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Mind Control and the Battering of Women

by Teresa Ramirez Boulette, Ph.D. and Susan M. Andersen, Ph.D.

continued from Front Page

in these relationships are described and compared with similar strategies of "mind control" utilized in more traditional "cultic" systems. The debilitating effects of these techniques on the battered female are described, as is the battering male's own separation reaction, and the probable dynamics of the men and women involved in this pathological family system. Some preliminary assessment and treatment guidelines are offered.

Over the last decade, increasing attention has been paid the phenomenon of "wife battering," a syndrome that appears to transcend both social class and ethnicity (Berk, Berk, Loseke, & Rauma, 1983; Martin, 1976; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Gelles, 1974, 1976; Hilberman, 1980; Steinmetz, 1977; although, see Fagan, Stuart, & Hansen, 1983; Snyder and Fruchtman, 1981). Little research, however, has identified or differentiated probable variations in the battering phenomenon (with some exceptions, Snyder and Fruchtman, 1981; Walker, 1979). Nor has it adequately specified the situational and dispositional factors that may come to precipitate or characterize these various forms of abuse.

The present paper seeks to describe one variation in the battering phenomenon that the authors have frequently observed among low-income women and, perhaps indirectly, to encourage the identification of other variations in the phenomenon of spousal abuse. At the heart of the particular syndrome to be described here is a form of "mind control" or "brainwashing" -- that is, a set of potent social influence techniques levied against the victimized female by the abusive male. Elsewhere termed "the marital brainwashing syndrome" (Boulette, 1980, 1981), this familial pattern is characterized by many of the same features of psychological coercion and deception that may be used to distinguish religious or political cults from other tightly knit social systems in society (Andersen, 1984, Andersen & Zimbardo, 1980). Further, it is unlikely that this syndrome is limited to low-income couples (see Dutton & Painter, 1981), even though these processes were initially observed among these individuals (Boulette, 1980). Thus, additional research is necessary to determine the prevalence and limiting conditions of the particular "battering" syndrome.

The persuasive strategies that are intimately a part of this phenomenon are detailed below, along with the debilitating effects of these techniques, the battering male's own separation reaction, and the probable dynamics of the men and women involved. Some preliminary assessment and treatment guidelines are also specified.

Mind Control and Battering

The hypothesized association between mind control and battering is not an entirely new one (Boulette, 1980, Dutton & Painter, 1981; Hilberman, 1980). Other researchers have drawn this parallel and have specified some of the manipulative techniques battering men may use against their wives (Steinmetz, 1977; Walker, 1977-78, 1980), such as isolation and the provocation of fear; alternating kindness and threat to produce disequilibrium; the induction of guilt, self-blame, dependency, and learned helplessness (cf., Seligman, 1975). Members of extremist cults are reported to experience similar events in the form of dissociation from all that is familiar, prohibitions against free expression and dissent, the regular mobilization of fear and guilt, and the establishment of an omnipotent mater who demand self-sacrifice (Enroth, 1977, see also Andersen & Zimbardo, 1980; Singer, 1979).

"Cultic" systems, whether they are two-person relationships or larger social groups, are those that are totalistic in nature and that exercise exceptional controls over the individual freedoms of their members (Andersen, 1984). A cultic system can thus be identified based on the degree of such control simply by counting the number of features of psychological coercion (e.g., social isolation, threat of harm, confusion and guilt, love that is strictly contingent on certain actions) and deception (e.g., direct misrepresentation or lying, distortion of individual options) present in the system. Those battering relationships that involve "mind control" typically possess a significant number of these features and thus merit identification as cultic systems (see Andersen, 1984 for details).

Women in these relationships typically experience all or most of the following pathological conditions, which together serve to differentiate battering that involves mind control from other types of battering:

Early verbal and/or physical dominance. During the courtship or early marriage the male in the relationship typically establishes his role as "boss" and "owner" by acts of verbal or physical dominance. The wzoman misinterprets this behavior as representing commitment and the male's effectiveness as a "strong" male.

Isolation/Imprisonment. The male frequently isolates the woman from her friends and relatives, both geographically and emotionally, and may forbid her to visit them. Culturally legitimized notions of male and female roles are typically used to reinforce the male's decisions. He may insist on "escorting" her everywhere, be excessively vigilant, and attempt to keep her in the home. In this way he weakens her support system, prevents her escape, and produces a more docile and influenceable spouse.

Fear arousal and maintenance. The male in these relationships arouses fear in his spouse by verbal threats or physical abuse of varying severity. Over time, the woman may build a kind of tolerance to these tactics of fear arousal and may, on occasion, fail to respond to them in expected ways, which may result in escalated fear arousal. The terrorizing behaviors on the male's part vary greatly from holding his wife hostage for hours at knife point, to locking her out of the house naked, forcing her on a busy freeway, or simply leaving her to walk home alone at night.

Guilt induction. The battering male may also induce guilt in his victim by blaming her

for the abuse until she comes to blame herself. Blaming the victim is frequently used to justify the use of coercive power (Kipnis, 1976), and such self-blame is also found among the victims of rape (Jannoff-Bulman, 1979; Libow and Doty, 1979).

Contingent expressions of "love." In these relationships the painful feelings of confusion, anxiety, and guilt that the victimized woman is led to feel are all relieved when she simply "gives in" and does what badge.JPG she is told. If she agrees to refrain from speaking with her friends, to stay home every night, to listen to his ceaseless tirades with selfless understanding and compassion, and to adhere to his every need and desire, she is, at least briefly, "loved" by him. If not, she continues to be degraded, devalued, and maligned.

Enforced Loyalty to the aggressor and self-denunciation. The female in these relationships frequently romanticizes and exaggerates her husband's desirable characteristics, excuses his oppressiveness, and may even demonstrate a missionary zeal to rescue him from his own irresponsibility, vulnerability, temper, or alcoholism (Hilberman, 1980). Often she believes that she has a special power to understand and change him and that she is responsible for his survival, irrespective of his effects on her own physical and mental health and that of her children. This reaction may be similar to the positive feelings and loyalty that prisoners of war can come to have for their captors in the so-called Stockholm syndrome (Ochberg, 1971). This pathological attachment is associated with the captive's terror and gratefulness for not being further damaged or killed (see also Libow & Doty, 1979; Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977).

Promotion of powerlessness and helplessness. The male's manipulative behaviors have the effect of debilitating his spouse and promoting her feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. Her isolation effectively weakens her support systems; her chronic stress debilitates her (Selye, 1976); her failure to predict or control her abuse promotes learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975); her husband's control over available monies impoverishes her; and the victim-blaming postures of helpers who believe in a just-world hypotheses (Lerner, 1970) promote further self-blame and powerlessness.

Pathological expressions of jealousy. In these relationships the wife may be repeatedly accused of infidelity by a husband who makes little effort to conceal his own extramarital infatuations and promiscuity. He prohibits her intimate friendships wherever possible and expresses a pathological, and at times psychotic, jealousy about her relationships, even with members of the same sex.

Hope-instilling behaviors. The women in such relationships is nearly always provided with periodic hope that somehow the beatings, the manipulation, and the sense of imprisonment will end if she pleads, cries, prays, endures, or sacrifices long enough. These occasional hope-instilling behaviors, of course, provide powerful intermittent reinforcements that prompt further self-sacrifice and tolerance of abuse (Dutton & Painter, 1981; Steinmetz, 1977; Walker, 1979).

Required secrecy. Secrecy is intimately a part of such abusive relationships because they are characterized by dominance and by defensive, dictatorial control. The woman's defense system has been effectively destroyed so that contacts with individuals who might observe her bruises and encourage disclosure are nonexistent. Her secrecy is further prompted by shame and bewilderment. Interestingly, while some difficulties are reported in the initial contacts with these women, the battering is rarely mentioned (Hilberman, 1980); when it is, the women often excuse their husbands' violence by attributing it to intoxication or to other forces external to the man.

Risks Associated With Escape. Upon leaving her husband, the woman in this type of relationship frequently experiences insecurity, lethargy, and fear similar to that described by defecting cult members (Singer, 1979). Frequently these symptoms are exacerbated by the husband's active recapture behaviors and by other behaviors reflecting a separation reaction on his part. Thus, the woman's own symptoms (including self-blame, guilt, and a wish to "help" her suffering husband) may cause her to repeatedly return to the victimizing situation or to fail to leave the situation in the first place. It is, therefore, critical that the woman be prepared to recognize her husband's typical manipulative strategies and those he may manifest when she threatens to leave so that she may ultimately resist them (see also Andersen & Zimbardo, 1980).

The husbands in such cultic relationships have found to exhibit the following sequences of responses to their wives' attempts to escape the relationship:

Cocky disbelief. The husband's reaction typically begins with cocky, self-assured, and contemptuous comments about his wife such as, "She'll come crawling back,She won't make it without me," and "She'd never leave me." At this time he si incredulous and appears tough and emotionally distant.

Confused searching. The next stage of the husband's reaction typically involves aimless, anxious, and pressured searching for his wife's whereabouts. This reaction is often accompanied by symptoms of panic and agitation.

Bargaining. Next, the man may begin a bargaining process, whereby he attempts to send messages to his wife or to directly bargain with her. He promises to change, professes love, and commits himself to fidelity and kindness in the relationship.

Pleading. If the husband's bargaining attempts are unsuccessful, he may begin to cry inconsolably, plead for another chance, and to beg his wife to return. The woman typically equates these tears with "love," feels sorry for him, and frequently returns to him as a result. If she does, a brief period of improvement or honeymooning may occur, followed by the previous oppressive pattern, now intensified to prevent her repeated escape.

Threatening. If the preceding four stages have not resulted in the wife's return, the husband now threatens to kill her, to kidnap the children, and/or to terrorize her family and friends until she does so.

Revenge. Finally, the threats are likely to intensify and the husband may make specific plans to harm his wife or her "accomplices." The husband may, in fact, find and threaten her, her relatives, friends, or therapist. If she is careless during this phase, due to exhaustion or distress, she or her loved ones may actually be injured or killed.

[Community Mental Health Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 1985]

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Have you or someone you know ever experienced the following by a boyfriend, husband or intimate partner?

  • name-calling or put-downs

  • isolation from family or friends

  • withholding of money

  • actual or threatened physical harm

  • sexual assault

These are examples of domestic violence, which includes partner violence, family violence, spouse abuse, child abuse, battering, and wife beating.

This violence takes many forms, and can happen once in a while or all the time. Although each situation is different, there are common warning signs - "red flag" behaviors - to look out for, including those behaviors listed above (see Section 4 for a list). Knowing these signs is an important step in preventing and stopping violence.

In this booklet, we will focus on domestic violence as partner violence, defined as violent or controlling behavior by a person toward a partner, usually a wife, girlfriend, or lover. Although the partner is the primary target, violence is often directed toward children as well, and sometimes toward family members, friends, and even bystanders in attempts to control their partner.

Approximately 95 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women. However, violence also happens in both gay and lesbian relationships. and in a small number of cases, by women against men. 4. Warning List This list identifies a series of behaviors typically demonstrated by batterers and abusive people. All of these forms of abuse, psychological, economic, and physical - come from the batterer's desire for power and control. The list can help you recognize if you or someone you know is in a violent relationship. check off those behaviors that apply to the relationship. The more checks on the page, the more dangerous the situation may be. Emotional and Economic Attacks *Destructive Criticism/Verbal Abuse: Name-calling; mocking; accusing; blaming; yelling; swearing; making humiliating remarks or gestures. *Pressure Tactics: Rushing you to make decisions through "guilt-tripping" and other forms of intimidation; sulking; threatening to withhold money; manipulating the children; telling you what to do. *Abusing Authority: Always claiming to be right (insisting statements are "the truth"); telling you what to do; making big decisions; using "logic." *Disrespect: Interrupting; changing topics; not listening or responding; twisting your words; putting you down in front of other people; saying bad things about your friends and family. *Abusing Trust: Lying; withholding information; cheating on you; being overly jealous. *Breaking Promises: Not following through on agreements; not taking a fair share of responsibility; refusing to help with child care or housework. *Emotional Withholding: Not expressing feelings; not giving support, attention, or compliments; not respecting feelings, rights, or opinions. *Minimizing, Denying & Blaming: Making Light of behavior and not taking your concerns about it seriously; saying the abuse didn't happen; shifting responsibility for abusive behavior; saying you caused it. *Economic Control: Interfering with your work or not letting you work; refusing to give you or taking your money; taking your car keys or otherwise preventing you from using the car; threatening to report you to welfare or other social service agencies. * Self-Destructive Behavior: Abusing drugs or alcohol; threatening suicide or other forms of self-harm; deliberately saying or doing things that will have negative consequences (e.g., telling off the boss).. * Isolation: Preventing or making it difficult for you to see friends or relatives; monitoring phone calls; telling you where you can and cannot go.. * Harassment: Making uninvited visits or calls; following you; checking up on you; embarrassing you in public; refusing to leave when asked.. Acts of Violence * Intimidation: Making angry or threatening gestures; use of physical size to intimidate; standing in doorway during arguments; out shouting you; driving recklessly.. * Destruction: Destroying your possessions (e.g., furniture); punching walls; throwing and/or breaking things.. * Threats: Making and/or carrying out threats to hurt you or others.. * Sexual Violence: Degrading treatment based on your sex or sexual orientation; using force or coercion to obtain sex or perform sexual acts.. * Physical Violence: Being violent to you, your children, household pets or others; Slapping; punching; grabbing; kicking; choking; pushing; biting; burning; stabbing; shoots; etc.. * Weapons: Use of weapons, keeping weapons around which frighten you; threatening or attempting to kill you or those you love.. from "Domestic Violence: The Facts" - A Handbook to STOP violence (courtesy of Peace At Home (formerly Battered Women Fighting Back), Boston)

Cults come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Categories of cults that are recruiting successfully today include:

Eastern meditation: characterized by belief in God-consciousness, becoming one with God. The leader usually distorts and Eastern-based philosophy or religion. Members sometimes learn to disregard worldly possessions and may take on an ascetic lifestyle. Techniques used: meditation, repeated mantras, altered states of consciousness, trance states.

Religious: marked by belief in salvation, afterlife, sometimes combined with an apocalyptic view. The leader reinterprets the Scriptures and often claims to be a prophet if not the messiah. Often the group is strict, sometimes using physical punishments such as paddling and birching, especially on children. Members are encouraged to spend a great deal of time proselytizing. (Note: included here are Bible-based neo-Christian and other religious cults, many considered syncretic since they combine beliefs and practices). Techniques used: speaking in tongues, chanting, praying, isolation, lengthy study sessions, many hours spent evangelizing, "struggle" (or criticism) and confession sessions.

Political, racist, terrorist: fueled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the "enemy" or getting rid of evil forces. The leader professes to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Often the group is armed and meets in secret with coded language, handshakes, and other ritualized practices. Members consider themselves an elite cadre ready to go to battle. Techniques used: paramilitary training, reporting on one another, guilt, fear, struggle sessions, instilled paranoia, long hours of indoctrination. -- Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Lalich and Tobias, Hunter House, 1993.