Educator and activist Lisa Fontes exposes the invisible chains of control in abusive relationships.
In the last few years, there has been a revolution in voices—an upheaval in the way power dynamics in personal relationships are talked about. Terms such as “gaslighting” and “narcissistic abuse” have joined the mainstream as ways of calling out behaviors of control and manipulation that had been hidden well under a cover of guilt and shame. Hashtags such as #WhyIStayed and #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou flood Twitter with firsthand accounts of what it is like to be an abused partner.
Very smart and healthy people can be controlled this way.—Lisa Fontes
Can you talk about the term “gaslighting”? What does it mean to gaslight someone?
In personal terms, gaslighting works something like, “I did not give you that bruise. I did not say x. I did not promise y.” Deliberately distorting someone’s reality through hiding their medication, or sneaking out in the middle of the night and moving their car, or moving things in the house and then saying, “Oh, you’re so irresponsible, you don’t keep track of your stuff,” when it’s the abuser who moved it in the first place. “Why did you put the camera in the fridge? You must be crazy!” Then saying to the kids, “Your mom is losing it.” Or calling up friends and coworkers saying, “Keep an eye on Laura, she’s been behaving strangely lately,” and then everyone starts looking at you strangely, and you don’t know about these secret phone calls. It stems from the desire to totally dominate another person by eliminating her safety zones: she can’t even be safe in her own mind.
In your book, you point out that some of our inherited ideas of love actually can be potential models for abuse. What are some classical romantic motifs that could become destructive to relationships?
Ideas of romantic love can be a setup for relinquishing control, like poison candy disguised in a wrapper of love. The first red flags might be misinterpreted as love: “I want to be with you and you alone, let’s not spend time with anybody else, let’s put all our money into a joint bank account, let’s give each other our passwords” is a love narrative of two becoming one that many people, especially women, buy into.
Also, many women are willing to submit to control because they are trying to heal their partner. Think of the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey and Beauty and the Beast—her doing and not doing certain things is supposed to cure this beast and transform him into a person. Also, that love pardons everything and explains everything: he does x because he loves you—it’s a very strange message.
We need to educate young people about relationships and have better models than some of the relationships that are currently out there. I’d like to see romantic love no longer paved with dominance and exclusivity, but rather be more egalitarian and have models for that be more public so that people can see that as possible. And also fun and romantic.
“I would never be in a relationship like that.” What would you say to people who make this kind of comment? Why do some people get in relationships like this and not others?
A lot of it is luck: do they happen to be open to being in a relationship when they cross paths with an abuser? Very smart and healthy people can be controlled by their partners in this way. The person who is being victimized is not weak or stupid. They can be working so hard to keep the relationship going that they are willing to give in, to give up, to try to make it work. Often, very successful women are used to being able to make things happen, so they are giving this relationship their all, even if it means giving up their hobby: “Okay, I’ll stop singing in the choir,” “I’ll stop playing with my softball team . . . because he wants more time alone with me.” They buy into the partner’s idea of what love means and what a real relationship means. They spend so much mental energy trying to understand and appease their partner.
What should therapists keep in mind when they see couples in these relationships, or suspect a couple might be in a coercive-control relationship?
Therapists should educate themselves on this dynamic. They also need to see the pair separately. Being in couples therapy where they are seen together puts the victimized partner at risk of being punished if they say the wrong thing. I mean, you shouldn’t have to use the word “punish” at all when you are talking about an intimate relationship, but people who have been in coercive-control relationships know exactly what that is about.