The man who abuses his partner tries to make her feel alone – and in many ways tries to make her actually be alone. He tends, for example, to work hard to damage the woman’s friendships and cause distance in her relationships with her relatives. He criticizes her if she gives too much attention to other people, saying that she should be focused entirely on him. He may even listen in on her phone calls and read her emails to keep tabs on her communications with the outside world.
Why does the abusive man want to cut you off from others? First of all, he knows it will increase his power. A victim who is isolated is more dependent, more afraid to stand up to the abuser, more vulnerable. If the abuser can keep you away from contact with other people he can make sure that his voice is the only voice that you hear, and that makes him become the Last Word, the Voice of Truth.
To his mind, isolating you helps ensure that you won’t get information that might help you. The more you have contact with the world, the more you might learn about your legal rights; or you might talk to someone who helps you realize the abuse is not your fault; or you might find out that he’s been lying to you about important things. If you are more in contact with other people, you will feel stronger. You will believe in yourself more, and you might take steps to get your rights back, or to get away from the abuser. He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen, so he tries to narrow your world.
The second reason why the abuser uses isolation tactics is that he wants you to be focused exclusively on doing things for him. And he feels that if you have your own life, then you’ll be putting more of your energy toward yourself, and therefore less toward him. This kind of “zero-sum” thinking is distorted; the reality is that the richer a life you are living, the more you have to give to your partner (and to your children). But the abuser doesn’t look at it that way. He wants to control your attentions, and make them all be for him.
His excuses for isolating you may be disguised as efforts to help you. He may say that you should spend less time with your family because they are too much in your business and are trying to control you. He may tell you that your friends are using you, that they are just after you for money or to get you to look after their children. He may say that people in your life are lying to you. Be on the lookout for ways that he is poisoning your connections while pretending that it’s for your own good.
In many cases a woman doesn’t realize that her partner is isolating her until the damage has gone quite a ways. However, it is never too late to reestablish your connection to the world.
Even if you aren’t with your abusive partner any more, his effects can live on; a woman sometimes finds that it takes a long time to recover from all the damage that the abuser did to her relationships – including damage to her belief that anyone would even want to be her friend. So the project of breaking isolation is an important one even if your relationship is over.
Look for ways to reach out to people. You may have to be secretive about it, you may have to be cunning, but don’t give up. If your abuser is monitoring your telephone, look for ways to send emails and then erase them after they’re sent. If he watches all of your electronics, see if you can get in conversations at the grocery store, or see if you can slip a handwritten note to someone who might be able to help you. If he lets you go to medical appointments, that might be your opportunity to tell someone what is happening at home, or to make a friend in the waiting room. Look for a chance to call a hotline and talk.
Reach out to people who have turned against you, and see if those relationships can be repaired. Try to help people understand how the abuse has affected you, and that you didn’t really want to drop out of contact; help them see how he caused rifts in your relationships. Make apologies where you owe them to people, even if that’s hard to do, and see if you can bring people back close to you. If he has created bad feeling between you and your children, see if you can approach them in a new way, saying things you haven’t said before, and get the door to open again.
Try not to let the abuser convince you that you aren’t a desirable friend. There are people out there in the world who will love you, who will appreciate who you are, who will take the time to get to know what is inside of you, below the surface. There are dozens of women and men whose lives could use somebody like you. Don’t believe him that nobody wants you.
I understand that you may feel that you can’t trust anyone, given how burned you feel by him and by other people who have sided with him. But if he can keep you from ever trusting people, then he wins again. Don’t let him do it. There are trustworthy people in the world, people of honesty and integrity, people who stick by their friends. In fact, there are boatloads of them. Keep your eyes open, yes; don’t trust recklessly. But do trust.
Every day, think of a step you could take that day, even if it has to be a small one, toward breaking your isolation. The world wants you in it.
(As I write this, I am also thinking about people who have been abused in other kinds of circumstances. You might have been abused by one of your parents, or by a boss, or by a same-sex partner you were involved with. Whoever it was, they almost certainly used isolation tactics on you and tried to divide you from potential allies. And they had no right to do that.)
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