Control Mechanisms: The Configuration of Abuse in Relationships

Control Mechanisms: The Configuration of Abuse in Relationships

BY Susie Hedley

During Teen Dating Violence Awareness month in February, we focused on how abuse exists in relationships.

We looked at physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, aiming to clearly define each of them and give an overview how they affect young adults. I’d like to delve more into this topic and focus on how abuse is perpetuated:

What are the repeated behaviors within abusive relationships? How can we pinpoint them?

Emotional abuse is the most insidious and manipulative form of abuse. It is also the most difficult to clearly define. However, there are specific tactics that abusers use to gain control and power over their victims, tactics that push a victim into a submissive role while give the abuser the ability to repeat their behavior.

Emotionally controlling tactics that fall into the category of emotional abuse include name-calling, accusations, blaming, belittling, stalking, embarrassing, isolating, body-shaming, gaslighting, or controlling an individual’s social media and social life.

These mechanisms of control vary in formation and execution. Some of them are obvious, some more convoluted. A lot of them will overlap, while some of these behaviors may exist on their own. Abusers don’t have to use every controlling tactic to maintain power over another person. One tactic is enough for a relationship to be defined as abusive.

And while these tactics may seem different, their underlying goal is always the same: to control and gain power over the victim through isolation and suppression.

All of the examples above trap an individual, destroying their confidence and ideas of self-worth as a boyfriend or girlfriend starts to doubt their own thoughts and perceptions.

I recently had the chance to talk to an outreach education and victim advocate from the Center for Family Violence Prevention in Greenville.

Portia Willis runs what is called the CATCH program, an acronym for “Caring for Abused Teens in the Community and at Home,” and she fights to spread awareness surrounding abuse.

CATCH, a weeklong program currently held at Pitt County high schools, is geared toward teen dating violence. In her first program, held at J.H. Rose High School, Willis opened up a discourse between herself and students, discussing key aspects of teen relationships such as communication, love in relationships, and emotional intelligence.

The students are invited to question and respond to ideas about relationships as Willis challenges normalized dating behaviors. The program also introduces activities that exercise ideas of what abusive behavior is and how to visualize it, which she does through interactive film critiques and creative expression pieces.

Despite its name, CATCH is not about catching the abusers out there. It’s about teaching young individuals to give them the signs of abusive behavior so that they may prevent these violent relationships from happening.

Willis had a lot to say about emotional abuse in particular, which she described as being “disguised and more long-lasting than a black eye. A sexual incident may only happen one time. Emotional abuse can change the way you think about things and be, in my opinion, more detrimental.”

She is confident that this proactivity is successful. “While I may not know exactly who they are,” Willis says, “I know I’m talking to them.”

Willis also opened up about how her program has given her and the students “the opportunity to talk about [sex trafficking],” which goes hand in hand with abusive relationships. “It’s here,” she says, “Whether you know it or not.”

Like in sex trafficking, abusers target individuals who are already experiencing marginalization and ostracization. This includes those already having been abused, minority groups, the homeless, noncitizens, and so on.

“We all want to be accepted,” Willis says. “We all want to be loved. And when you find a hint of that, it’s hard to not want to grab a hold of that and push away the negative.” Unfortunately, one third all teens involved in romantic relationships will experience abuse of some kind before they become adults.[I]

And individuals who have been in abusive relationships in the past are likely to be in future ones, too.

With controlling mechanisms in sex trafficking and teen dating violence being so similar, it’s impossible not to make the connection. To prevent abusive relationships, such as the ones in trafficking, abusive relationships need to be openly discussed and prevented earlier on.

With emotional abuse especially, it can be difficult to decide what behaviors are abusive, and what behaviors are just unhealthy. And I made sure to ask Willis how we can tell when we are being abused in a relationship, since it can be harder to pinpoint.

Willis had an answer: “When we define teen dating violence in the CATCH program, we use the word ‘intentional.’”

When an individual intentionally says things to their partner to maintain control that they know makes their partner feel negatively, then that’s when it becomes abusive.

Willis further articulates this point when she says, “If someone is trying to clock your every move, if they’re trying to monitor you through your social media… If they put their hands on you, or are intimidating you, or making you feel like everything is your fault…” That is emotional abuse. Those are the mechanisms of control.

It’s hard to speak up about abuse. But thankfully there are resources out there to help individuals have a voice when they need one.

Love Is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, is a resource that aims to prevent and end dating abuse.

Break the Cycle is an organization that helps young adults “build healthy relationships and create a culture without abuse.”

And finally, if you or anyone you know needs to talk, text LOVEIS to 22522.

“Reach out and talk to someone,” Willis says. “Don’t fight alone. You don’t have to be alone.”


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