Laura is 30 years old and periodically physically abused by her husband. She never knows when she will be hit, slapped, pushed to the floor, or thrown against a wall. There are other times when her husband is affectionate, helpful, and caring.
A part of Laura’s problem is that her husband’s behavior is unpredictable. Sometimes she is rewarded with kindness and warmth, but at other times she is yelled at, threatened, or physically attacked.
Psychologists know that such unpredictability can produce strong submissive behavior from victims. When you think about it, that makes sense: Victims become agreeable, polite, and solicitous toward “the enemy” in the hope of avoiding attacks. In short, they develop strong dependency actions in a desperate attempt to avoid harm.
This sort of dependency pattern is seen in many circumstances: The bullied kid on the playground tries to join his tormentor’s group; a kidnap victim admires and identifies with her captor; an abused child affectionately rushes to her abusive daddy’s side when he comes home from work; sex-trafficking victims make no effort to escape their “handler”; Laura displays the role of an adoring spouse.
Well-meaning friends and relatives who sense Laura’s problem often ask, “Why don’t you leave him?” Laura would like to end her marriage but she says, “I have no job and nowhere to go. Even if I did, he’d find me and beat me. And I’ll never go to the cops because he said he’d kill me. I’m just totally helpless.”
Laura does not see any options other than enduring the abuse and trying to avoid it. She sees her only hope as trying to stay at peace with her husband. She fears that if she runs, threats against her children and other loved ones will be carried out. She may also be uncertain about her financial future if she strikes out on her own. In short, she is completely dependent, helpless, and at the mercy of her spouse.
Similar dynamics are at work in cults, authoritarian governments, and terrorist groups. Like the abusive husband, the cult leader has a firm hold over followers because the leader has destabilized them. The leader controls information and tears down psychological anchors like family and social norms, convincing followers that they are helpless to act without the leader’s guidance. Combining flattery, deception, and coercion, the effective cult leader forms a trauma bond with adherents: “Only I understand your pain and can relieve it; you can depend only on me. There’s nowhere else to turn but you can count on me.”
But let’s return to Laura. What is she to do? What actions can she take to break free? She has no control over her husband’s behavior, and being nice, subservient, and trying to placate him simply don’t work.
There are alternatives for Laura, but without help she can’t see them. “Without help.” That’s the key. Only with the help of others can she muster the strength to plan her escape using resources available to her. She can contact women’s resource centers and legal aid organizations for advice on how to proceed. If children are involved, she can contact child protective services. She can get an attorney and involve the police. She can call on friends for support, and discover the strength in numbers and resources available to her.
As a general principle, remember that when you feel you have no direct control over the source of your troubles – and often you don’t, whether it be a spouse, criminal, supervisor, or acquaintance – there are always options available to you that allow you to exercise control through other agents. The key is to develop a plan that includes those options, a plan that focuses on specific aspects – financial, personal safety, legal — of situations to attack, making sure you have resources backing you up. To do so, you must reach out and develop a social network of people who are committed to helping you.
The one thing you must not do is descend into apathy, ambivalence, and dependency. You must determine your “circle of control” and, operating within that circle, fight! Otherwise, you may eventually fall victim to depression. The best antidote to depression is action. The key, however, is to understand that actions must not be obvious to your tormenter, who is stronger and holds all the cards in the “home arena.” An effective plan will involve deception, subterfuge, trickery, and clever maneuvers that take you outside your persecutor’s circle of control, into arenas where you have supportive resources and more control.