Monday 16 September 2019

'Friends often think he's the nicest man in the world' - how emotionally abusive men establish control over partners

For many women with emotionally abusive partners, not much has changed since #MeToo. In his new book, relationship counsellor Don Hennessy aims to help them navigate their way out, writes Tanya Sweeney

Abuse: Women need to recognise the red flags for themselves (stock picture)
Abuse: Women need to recognise the red flags for themselves (stock picture)

As Hollywood reeled from the shock of its biggest stars shedding light on a catalogue of sexual assault and harassment offences, the message from the resulting #MeToo movement was clear: if women speak up about these wrongdoings, the world will listen, and will often believe. But we've also realised that controlling behaviour, particularly of men towards women, is far more common than we think.

Yet for the millions of women in abusive relationships, not much has changed since #MeToo. Domestic abuse remains a shameful secret in many Irish households and emotional abuse is one of the most complicated forms of abuse.

Psychological steps: Hennessy says don’t condemn the woman
Psychological steps: Hennessy says don’t condemn the woman

According to statistics from the Women's Aid Impact Report, launched in 2016, there were 16,375 disclosures of domestic abuse to Women's Aid the previous year. Of those, 10,876 were disclosures of emotional abuse.

Don Hennessy is a relationship counsellor and Director of the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency. In his new book Steps To Freedom, he reiterates that when it comes to emotionally abusive relationships, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. And the red flags of coercive control aren't especially easy to spot.

"The male intimate abuser actually follows exactly the same tactics as the paedophile," he explains.

"The initial thing is that they would select the same type of target... the people who were being abused were always kind people, the type of people who would put others before themselves.

"The kind people were the people who were targeted and subsequent to that, there was a process of setting up."

Hennessy notes that we need to stop focusing on the women in these relationships or putting the onus on them to react or leave an emotionally abusive relationship.

"For as long as I've been doing this work, I've seen that we all look towards the woman - what is she doing wrong? Why is she walking into this with her eyes closed?" he says. "These are the wrong questions. Often these women are intelligent and streetwise. These guys are so clever and devious that she has no idea her emotions are being manipulated."

The one thing that emotionally abusive men have in common, observes Hennessy, is their sense of "sexual entitlement".

"Maybe they get it from their surroundings, their peer involvement, their upbringing, but most of them will think 'I will have a partner who will not resist my demands'. All the other stuff - the jealousy around 'where were you last night', the cutting off from her friends - is just a smokescreen.

"The biggest red flag sounds simple but it's actually very hard to pin it down," he adds. "From the very beginning, the woman becomes responsible for the emotional temperature of the relationship. Every time it becomes rough in any way, or if there's any anxiety or tension, it's her job to sort it out. She will often think, 'if I can stop doing this, I'll have a lovely relationship with this man'.

"The most essential thing is to get her to feel sorry for him. She'll see him as unique - if he gets too drunk or rowdy in public, she'll fully believe he's not the same as all the other men who act like that."

Very early on in a relationship, the 'terms and conditions' have been laid down by the men, typically very subtly.

"You'll often hear a woman who has come out of an emotionally abusive relationship say things like, 'I knew I couldn't be late to meet him, even within the first couple of weeks'.

"The control becomes a permanent thing inside her head," adds Hennessy. "Say if she is at the supermarket and thinks she will buy some bananas for her kids, all she can hear in her head is him saying 'don't bring any bananas into this house', and then she doesn't because of that."

Emotionally abusive men will often check on their partner's whereabouts, and will slowly erode her confidence by making remarks about her appearance, her financial situation or her housework skills.

"It's all designed to demean her so she doesn't feel like a woman, and therefore when she goes into the bedroom, she has no ground to stand on," observes Hennessy.

Far from cutting her off from her family and friends, Hennessy notes that emotionally abusive men often groom the people around her too.

"They'll often think he's the nicest man in the world," says Hennessy.

Much as its title suggests, Hennessy's book Steps To Freedom - a follow-up to the bestselling How He Gets Into Her Head - details how a woman can wrest herself out from under the control of an emotionally abusive partner.

"If she plays right into his hands by examining her own behaviour, she'll never want to leave," says Hennessy. "But if she says to herself, 'this isn't working no matter how hard I try', she will get to the end of her tether, and will decide she can't go any further. She can only leave when she is instinctively ready and she's gotten rid of his control inside her head.

"I encourage women to turn off their mobile phones if they do find a way to leave - he will never send a message designed to soothe her. They are designed to upset her. Phones are lethal in terms of access to her spirit and mind."

One piece of advice that Hennessy offers to women in emotionally abusive relationships runs counter to the usual advice of getting away from a man physically. Rather, he acknowledges that some women will find it hard to physically leave the household and should instead find a way towards emotional freedom while still living with the man. The steps to freedom are psychological rather than physical.

"She may decide to stay and even though the rest of us might think she's an idiot for doing that, it might just be the wisest thing for her to do," says Hennessy.

"I hear people say that she should just run, but it's not that simple - I've had to learn that myself from going into women's shelters in my line of work. Once she acknowledges he has no intention of loving her and treating her with respect, it makes life a little simpler at least and they can get on with their own lives.

"They won't share his bed, but they get on with their own lives, get back to their own careers and re-establish a sense of self."

Family and friends, meanwhile, who have noticed that their friend or loved one might be in an emotionally abusive relationship, would do well to simply keep the lines of communication open.

"The most important thing you do is not condemn her," says Hennessy. "You don't make it her problem. Talking to her about her isn't a good idea; rather, you talk to her about him. I'd approach it as, 'you're a great girl to be able to cope with a man like that. As far as I'm concerned, this is what he is doing'. She will deny it of course, but at least she will, in time, begin to recognise those red flags for herself."

  • Steps To Freedom is out now from Liberties Press (€14.99, If you have been affected by any of these issues, you can contact Women's Aid on 1800 341 900.

What is emotional abuse?

According to the Women's Aid Impact Report, emotional abuse is defined as:

- being controlled and manipulated;

- being isolated from family and friends;

- threats to kill the woman, the children or the woman's family;

- abuser refusing to call the woman by her name;

- constant name calling and being shouted at;

- being accused of being a bad mother;

- being told she is going mad;

- being blamed for the abuse and being told it's her fault;

- being shaken, kicked and woken during the night, resulting in sleep deprivation;

- being stalked, having to change contact details and being harassed by phone, text and online after the relationship has ended.

Irish Independent

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