Brainwashing in Abusive Relationships
Being in an abusive relationship often feels like torture. Sometimes that’s because your partner’s behavior feels like the torture techniques used by mortal enemies instead.
Brainwashing is defined in the Psychology Dictionary as that which “manipulates and modifies a person’s emotions, attitudes, and beliefs.” It reduces a person’s ability to mentally defend themselves and makes it easier for another person to control them.
Brainwashing is one example of how abuse in relationships parallels torture. Brainwashing makes it easier to control a targeted person. And it makes it harder for the person to see their way free of the relationship.
Abusive people often are able to throw the targets of their abuse into a trance that makes it difficult for them to think clearly. Targets of abuse can begin to take on the opinions of the abusive person and lose themselves.
A man or woman who is peppered with their partner’s opinion, given little or no time to recover, and kept busy responding to demands may not have much mental energy left over. They may be inundated with the partner’s version of events to the point where it is difficult to hold on to their own perspective. The anxiety that can be produced by being the target of abuse also makes it difficult to think clearly.
In 1956, Albert Biderman studied how prisoner of war camp personnel got U.S. prisoners of the Korean War to give them tactical information, collaborate with propaganda, and agree with false confessions. Biderman stated that inflicting physical pain was not necessary to “induce compliance,” but psychological manipulations were extremely effective for that purpose. His report included what has come to be known as “Biderman’s Chart of Coercion.”
Biderman’s chart has been used by many to describe the elements that contribute to brainwashing in various situations, including partner abuse. The tactics included in his chart can be linked to other ways people abuse their partners.
In his Chart of Coercion, Biderman summarized the mechanisms for brainwashing:
- Monopolization of perception (fixes attention on immediate predicament; eliminates “undesirable” stimuli)
- Induced debilitation; exhaustion
- Occasional indulgences (provides motivation for compliance; hinders adjustment to deprivation)
- Demonstrating superiority
- Enforcing trivial demands
Not all eight elements need to be present in order for brainwashing to occur. Each element can have some power to distort reality, interfere with perception, reduce a person’s self-confidence, and garner compliance.
In a prisoner of war camp, the prisoner and jailer are enemies. Servicemen and –women are commonly trained to deal with brainwashing tactics in case they are captured by enemy forces.
In a romantic relationship, the partners are supposed to be on the same side. It is reasonable to expect love, understanding, and compassion from your partner, and to want to offer that to them also. The relationship, unfortunately, creates a vulnerability to the coercive brainwashing of a malicious or self-centered partner. It is unexpected. It can sneak up on you.
Biderman, A. (1957.) Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 33(9):619.
Silvers, A. (2018). Brainwashing in Abusive Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 9, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/brainwashing-in-abusive-relationships/