Why don’t we leave?

I participated in an abuse survivor’s forum last night.  I shared my perspective on why targets of abuse find it so difficult to leave their abusers.  Here are my notes from last night.


Hello. I survived a 30-year marriage to a brutal abuser. In the six years since leaving that relationship, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about abusive relationships. I understand the topic for tonight is Why don’t we leave our abusers?

I’ve learned that abuse is not about anger, it’s about control. In a nutshell, an abuser avoids their own shame by projecting it onto someone else, and that gives the abuser a sense of control. To a healthy person, that seems irrational, but to the disordered, it’s obvious.

To have an abusive relationship, you need the right ingredients:

  • A good target – someone who is a little inexperienced; someone who looks for the best in others and who believes in giving second chances
  • An abuser who understands mind control

I’ve started referring to abuse in terms of abuser and target because it avoids the language of perpetrator and victim. Even in the depths of my misery, I never considered myself a victim of abuse, and I still don’t. I was the target of a skilled abuser. This distinction is important to me because a target can learn to do things differently.

My abuser must have improved his mind control skills as an instructor in an escape and evasion training school for the US Air Force. This school taught pilots who might be shot down over enemy territory how to escape or evade the techniques that the enemy might use against them. In my later research on mind control in an Army manual from that time, I discovered their three ingredients for mind control: repetition, harassment, and humiliation.

Here’s an example of how that might work in everyday life. I might be in the kitchen absorbed in fixing dinner when the abuser walks up and says, “I see you didn’t close the back door right. I’ve told you before you have to pull it tight before it latches. Why can’t you get such a simple thing correct? I’m beginning to think there’s something wrong with your brain. The next time you do that, you’re going to regret it.”

Except for the threat at the end, doesn’t this simply sound like someone who’s frustrated at not being listened to? Is it really mind control? But, add this conversation to another dozen or more during the day where I’m repeatedly told I don’t measure up. Keep in mind that I’m the kind of person that generally seeks approval from others, and you begin to see the pattern of harassment and repetition.

Add in some sleep deprivation so I feel disoriented and disconnected from myself.

Sprinkle in incidents of intense rage and violence so I start tiptoeing around for fear of reawakening his anger.

Control finances and distort the truth so I feel I have no alternatives.

Alienate me from my family and friends.

Insist that I pay attention to him when in his presence and interrupt me frequently by telephone when I’m not.

Humiliate me in front of people I respect, but later claim it was all a joke and I’m too uptight to take a joke.

Convince me that I’m responsible for the decline of the relationship and that if it weren’t for my failings, the relationship would be just as good as the early courtship days.

Control my sense of hope. Promise better times to raise my hopes, and then dash them.

The cumulative effect of this treatment weakened my identity. Once I was worn down, I had no defense from the abuser’s ever-increasing demands on my time and thoughts, which led to even deeper levels of mind control.

What’s amazing is that someone can appear competent and lucid in their everyday life, while hiding a secret life of mind control. When I was being controlled, I could still perform at work. I learned to compartmentalize the abuse separate from the job. Even if someone witnessed a conversation between the abuser and me (like the one I previously mentioned about closing the door), it wouldn’t raise concerns about abuse. In fact, he often treated me much better when we were around other people.

I truly believe that abuse is simply mind control. We’d all like to think we’re too smart to be subjected to mind control, but I assure you if the right techniques are used long enough, we’re all susceptible. Even special forces members are trained to escape from capture as soon as possible because the longer they’re held captive, the more likely they’ll submit to mind control. Even when we think we have free will, we may not.

I did not think of myself as under mind control even when I went to work after a severe beating, hiding the bruises and scrapes with clothing and greeting coworkers with an artificial smile. I believed that I was responsible for my condition because it was the only way I could rationalize the insanity going on at home. I stayed because my mind had been controlled to believe it was my safest option and the shame of admitting the abuse was too intense to leave.

Abuse does not have to be shameful. I wrote a memoir and I host a blog that is committed to reducing the shame from abuse. I have some copies of the book I’ll be selling after the meeting if you’d like one. The book is entitled Powerful, Beautiful, and Wise. The name of my blog is powerfulbeautifulwise.com. You can also purchase the book from the blog or from local bookstores.

I’m glad I got a chance to talk to you tonight. Thank you to our local domestic violence shelter for your unrelenting support of me and others trapped in abuse. I am your living proof that you make a difference. Thank you.

4 thoughts on “Why don’t we leave?

  1. Mind control. Sounds like a narcissist

    It is hard for many to know what it is like to suffer and compartmentalize.

    As a child my controller was a giant monster, my dad.

    Hard to leave that control for years


  2. I suspect my controller was a psychopath. It seems like we have to live it to truly understand that kind of control. When anxious about the number of years I spent trapped in abuse, I assure myself that I did what I could with what I knew at the time.


  3. Thank you so much for writing this. My abuser used the mind control that you describe. They combined it with making me sleep deprived and trying to make me think the sleep problem was a medical issue called sleep apnoea. I checked with my doctor and it wasn’t that at all, it was her deliberately waking me. She was an expert at creating a good image with others by exploiting her role as a ‘caring professional’, yet if I was ill stating unsympathetically “I deal with the dying every day”. There were chinks in her behaviour that were observed by a few other people, very simple things like her frequently complaining about the English. (She was Scottish and brought up in South Africa, whilst I am English). Some of my experiences, such as retreating up the stairs after an incident and boarding myself in a room are depicted in a very well produced short film. Watch how the victim has already become incredibly isolated and is very subdued. Notice how the perpetrator has convinced her neighbours that she is the victim. I was an exec. producer contributing ideas for the film based on many real experiences that I had recorded in a diary when I retreated. The film is fictional, but is based on the experiences of a number of people. https://vimeo.com/251323354


  4. Oh my, an excellent job! You’ve captured the essence of living with a disordered partner, and the actors are very convincing. I’m glad you kept a diary to capture the experience so clearly. I’ve seen some statistics to support it, and my own experience confirms that female abuse of male partners is as common as male abuse of females. Thank you for sharing.


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