Isolation seems like an obvious warning sign of abuse, and yet it is commonly ignored and missed. Frequently it is believed to be choice of the victim (even by the victim), and not a symptom of abuse, but it is a symptom of abuse.
Why is isolation a symptom of abuse?
The abuser does not like it when we have other friends to whom we can turn for support. They want to be your whole world. An abuser’s thinking is that you shouldn’t need anyone but them. In addition, if you have no support, you may not realize that how you are being treated is wrong. It will also be much harder for you to leave.
There appears to be two major ways the abuser will react to their victim’s family. One, they may decide to not like them, finding fault with everything they do, they will convince the victim that spending time with family is too difficult, too awkward, too unhealthy or too inconvenient… OR… they may love them, convincing them of how amazing they are so they support the abuser instead of the victim when the truth is revealed.
What does isolation look like?
It looks different for everyone. Abusers may demand isolation or they may use manipulation to achieve it by:
- keeping their victim from everyone by denying phone service, or even just long distance phone service;
- tracking all phone calls, texts and emails;
- refusing to allow the victim to leave the house alone, except for very specific and scheduled reasons;
- monitoring conversations with others;
- interrupt and monopolize conversations;
- constant complaining when the victim is on the phone with others;
- limit or restrict vehicle and/or transit use;
- refuse to care for children if the victim goes out, leaving them with no option but to stay home;
- accuse the victim of having an affair if they go out alone or with friends for any reason;
- instigate frequent moves to new communities;
- spread lies and rumours about the victim to their friends and within their community;
- ruining holidays, vacations and outings with friends and/or family.
My ex would constantly complain when I was on the phone with others. He would accuse me of having affairs, ask where I was “really” going if I went out, complain that I talked to my friends on the phone and accusing me of never confiding in him. (He ignored that he was the first person I’d share my day with… he wanted to be the only one I talked to. He conveniently ‘forgot’ our conversations.) He wasn’t interested in me or my thoughts or feelings, until he overheard me sharing those thoughts and feelings with someone else.
My ex never blatantly denied me friends or demanded I not use the phone, he never outright kept me from going out or from talking to people. He definitely made it very uncomfortable for me though. Fortunately, I never gave up reaching out. I may not have had very many friends at the and, but I did have some great ones who never gave up on me, and even more helped me to see the full scope of his abuse, giving me the power to walk away before it got worse.
He also smeared my name among our church community and among my friends, some of whom he had never met. I realized after our separation that he had begun tarnishing my reputation long before we separated, and after I told him to leave he became more blatant in his lies to others about me, effectively ending many friendships and closing my support network.
If a victim has a diminished or non-existent support network, they are more likely to stay with or return to their abuser.
An abuser doesn’t have to blatantly isolate their victim. Sometimes it is enough to simply make socializing awkward and unpleasant. In order to appease the abuser and to attempt to reduce the abuse, the victim will begin to turn away their friends and family, spending less and less time with them until they no longer see any of them. This will appear to everyone as if it is the victims choice to walk away from everyone.
When the victim finally realizes that their relationship is abusive, they will not have anyone to turn to, they will not have a support system to rely on. Isolation is a long-game for the abuser. It starts early and continues for as long as they can get away with it. Sometimes if an abuser cannot stop the victim from spending time with friends and family, they will move long distances to force separation.
It doesn’t stop when the victim leaves either. Too often, while the victim is trying to sort out their life and emotions and working to make their lives functional, the abuser is spreading lies and rumours to destroy any lingering personal support.
When I left, my abuser told my pastor, family, friends and even strangers that I had cheated on him, left him because he’d gained weight, even that I had been abusive to him. At the same time, he claimed to be a loving, forgiving man who had made mistakes and wanted me back. He had learned his lesson and wouldn’t make the same choices again. He told those I had confided in that I was making things up and the few things I said he admitted to he claimed I had exaggerated and was over-reacting, but even then he had changed and was a new man.
Now that I type it… even what he told others was very contradictory! In the meantime, he was sending me emails and phone messages that were insulting and degrading. The abuser knows how to read people and how & what to say to sound convincing.
He was successful. Not only did he convince some of my friends of his innocence and honesty, but he destroyed my trust in others. I did end up isolating myself in order to protect myself. I could not trust any mutual friends, or even some of my friends as he reached out to those he didn’t even know and turned them against me.
Temporary isolation after separation can be a healing time as long as you have some sort of support network. This can be a therapist, a support group or just a single friend who understands and supports you unconditionally. You have to be purposeful to find a support network, you need to seek out a good therapist or a support group. You can find a support group at a women’s shelter, through a therapist, or word of mouth. You could even find an online support group through Facebook, or other social media network. Be careful though because online groups are very public, so choose carefully and post wisely.