Abuse Archives - Embodied Living

Coercive, manipulative and controlling behaviour can be insidious in a relationship and often goes unreported. Here is an article that I first wrote for Psychologies Magazine LifeLabs

Domestic abuse is an all too common story in the news: a woman is killed by a man she knew. This type of case can be the ultimate culmination of domestic abuse. Despite these horrific headlines, this type of abuse largely remains hidden. Yet the statistics show that 13 per cent of women in the UK have experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. 

Men can be victims too

Men can also be the victims of abuse, but women are statistically far more likely to suffer. Such abuse is often thought of as being physical or sexual, but emotional or psychological abuse is far more insidious and widespread. At the end of 2015 a new law on coercive control was introduced to help victims and instigate cultural change around this lesser-known side of domestic abuse. 

How to identify coercive control

People in unhappy relationships need to be aware of this type of behaviour and question whether they are experiencing emotional abuse. 

Here are some things to consider about controlling or coercive behaviour:

  1. The perpetrator sees their partner as an object to control

Whether the person is aware of their behaviour or not, emotional abuse is all about control. The perpetrator feels that they have a sense of entitlement over their partner. This control may extend to the use of the victim’s mobile phone, including putting tracking apps on or having access to passwords and looking at their partner’s phone regularly. It can also extend wanting to know about all their partner’s movements or whereabouts, or perhaps paying too much interest in the other’s choice of clothing and what they wear. Some abusers even focus on body shape – insisting that their partner is too fat or too thin. It can even include control over sleep by deliberately depriving the victim of sleep. Slowly, over a long period of time, this type of behaviour reduces the victims control over aspects of their life, ultimately it can lead to them being isolated from family and friends. It can be incredibly insidious, and often not obvious to those outside the relationship. But when looked back over time there is clearly a purposeful pattern of control that, concsciously or unconsciously, the perpetrator is choosing to do.

  1. It’s a form of brainwashing  

It might sound extreme to say this, but think about it. Brainwashing is the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques and behaviours. In this type of abusive relationship, the controlling person can fluctuate from being delightful and charming one minute then nasty or abusive the next. This ensures that the victim is not only left confused and doubting, because the behaviour is confusing and unpredictable, but also on guard and constantly watchful. By keeping the victim watching and hyper-alert all the time, the abuser has control. The abuser may use the children as ‘weapons’ in their tactics of abuse, perhaps manipulating the kids to side with him or using threats to his partner if she retaliates. Gaslighting is another common tactic, this is when someone exhibits abusive behaviour and then pretends it didn’t happen – or convincingly switches blame on to the victim. This can cause the woman to doubt herself, particularly when she is repeatedly told that she is the one ‘going mad’ or being abusive.

  1. The person who suffers abuse doesn’t love themselves enough and doesn’t tell

People can spend many years in the abusive relationship and not tell anyone. They may be protecting that person, or may be deluded in thinking that ‘if I just love him enough he will change’. But also there is deep personal shame experienced by what is happening to them; such depths of shame will keep the person quiet or even in denial. They may, of course, also feel they won’t be believed and this is often because the abuser puts on a very different face to the rest of the world.

  1. The perpetrator is often seen by others as charming and widely loved

Abusers are often charming and charismatic people. Their partner may have been seduced by this charm in the relationship.  But this makes it even harder for the victim to get support. Perpetrators of controlling behaviour are often loved by others and are good at seducing with their charm. They can be pillar of the community, and may have a degree of power and influence. This makes it even harder for the victim to seek help because she may fear she won’t be believed.

  1. It happens to strong women

Emotional abuse often happens to seemingly strong women, which adds to the shame experienced and makes it even harder for the victim to accept. In addition, if the woman (or man) is a typically strong person, they may be more likely to dismiss the controlling behaviour, particularly in the early stages.

  1.     Any attempt to fight back can escalate the behaviour

Care must be taken to make changes in such a relationship, because the nature of abusive partners (who are often highly narcissistic) is that any attempts to stand up to them or to put them in a bad light, will escalate their behaviour. If you try to instigate divorce or separate it will not be accepted, and the abuser will increase his difficult behaviour. And don’t just leave. Once narcissistic rage is triggered, any type of dangerous or violent behaviour may be possible. Get specialist help from the likes of Refuge or Women’s Aid, and of course the police. All this can be treated confidentially. It will be important to have a plan that maximises safety.

Whilst it is obvious that the (mainly) men who show tendencies to controlling behaviour need specialist help to understand their underlying belief structures and behaviour behind their actions. The victims will also need help. Simply leaving the perpetrator will often risk an escalation in their behaviour, sometimes to dangerous levels, so specialist help should be sought.

Embodied Counselling offers a helpful psychotherapy and counselling service for victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse.


Places to go for help:


National Domestic Violence Helpline

Women’s Aid

Respect (male victims of domestic abuse)

Trauma and its symptoms are more prevalent in society than is often thought. Nearly half of us, that is about 6 of every 10 (or 60%) of men and 5 of every 10 (or 50%) of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8 per cent of the population) will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, the most full-blown grade of trauma), at some point in their lives.

Women more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress

Women are more likely to suffer from trauma: about 10 of every 100 (or 10%) of women develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 (or 4%) of men. This is because the most damaging forms of trauma are those conducted by one person to another, i.e. rape or sexual assault/abuse, and this is more likely to happen to females than males (US figures, National Centre for PTSD). We can begin to see from this evidence the fateful function of trauma, childhood or otherwise, to the fabric of society.

What causes trauma?

Trauma may result from a wide range of stressors such as being in a serious accident; having surgery or surgical procedures; the break -up of a significant relationship; the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition; being in war zones or being in a major natural or technological disaster; being physically punished by parents as a child; being attacked, mugged or beaten by anyone; being pressured into having unwanted sexual contact; having a close family member die violently ie in a serious car crash, mugging or attack.

Trauma is something the body does

Trauma develops through the failure of the body, psyche and nervous system to process adverse events. All of us will have experienced some traumatic experiences during our life, however not everyone who has a traumatic experience ends up being traumatised. Trauma has a different impact at different ages and stages, and a child who experiences a trauma before the age of 7 years experiences more far reaching consequences than an older child or an adult, and is also more vulnerable to later trauma and being re-traumatised.

Trauma in relationship

The most insidious and damaging forms of trauma occur in the context of interpersonal relationships; the most devastating being relational traumas experienced in childhood such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The worst type of trauma of all is childhood neglect, not just physical but emotional neglect. Hence trauma in families is more prevalent than trauma in war.

Consequences of trauma

Trauma can have devastating consequences. The symptoms of trauma include anxiety, depression, substance abuse, mood disorders, suicidal ideas or attempts, self-harm, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anorexia, flashbacks, avoidance behaviour, a feeling of being detached from other people, trouble sleeping, a feeling of frequently being ‘on guard’ or an exaggerated ‘startle response’, restlessness, distraction and trouble concentrating, irritability and outbursts of anger. However the major faculty that trauma interferes with is the ability of our higher brain to connect with a sense of meaning or purpose – what is called ‘the instinct of privilege’. So traumatised people are poor at goal setting, feel like their future has shrunk or they don’t have a future, have an overriding sense of purposeless or lack of meaning.

People suffering from trauma often behave in inappropriate ways, they can scare others and embarrass themselves and drive people away. Because they have no idea of where these powerful feelings that are still with them come from, they experience greater degrees of shame and self-loathing and have a sense of being out of control and becoming a ‘monster’ who no one can be safe with.

Neuroscience of trauma

In a trauma survivor, awareness is being constantly hijacked by their limbic system and the amygdala (basal brain that does the fear, fight, flight response) in the state of high arousal, constant alert and affect (high emotional) state. In this respect the rational, executive brain has very limited capacity to control the emotional arousal or change fixed action patterns of the emotional brain. The frontal lobe shuts down, which means that trauma sufferers are constantly ‘associated’ in the event (reliving it) and consequently overwhelmed by feelings, sensations and emotions.

Sensory input – such as sounds, images, smells – can act as reminders of the past event, automatically stimulating hormonal secretion and activate the brain regions involved in attention and memory. When this happens trauma survivors react with irrational responses which are irrelevant, even harmful in the present. They may over-react or blow up in response to minor provocations; freeze when frustrated or become helpless in the face of trivial challenges. Any external sensory input can trigger this response, as the inner system is now primed. Nevertheless, in the absence of this context the emotions and reactions of trauma survivors seem out of place and bizarre.

Recent neuroscience research has found that the precuneus is also negatively affected. The precuneus is in the back, mid portion of the parietal lobe, flopping over the inner wall of both hemispheres, and it is responsible for the most basic seat of the ‘self’; from here comes the observing ego, or the “I”. It is the healthy functioning of the precuneus which is associated with self-reflection and self-awareness. The precuneus shows the highest rate of activity when we close our eyes and turn self-awareness inward and become aware of our self, and when taking awareness into the body, sensations and feelings (interoception). This doesn’t apply when moving the body (it only applies to ‘motor imagery’, not movement) and is greatly reduced when we are asleep or during tasks that make no reference to the self.

Abuse is more prevalent than we realise in our society. Parents abuse children, husbands abuse their wives, women bully and abuse other women at work and children abuse children.

There are three general categories of abuse:

  • Physical abuse: physical beatings where damaging blows to the victims’ body are experienced
  • Sexual abuse: unwanted sexual relationship or exposure
  • Psychological abuse: which is about unwanted reduction of the victims self-esteem and value through psychological blows such as: derision, humiliation, ostracism, forced submission etc.

The word ‘Ab-use’ means an abnormal use of a person whereby a person is treated as a thing or object or commodity and not as a living soul or ego.


By Soul, is meant essential or real self – our core being. It is the source of all energies of a person, instincts, emotions, impulses primeval unconscious reactions to external events. When we’re in touch with our soul we are able to laugh and find pleasure when things are satisfying; get angry if things are frustrating. When we’re connected to our soul we have the capacity to be close to others, to love, and to be creative (to create). We also are able to attack or run when we are in danger. In other words, we feel truly alive.

It is a function of the soul to process events and experiences (psychologically and neurologically digest it) and convert it to meaning: in terms of emotion, thoughts, beliefs, behaviours. The soul contains polarities such as the nuclear forces of power and vulnerability. It also contains our collective and genetic history going all the way back through human history.


In order to survive and thrive, the soul needs the discriminating ability of the ego. Which is about boundary making, with separating capacities, providing a separate sense of self that is able to stand independent of others and protect itself from ‘invasion’ and does not have a tendency to want to ‘merge’ with another in co-dependency.

The Ego, which is developed in our own lifetime, acts as a perfectly fitting cell membrane and controls what comes in and goes out of us. The development of the ego is shaped by relationships- especially by parents.

The balance between soul and ego, the closeness of the ‘fit’ is determined by our parents and their parenting. If our parenting was such that it allowed as much of our soul’s potential to be expressed, named, sanctioned we are in good balance. Otherwise parts of our experience of our soul become unacceptable, hidden, denied as coming from the self.

Toddler tantrum as breach of ego

Take an example of how parenting can result in imbalance. A toddler in a powerful tantrum: a fit of rage. He or she might be put in another room until the tantrum dissipates, the child becomes exhausted through the expulsion of energy and collapses with tears in despair, forlornness and tiredness.

This is a highly negative experience for the child, as the nuclear force of power has not been contained. Remember, that the child’s ego is the container for the powerful forces of the soul, and is developed with parents who are strong enough to do the containing for the child in early life. The child then learns that she is not limitless, that the forces within her are not ‘all powerful’.

In the above example, the parents need to hold the child in a supportive way, to see and accept the child’s power, and let the tantrum dissipate whilst the child is in their arms. This provides an external ‘countershape’ for the inner force, which can then get internalised by the child’s ego.

If the child is left, as in the example, the relationship and balance between the soul and the ego is disrupted. The child experiences an all powerful, omnipotent level of feeling that doesn’t have limits (exhaustion and crying themselves out is not a ‘safe container’ and doesn’t give a feeling of control). This experience damages the ego. Several ego functions may be affected and reduced including identity, consciousness, meaning and resulting in feelings of loss of control.

The damage of abuse

Abuse even more dramatically damages the ego, breaking the ego defences and leaving the soul, to a greater or lesser degree, without boundaries. This also gives rise to omnipotent levels of feeling. It arouses strong feelings of both vulnerability or powerlessness and reactivity and power that aren’t ‘digestible’ by the victim’s ego because they are so much stronger than anything he has learnt to cope with. Life simply has not prepared them for this. Thus the feelings are seen as foreign or alien and not part of the self, and in this way abuse can dramatically affect the survivors sense of identity.

This breach in ego boundary can make the victim vulnerable to more abuse: they often present as quiet and fearful. Though sometimes this vulnerable core can have an outer ‘armour’ of toughness or prickliness, but underneath survivors share a fear of their own weakness.

They become more closed, protecting themselves and fearful of letting anything or anyone near to them. Paradoxically this unbounded vulnerability may lead to some abuse victims acting out sexually.

Others cope with the intense feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability by closing down completely. They disconnect from their bodies and felt experience, and learn to be out of their body (dissociate), so they don’t feel. Sometimes they might appear ‘spacey’ or far away, with a whispery, breathy voice, often not clear on what they are talking about. But this subconscious expression of softness or vulnerability leaves them open to the opposite kind of contact in others. Because when someone is weak or vulnerable others often become more powerful, as the polarities of power and vulnerability tend to elicit the opposite in other people.


In psychomotor therapy (PBSP) the treatment of abuse victims focuses on:

  • creating conditions to heal the ego, to ‘darn’ the breaches in its fabric, that allow the ego to once again to be in control
  • creating a safe environment where the victim can get in touch with and express all those powerful, repressed feelings and impulses
  • providing that behaviour and those feelings with the vital validating or limiting interactions with ego-creating ideal parent figures.