Confronting Domestic Violence: How the covert abuser inflicts invisible wounds

Following is the second in a four-part series on coercive control.

As he finishes his summary of the many reasons why no other man would ever want her, she struggles into the dress that had once fit so well – before he had told her that if she ever left him, he would take the children.

As they head out the door to the neighbors for a dinner he won’t be the star of and feels pressured to attend, he pauses to examine her hair – streaked now with gray, and her freshly applied makeup that doesn’t quite camouflage the shadows under her eyes or the worry lines.

He shakes his head in that expression she has come to know so well – a fusion of pity and contempt.

“What happened to you?” he says. “You used to be so hot.”

The woman she was before would never have allowed him to speak to her like that. But the woman she was before had her own condo, her own career, her own identity. The woman she was before had power.

Little by little, and in the name of love, she had given it away. Given him the benefit of the doubt. Given him another chance. Given and forgiven. Overlooked the road rage, the occasional angry outburst or cruel comment – he had suffered so much at the hands of a father who beat him and a mother who had spent most of his childhood bedridden.
She was hoping she could love the bitterness out of him.

She was wrong.

The years, the comments, the steady drip-drip-drip of sarcasm and cruelty, control, intimidation and threats have taken their toll. Sometimes the thought of suicide tempts her as the only way out. But she can’t leave the children behind, not with him. He is so much worse. Even when she’s only gone for a few hours, they text her, “Mom come home, Dad’s being evil.” It would be like that in spades, she knows, if she divorced him. He would accuse her of horrible things, hire a dream team and take the children.

Or worse.

When he was unhappy with her, he liked to sing his own version of a Simon and Garfunkel song: “There must be 40 ways to kill your lover.” And because he was a world-renowned, Nobel Prize-winning research scientist with a dozen patents in his name, he had unfettered access to them all.

Word by word, blow by blow, tonight he strikes at the feminine core of her, her identity as a woman, her worth as a person. The invisible wounds are delivered with practiced precision.

In the bullring, the picadors surround the bull, poking it over and over with their colorful barbs, softening up the neck muscles, preparing the way for the matador to take the spotlight and administer the final coup de grace.

In the home of a covert abuser, he plays both roles, delivering death that afternoon after a thousand cuts that are all internal. And now that she has been properly prepared, softened up for the kill, they arrive at the neighbors.

Planting seeds

She is quiet over dinner, head lowered, drinking a little too much wine, picking at her plate as if it were medicine. He, on the other hand, is at his social best, in top form this evening, telling stories, making everyone around the table laugh – except her.

Occasionally he glances at his silent, brooding wife with a look of concern that is not lost on their companions, especially as she reaches for that second, now third glass of wine.
As the evening wears on, the neighbors begin to reach their own conclusions about who is the real problem here.

He’s so witty.

She’s so … absent.

He’s been sharing some of his concerns about her over the past few months, planting a seed here and there about his wife’s deteriorating mental state, her lack of care for the children. Coming home to find that bottle of wine she’d opened the night before nearly empty now. He’s having to take on more and more tasks. Making dinner. Doing the dishes every night. Putting the children to bed. Do they have any advice? He so badly wants their marriage to work. But he’s starting to be concerned for the children.

Tonight the neighbors see her in this state, and the seeds so carefully planted begin to sprout.

Thus the final coup de grace is administered, and they all come away feeling sorry for this charming, funny, successful man, pronouncing his partner cold, brooding, distant and quite possibly alcoholic, not the person they once thought she was.

And they would be right – about that last part anyway. She is not the person she once was.

Once she was beautiful.

Once she was happy.

Once she was free.

Once she was in love.

But something has gone terribly wrong. And not even she can put her finger on how or when. Everyone seems to think that she is the problem. Having no one and nothing to compare this new hell that has become her life to, she is beginning to believe them.

Part 3 in the series will explore more of the damage done by coercive control.

Ruthven Darlene, M.A., is founder and director of the nonprofit WomenSV, which provides a range of services for women – and some men – experiencing domestic violence. For more information, call 996-2200 or visit

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