the victim thinks, feels, or does. This causes the victim to wonder if everything they were taught or learned previously was “bad” and that maybe the abuser’s take on life in general is “good”.
Reeducation: logical dishonoring
The victim thinks, “Hey – if I am such a mess because of what I was taught, then it’s not my fault that I’m so messed up!” The victim finds relief for their guilt by thinking such thoughts, so they “confess” to their abuser more of the “stupid” beliefs they hold but now want to rid themselves of. In this way, the victim begins to deny their own identity and willingly take on portions of the identity the abuser wants them to have.
Progress and harmony
As the victim empties herself of previous beliefs, the hole left inside of her acts like a vacuum, sucking in the abuser’s ideas of good/bad and right/wrong. The abuse eases because the abuser sees less of “her” in her and more of “him” in her. The victim receives a pleasurable response in his lack of abuse. There’s not more love, just less abuse.
Final confession and rebirth
Typically, the above steps will recur repetitively in the abusive relationship. “Final confession and rebirth” cannot be reached until the victim is completely and totally brainwashed to be exactly who the abuser wished. This is the point of no return.
You are reading this. You are not at the point of no return.
*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.