WOMEN
05/16/2016 05:33 pm ET Updated May 17, 2016

Abuse Is Abuse — Even If He Doesn’t Hit You

Learn how to spot coercive control in abusive relationships.
Physical violence is only one type of abuse that can exist in abusive relationships. 
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Physical violence is only one type of abuse that can exist in abusive relationships. 

Maybe your partner doesn’t hit you, but he calls you fat and ugly each time he gets upset. Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but he confiscates your paycheck and only doles out enough money for the bare essentials. Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but he forces you to have sex whether or not you want to.

These are all examples of abusive relationships that don’t include overt physical violence. While domestic violence is often depicted as strictly physical, there are many different types of abuse that don't result in bruises and broken bones.

But that doesn’t mean they are any less harmful.

Earlier this month, writer Zahira Kelly, who tweets under the handle @bad_dominicana, kickstarted a conversation about non-physical types of abuse with her viral hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou. The hashtag, which was primarily aimed towards women in heterosexual relationships, triggered an outpouring of stories about relationships that were abusive and dangerous, even in the absence of physical assaults.

One framework that can be helpful in understanding the broader umbrella of domestic violence -- encompassing emotional, physical, verbal, financial, sexual and psychological abuse -- is "coercive control." The term was popularized by Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and professor emeritus at Rutgers University.

In 2015, the UK drew heavily on Stark's work when it passed a law making "coercive or controlling" domestic abuse a crime punishable by up to five years behind bars -- even if there is no physical violence present in the relationship.

"Being subjected to repeated humiliation, intimidation or subordination can be as harmful as physical abuse, with many victims stating that trauma from psychological abuse had a more lasting impact than physical abuse," director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders said at the time. 

While the new law poses significant challenges when it comes to prosecution, it has been heralded as a "landmark moment in the UK's approach" to domestic abuse.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Stark explained dangerous signs of coercive control in intimate partner relationships, and how to identify them. 

"In coercive control, the basic pattern is established less by the physical violence than by the accompanying tactics which are intimidation, isolation, a pattern of psychological abuse that I call degradation, and most importantly, a pattern of control over how a woman goes about her day-to-day life," he said. 

Intimidation, Intimidation, Intimidation 

Stark said abusers commonly use threats to intimidate their partners, even if they don’t physically assault them. They may threaten to hurt their partners, their pets or their family. They may threaten to damage their victim’s property. They may act out violence on proxy objects, such as smashing plates or punching the wall.

Abusers may also play "gaslighting" games with their victims, where they lie with such intensity and conviction that their victims become confused and begin to doubt their own perspective. The aim, Stark explained, is "to erode, undermine and eventually eviscerate a woman’s capacity to effectively resist and escape."

Stalking is another common form of intimation, and can extend far beyond physical following a person to include online surveillance and harassment.

"The levels of psychological stress caused by partner stalking -- knowing your space can be intruded upon at any time -- are actually higher than the level of distress elicited by physical violence," Stark said.  

Under His Thumb

Regulating a person’s day-to-day activities is a critical part of coercive control, according to Stark. Abusers may micromanage how their victims perform even the smallest of tasks, like folding laundry or putting food in the refrigerator, in order to establish authoritarian control and instill complete obedience.

"The more trivial the rule, the more degraded women feel when they obey these rules," he said.

Abusers will often use intimate knowledge of their partners to their advantage.

"They know what is important to you and they pick those areas of your vulnerability, and that becomes the focus of their abusive tirades and their most insidious control strategies," Stark said.

Victims may also be deprived of daily needs, such as food, money, access to the car or the phone to keep them in a state of subjection. Sexual coercion, such as forced abortions, forced pregnancies and sexual assaults are also present in many abusive relationships, he said.

Invisible Women 

Stark said abusers systematically isolate and separate their partners from their support systems. As a result, victims have fewer people to turn to, and rely more and more on their abuser.

An abuser may demand that a woman stops seeing others, or may make it so embarrassing or uncomfortable for her to be in a social setting that she chooses to cut contact with others on her own.

"Every woman who is abused in this situation has what I call 'safety zones.' Someone she can talk to, a diary, a place where she goes to consider her options," Stark said. "These guys go on search and destroy mission to try to close those off."

Abusers may sabotage their victim’s work situation so they lose their job, or force their victims to hand over their paychecks so they aren't financially independent -- making it very difficult to leave. 

"Taking the money is really important because now you're not talking about psychological dependance, you're talking about structural dependence," Stark said.

Maybe He Doesn’t Hit You… Yet

Emotional and psychological abuse can be a precursor to physical violence, Stark explained.

"Often, there’s a prior pattern of behavior before acts of violence, to isolate her, intimidate her and control her," he said.  

In cases that do involve physical violence, Stark said, there may only be more low-level acts, like slapping, shoving, and poking. But, "it’s a mistake to call that minor violence," he said. "The significance of this abuse is frequency, not its severity, and its cumulative effect."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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