Welcome to Part 3 of Explaining Coercive Control to People Who Don’t Quite Get It: A Series.
Part 1, ‘The Myth that Incidents of Physical Violence Are The Most Important Aspect of Domestic Violence and Abuse’ — click here
Part 2, ‘The Myth That Coercive and Controlling Domestic Abusers Can Be Adequate Parents’ — click here
I was inspired to write this post by the big response to my Instagram post on this issue.
Who am I?
Before we get started, let me explain why I’m qualified to write about coercive control. I am an academic specialising in researching and teaching about violence and abuse. I have spent nearly 15 years researching domestic violence and abuse, and I was delighted to publish my first book on the topic with Oxford University Press, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, last year. This followed many specialist academic papers I authored which have been well-received by victims-survivors and by organisations in the domestic violence and abuse sector and beyond.
The Myth that Victims-Survivors are Crazy and Unstable People
This myth that victims-survivors are crazy and unstable people is one of the oldest tricks from abusers (and those who support abusers).
Calling into question the mental health of a person who is reporting that they’ve been subjected to domestic violence and abuse is a common tactic.
You can look for it in every case where someone comes forward to say they are a victim-survivor: The alleged abuser (and their supporters) will almost inevitably say the victim is ‘crazy’, ‘unstable’, ‘having a mental health crisis’ and so on.
Almost. Every. Single. Time.
A DARVO Myth
This myth that victims-survivors are crazy and unstable people is a DARVO myth.
What is DARVO?
DARVO, a concept pioneered by Professor Jennifer Freyd, stands for:
Denial by the abuser that they were abusive;
Attack by the abuser on the credibility and character of the victim;
Reversal by the abuser of the roles of…
Where does this myth fit into DARVO?
Calling into question the mental health of a person who is reporting that they’ve been subjected to domestic violence and abuse is the ‘A’ for Attack in DARVO: it is an Attack by the abuser on the credibility and character of the victim.
In practice, in DARVO, the real domestic abuser says something like this:
I didn’t do what she’s alleging;
she’s actually the one who’s been abusing me;
she’s actually the dangerous parent for our kids.
Most abusers use the DARVO strategy to help them to avoid consequences. The main purpose of DARVO tactics is to confuse people and make people doubt their perceptions about a situation of abuse or injustice.
In particular, the purpose is to confuse a well-meaning onlooker or professional; the type of person who could become a valuable, game-changing ally to a victim-survivor. The abuser can’t let such allyship take place, as it might ruin their ability to keep abusing their target.
The abuser therefore deploys DARVO to distort the well-meaning onlooker’s or professional’s perspective. The abuser will attempt to influence this type of person with DARVO-based stories about how unstable, crazy, mad and terrible the victim is.
As a result, the potential allyship is undermined. The person who was the potential ally to the victim-survivor now feels that the situation is ‘just too complicated to understand’. They worry that they might be supporting the wrong person; or they think the abuser and victim ‘both sound like bad people’ as they are both saying negative things about each other. If the abuser’s DARVO-based stories are particularly successful, the potential ally may become fully convinced that the abuser is the victim, and the victim is the abuser.
The result is a huge win for the abuser:
the person who is a potential ally backs away from supporting the victim-survivor (or even supports the abuser instead);
the victim-survivor is left alone and undefended; and
the abuser is not held accountable, and is free to carry on with their campaign of abuse.
A Sexist Myth
Women are the large majority of victims-survivors of domestic violence and abuse that is repeated and severe in nature — and the myth that victims-survivors are crazy and unstable people is a sexist myth.
This is because it chimes with another pre-existing, powerful social myth: that females are naturally more psychologically unstable and mentally disordered than males. Calling into question the mental health of a woman (e.g. a woman who is reporting that they’ve been subjected to domestic violence and abuse) has an extra oomph that is lacking in calling into question the mental health of a man.
Mental Ill-health and ‘Hysteria’
The myth that females are naturally more psychologically unstable and mentally disordered than males has been used against women and girls for millennia. It is telling that the word ‘hysteria’ is based on the Greek word for uterus (hystera). Hippocrates in the 5th century BC defined hysteria as a situation where women’s hysterae (their uteruses) are moving around their bodies, causing mental instability.
So, in modern-day life, a male domestic abuser who calls into question the mental health of his female victim is taking advantage of this long-held social myth that females are naturally more psychologically unstable and mentally disordered than males. The claim seems quite plausible, because we are already used to the idea that women are more likely than men to be over-emotional and crazy. This idea is a foundational myth within our societies.
The DARVO Myth Meets the Sexist Myth
This is why, as the ‘A’ of Attack in DARVO, the claim of a female’s victim’s mental ill-health is such a powerful Attack by the (male) abuser on the credibility and character of the female victim. It has an extra power compared to the female-to-male reverse, as it goes with the grain of the long-held social myth that females are naturally more psychologically unstable and mentally disordered than males.
Unlike with females, we as a society do not have an underlying tendency to see males as being psychologically unstable and mentally disordered by nature. When men are mentally unwell, it tends to be linked to their social circumstances, rather than to their biological nature. As a result, we are more likely to see men with mental health struggles as having been affected by external forces, rather than being inwardly ‘hysterical’ or ‘crazy’.
Therefore, a female calling a male ‘crazy’ doesn’t tend to have the same kind of impact. The reason for the impact of calling a woman ‘crazy’ is because of the deep-rooted tendency to see females as psychologically unstable and mentally disordered by nature. This is why a woman’s credibility and character are particularly vulnerable to being undermined by claims of mental ill-health.
The psychological impacts of coercive control
Victims-survivors are not ‘crazy’. True, the months or years of abuse that their abuser has subjected them to will have understandably caused harms to mental and physical health — yet this does not make the victim-survivor a ‘crazy’ person. And it certainly does not make equally as bad, or more bad, than the abuser. It just makes them a normal human who has been harmed because someone chose to cruelly abuse, exploit and entrap them.
Let’s look at it this way: If somebody attacks another person and breaks a bone in their body, who is the dangerous one: the attacker who broke the bone or the person whose bone broke? Most people would agree that the obvious answer is… it is the attacker who is the dangerous one.
Now let’s substitute a one-off physical attack that breaks a bone for, say, 10 years of abuse. Let’s substitute a broken bone for an abuse victim-survivor who has post-traumatic stress because of that 10 years of abuse to which they have been subjected.
Who is the more dangerous one? Of course, it the person who carried out the 10 years of abuse, making the choice from their position of power to keep abusing day-in and day-out.
Getting It Wrong: Misunderstanding the Reality
However, too often, we don’t in fact come to conclusion that the person who carried out the years of abuse is the more dangerous one. Instead, we – that is, police officers, social workers, counsellors, judges and other people acting within systems, as well as communities in general – are susceptible to thinking that the person who is experiencing trauma is the more dangerous one (or at least the more problematic one).
After all, the abuser seems to be the calm one (they aren’t traumatised, so they find it easy to appear calm). The abuser might be telling amusing stories and acting like a good, friendly guy. This is because the abuser is, after all, a highly experienced manipulator: They often know how to make a good impression, and are comfortable controlling and manipulating others.
Meanwhile, the person who is traumatised may be terribly upset, they may be angry, they may be verbally incoherent, they may be fearful and desperate, and they may be suffering intensely. Their emotions may be shifting as they go from a numb dissociated state to a state of agitation, and back again, because of how traumatised they are.
As humans, we often react to someone in this kind of traumatised state by backing away from them and feeling a strong sense of dislike towards them, rather than feeling compassionate towards them.
We would often rather call the victim-survivor ‘crazy’, and psychologically distance ourselves from the victim’s-survivor’s pain and trauma. Even other victims-survivors may have this reaction. They may find the levels of pain of another victim-survivor intolerable, and so prefer to dismiss them as a ‘crazy’, non-credible person.
Getting It Right: Seeing the Truth of Victim and Abuser
In fact, the traumatised victim-survivor is not the more dangerous or problematic one. Not at all. If they were to be supported in appropriate ways to achieve real safety and security for themselves (and any children or other dependent loved ones that they might have), then they would start to heal, just as a broken bone that gets the right medical support will start to heal. They would have the room to grow into the person who they are – their true self – without the abuser running their life.
The coercively controlling abuser is a different story. Safety won’t bring about a positive change in their personality. Coercively controlling abusers are notoriously resistant to changing. They get a lot of benefits from their abuse, and they want to keep those benefits. If the abuser no longer sees it as viable to abuse their established target (e.g. an ‘ex-partner’ who has successfully escaped them), they may well move onto a new target. (Sometimes this will be their own child). Coercively controlling abusers are a danger to the public.
Outcomes for victims-survivors
We can see how the myth that the victim-survivor is ‘crazy’ may play out in family court cases.
Professor Joan Meier and colleagues’ 2019 research found that, in the US, 14% of mothers lost custody of their children to the children’s domestically abusive father even when the courts believed the mother than the father was a domestic abuse perpetrator. In other words, in 14% of cases, courts thought the children would be better off growing up with their domestically abusive dad than their survivor mom.
Meier et al’s research doesn’t shed light on why the courts thought children being raised by abuse-perpetrating fathers was the best outcome in these cases. However, more generally, victims-survivors quite frequently report that the family courts saw them as ‘crazy’ and problematic, and saw their abuser as the ‘stable’ one, and that they lost their children for this reason.
Research in the UK by Women’s Aid and the University of Bristol in 2021 explored how female victims-survivors are routinely harmed and discredited by being labelled as crazy and unstable. You can read the research findings here, with page 47 onwards focusing on mental health.
The research found that:
‘The label of “mentally unwell” cast doubt on [female victims-survivors’] “wholeness” as people, and relegated them to the position of “broken” or “psychologically so damaged”.’
It concluded that:
‘This discourse designates female survivors as problematic (rather than the abuse and violence committed against them being the problem) and serves to minimise or obscure the perpetration of abuse.’
Moving forwards, we need to stop routinely dismissing women who come forward about their experiences as crazy and unstable. ‘We’ means everyone, from social workers, to police officers, to judges, to friends and families, to people commenting on social media.
This would be a vital step up in improving our responses to domestic violence and abuse and coercive control.
In the vast majority of cases, the mental health distress or out-of-character behaviour that a victim-survivor is experiencing is a result of the extremely harmful actions of the abuser. The abuser is the one who had power and control over the relationship/family, and used that power and control to abuse.
Women’s Aid puts it like this: ‘Call it oppression, not depression’.
Humphreys and Thiara explained it like this — ‘Mental Health and Domestic Violence: “I Call it Symptoms of Abuse”’.
Remember — victims-survivors are ordinary people. An abuser chose to harm them. They need support that works for them, not judgement or blame.
Goodbye for now
Goodbye for now. Let me leave you a picture of me with my three dear dogs on a sunny day in England.
I’ll be back soon for further instalments of this blog.