Taking Back Control in Abusive Relationships

So we’ve addressed the importance of picking and winning small battles, as well as of not entering into an argument with your spouse on topics on which there’s really no ‘winning.’

What else can you do to get out from under your partner’s thumb?

First, I need to emphasize the importance of having a safety plan in place–before you begin to re-assert yourself. Most controlling spouses I have seen are not physically abusive. But it just isn’t worth taking that chance. Have the thought in the back of your head that your spouse could, if pushed, switch to physical violence as you re-assert control. A number of the suggestions I make below, for any partner under their partner’s thumb, apply particularly to the spouse who will have to flee: most importantly someone who knows the situation and will take you in at any time, day or night; some degree of financial independence; and a plan to do what it takes to escape from an argument that is turning violent.

So let’s go through in detail what you need to do–and be willing to do–to assert your own independence in your relationship.


Let’s return to winning small battles, where we began. Don’t start with an argument about which you think your spouse might really have a point. If you think you just might have overspent on the new dress you bought, do not begin your battle there. Begin it with something you know to be right. Norm is conflicted about his feelings of anger regarding driving Norah to work, since he really appreciates her second salary. So he shouldn’t start there, necessarily. His ground to stand on is quite firm when she insists he stay at home if she doesn’t want to go out, however, and that’s a place where he can begin.

If you are ready to fight and win your small battle, don’t throw your victory in your spouse’s face. Don did, in fact, re-order the Field & Stream, and did, in fact, face an angry Diane. While he stood up to her this time, and kept his delivery coming, it was important that he didn’t gloat about his small win, or engage in a verbal argument about it. When Diane brought it up, he was calm and quiet but firm about his insistence that he would receive the magazine.

Don’t hide your suffering from your closest friend/family member. Crucially, you may one day need this person to protect you from your spouse or to help you make a point, so make sure you have them available, and ready to take you in, should the situation deteriorate. Additionally, the controlling spouse wants to isolate you from friends and family  and makes you feel ashamed of yourself and your situation. Letting others in is an act of closeness and connection and shows you that you still can relate on an intimate level to people you love.

One day Jake, of non-smoking fame (see Part I of this series), refused to take a walk with smoker Janice, as it was tax time, and, as an accountant, he was overwhelmed. Janice, as she had always threatened, smoked in the house, and Jake said it was miserable for him there. “Then why don’t you leave?” she taunted. When Jake went out in a robe on the following cold autumn day to take out the garbage, Janice locked him out of the house. This wasn’t a move that was completely new to Jake–he’d been locked out by his spouse before–but whereas all other times he knocked at the door and groveled, promising to be a better spouse, this time he walked three blocks–cold ones, to be sure–to a close friend’s house, explained the situation, and was made so at home and with such love he felt close to tears. So this was what being accepted was, he thought to himself. Janice, unable to reach Jake and frantic, finally figured out where he might be and called the friend’s house in a frenzy, ringing the phone so insistently that Jake’s friends finally took it off the hook.

Needless to say, it was a humbled Janice who greeted Jake 14 hours after the lockout. Small battle, officially won.

Plan for change-back moves. When you change something, you change the power structure of the relationship, so the controlling spouse will try to get you to go back to the old way. Diane’s “you’re weird” is one attempt to change the situation back to one where the ball is in her court. After Karen had done some significant work, Kyle’s “Philosophy of Service” was being undermined in a siege. Kyle, realizing times were a-changing, was frantic to keep his wife, and didn’t make his usual snide and threatening remarks when Karen decided she would stop servicing every whim.

It had been five days since Karen had not gotten Kyle’s after-dinner fruit snack for him, with little response from Kyle, when on the fifth day he exploded in a rage that made his former responses seem timid, in an effort to make Karen change back to her former submissive ways.

I’ll address more ways to regain control, address change-back moves, and crawl out from under your partner’s thumb in my next post.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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