So I want to talk about isolation in abusive relationships so we can take away five points about isolation and the role it plays in abuse.
One: Isolation Creates Dependency
If you have healthy relationships with your friends or family, that is a source of independence and separate identity. It is an aspect of life that is independent from your relationship with the abuser, which means that it is largely outside of their control. And we have to remember, the abusive relationship is fundamentally all about control.
So the abusive person will work to isolate you from others to gain a greater sense of control. Now this doesn’t have to be complete isolation where you don’t see your friends and family anymore. It may also be creating emotional distance or a lack of trust, so that the relationships lose their depth and become more superficial. This is still a form of isolation as you no longer have those connections where you feel like you can open up or confide in someone.
So in creating isolation, the abuser is creating a dynamic where you become dependent on your relationship with them as you experience greater distance in your other relationships, and therefore it is easier for them to exert control.
Two: Isolation Through Subtle Manipulation
Isolation isn’t usually achieved through force to begin with, but rather subtler manipulation, such as guilt or pressure tactics. They may say you’re selfish for spending X amount of time with your friends, or make you feel guilty in some other way, such as saying they don’t have friends nearby to socialise with. Or they may have an ‘us against them mentality’, creating a feeling that no one understands you like they do and that others have a negative outlook on your relationship and can’t be trusted. Or they create guilt by accusing you of being less committed to the relationship because of the amount of energy you invest into others. They may even say that your friends or family don’t accept them, or that they’ve been unfriendly towards them when you aren’t there, to create a situation of pressure to test where your loyalty lies, whereby you can’t choose both the relationship and your friends.
These creates a situation where you feel that YOU made the choice to isolate or distance yourself from friends and family, when truthfully you were coerced in some way by the abuser to do it. By making you feel responsible for the decision, they shift blame onto you and invalidate your feelings of being isolated or feeling alone – because you chose to do it – and it also brings shame into the mix, as the victim often starts to feel shame for letting down friends or family by breaking off the connection. And shame is a powerful place for an abusive person to control you from.
Three: A Tool for Punishment
So these are some of the ways that isolation is initially created. And because of the isolation, you become dependent on the abusive person for having your social needs met. And by this I mean things such as emotional connection with others. As you have been isolated and your emotional needs are now only being met by the abusive person, it becomes much more effective when the abuser withdraws emotional warmth as a form of punishment to control, as you are not receiving any sort of emotional connection from another relationship. You are dependent dependent on receiving an emotional connection from the abuser, so withdrawing it can be used as an effective tool to punish and mould behaviour.
Four: Erasing Self-Identity
But isolation does more than this, because your friendships are a way of developing and maintaining self-identity. Whilst you have friendships outside of the abusive relationship, you also have an independent identity from the abusive relationship. This in itself boosts self-esteem and self-worth, which makes you less likely to put up with controlling behaviour. However, when you are isolated, you begin to lose a sense of self away from the abusive relationship. But more than this, if we have relationship conflicts then we may confide in our friends, and they will give us their perspective of whether it is acceptable behaviour, so we have a third party perception of whether the behaviour is abusive. However, when you have been isolated, there is no one to discuss any relationship issues with, so there is no one to bounce your feelings off. This means the only person’s perception other than your own of whether the behaviour is abusive is that of the abuser, which creates a dependency on the abuser’s version of reality, as the manipulation and gaslighting that happens in the relationship makes you question your own.
Five: With Isolation is a Lack of Support.
This is during the relationship, but also if trying to leave the relationship. We’ve looked at how isolation actually creates dependency in a number of different areas, and this all accumulates to make it much harder to leave the relationship. You are emotionally dependent on the abuser, so there is a lack of emotional support when leaving – or at least the feeling – that there isn’t anyone you can turn to. There is the feeling of shame for the friendships breaking away which may prevent you from reaching out. There is the loss of self-identity and an independent self which makes it difficult to even know where to begin or who you would be without the relationship. There is the dependence on the abuser’s reality, as you have only had their perception to rely on to judge their behaviour by. And then there is actually the practical dependency that will have likely followed suit, whereby there may have been financial abuse which means you are unable to afford to leave or your movements are limited through financial restrictions, and practical restrictions such as if you’ve moved area so there isn’t an opportunity to rely on anyone to help you with living arrangements.
This makes the prospect of leaving even harder, as you would need to build up the courage to take bigger steps, potentially turning to women’s shelters, for example, or reaching out for help from people you haven’t spoken to in a long time or having to move much further away again. All with a multi-layered dependence on the very person you are trying to leave.
So we can see how isolation is a complex issue which affects a lot of factors in the relationship, and how it is more than simply cutting you off from friends.