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Mind Control and the Battering of Women

Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 1, pages 19-27

Mind Control and the Battering of Women

Teresa Ramirez Boulette, Ph.D.

Susan M. Andersen, Ph.D.


This paper describes one variation in the battering phenomenon which was initially observed among low-income women. The strategies of coercion and deception utilized by the abusive male in these relationships are described and compared with similar strategies of mind control utilized in more traditional "cultic" systems. The debilitating effects of these techniques on the battered female are described, as is the battering male's own separation reaction, and the probable dynamics of the men and women involved in this pathological family system. Some preliminary assessment and treatment guidelines are offered.

Over the last decade, increasing attention has been paid the phenomenon of wife battering, a syndrome that appears to transcend both social class and ethnicity (Berk, Berk, Loseke, & Rauma, 1983; Martin, 1976; Dobash & Dobash, 1979; Gelles, 1974, 1976; Hilbermam, 1980; Steinmetz, 1977; although, see Fagan, Stuart, & Hansen, 1983; Snyder and Fruchtman, 1981). Little research, however, has identified or differentiated probable variations in the battering phenomenon (with some exceptions, Snyder and Fruchtman, 1981; Walker, 1979). Nor has it adequately specified the situational and dispositional factors that may come to precipitate or characterize these various forms of abuse.

The present paper seeks to describe one variation in the battering phenomenon that the authors have frequently observed among low-income women and, perhaps indirectly, to encourage the identification of other variations in the phenomenon of spousal abuse. At the heart of the particular syndrome to be described here is a form of "mind control" or "brainwashing" -- that is, a set of potent social influence techniques levied against the victimized female by the abusive male. Elsewhere termed "the marital brainwashing syndrome" (Boulette, 1980, 1981), this familial pattern is characterized by many of the same features of psychological coercion and deception that may be used to distinguish religious or political cults from other tightly knit social systems in society (Andersen, 1984; Andersen & Zimbardo, 1980). Further, it is unlikely that this syndrome is limited to low-income couples (see Dutton & Painter, 1981), even though these processes were initially observed among these individuals (Boulette, 1980). Thus, additional research is necessary to determine the prevalence and limiting conditions of this particular battering-syndrome.

The persuasive strategies that are intimately a part of this phenomenon are detailed below, along with the debilitating effects of these techniques, the battering male's own separation reaction, and me probable dynamics of the men and women involved. Some preliminary assessment and treatment guidelines are also specified.

Mind Control and Battering

The hypothesized association between mind control and battering is not an entirely new one (Boulette, 1980; Dutton & Painter, 1981; Hilberman, 1980). Other researchers have drawn this parallel and have specified some of the manipulative techniques battering men may use against their wives (Steinmetz, 1977; Walker, 1977-78, 1980), such as isolation and the provocation of fear; alternating kindness and threat to produce disequilibrium; the induction of guilt, self-blame, dependency, and learned helplessness (cf., Seligman, 1975). Members of extremist cults are reported to experience similar events in the form of dissociation from all that is familiar, prohibitions against free expression and dissent, the regular mobilization of fear and guilt, and the establishment of an omnipotent master who demands self-sacrifice (Enroth, 1977; see also Andersen & Zimbardo, 1980; Singer, 1979).

Cultic systems, whether they are two-person relationships or larger social groups, are those that are totalistic in nature and that exercise exceptional controls over the individual freedoms of their members (Andersen, 1984). A cultic system can thus be identified based on the degree of such control simply by counting the number of features of psychological coercion (e.g., social isolation, threat of harm, confusion and guilt, love that is strictly contingent on certain actions) and deception (e.g., direct misrepresentation or lying, distortion of individual options) present in the system. Those battering relationships that involve "mind control" typically possess a significant number of these features and thus merit identification as cultic systems (see Andersen, 1984, for details).

Women in these relationships typically experience all or most of the following pathological conditions, which together serve to differentiate battering that involves mind control from other types of battering:

Early verbal and/or physical dominance. During the courtship or early marriage the male in the relationship typically establishes his role as "boss" and "owner" by acts of verbal or physical dominance. The woman misinterprets this behavior as representing commitment and the male's effectiveness as a "strong" male.

Isolation/Imprisonment. The male frequently isolates the woman from her friends and relatives, both geographically and emotionally, and may forbid her to visit them. Culturally legitimized notions of male and female roles are typically used to reinforce the male's decisions. He may insist on "escorting" her everywhere, be excessively vigilant, and attempt to keep her in the home. In this way he weakens her support system, prevents her escape, and produces a more docile and influenceable spouse.

Fear arousal and maintenance. The male in these relationships arouses fear in his spouse by verbal threats or physical abuse of varying severity. Over time, the woman may build a kind of tolerance to these tactics of fear arousal and may, on occasion, fail to respond to them in expected ways, which may result in escalated fear arousal. The terrorizing behaviors on the male's part vary greatly from holding his wife hostage for hours at knife point, to locking her out of the house naked, forcing her on to a busy freeway, or simply leaving her to walk home alone at night.

Guilt induction. The battering male may also induce guilt in his victim by blaming her for the abuse until she comes to blame herself. Blaming the victim is frequently used to justify the use of coercive power (Kipnis, 1976), and such self-blame is also found among the victims of rape (Janoff-Bulman, 1979; Libow and Doty, 1979).

Contingent expressions of "love," In these relationships the painful feelings of confusion, anxiety, and guilt that the victimized woman is led to feel are all relieved when she simply "gives in" and does what she is told. If she agrees to refrain from speaking with her friends, to stay home every night, to listen to his ceaseless tirades with selfless understanding and compassion, and to adhere to his every need and desire, she is, at least briefly, "loved" by him. If not, she continues to be degraded, devalued, and maligned.

Enforced loyalty to the aggressor and self-denunciation. The female in these relationships frequently romanticizes and exaggerates her husband's desirable characteristics, excuses his oppressiveness, and may even demonstrate a missionary zeal to rescue him from his own irresponsibility, vulnerability, temper, or alcoholism (Hilberman, 1980). Often she believes that she has a special power to understand and change him and that she is responsible for his survival, irrespective of his effects on her own physical and mental health and that of her children. This reaction may be similar to the positive feelings and loyalty that prisoners of war can come to have for their captors in the so-called Stockholm syndrome (Ochberg, 1971). This pathological attachment is associated with the captive's terror and gratefulness for not being further damaged or killed (see also Libow & Doty, 1979; Zimbardo, Ebbesen, & Maslach, 1977).

Promotion of powerlessness and helplessness. The male's manipulative behaviors have the effect of debilitating his spouse and promoting her feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. Her isolation effectively weakens her support systems; her chronic stress debilitates her (Selye, 1976) her failure to predict or control her abuse promotes learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975); her husband's control over available monies impoverishes her; and the victim-blaming postures of helpers who believe in a just-world hypothesis (Lerner, 1970) promote further self-blame and powerlessness.

Pathological expressions of jealousy. In these relationships the wife may be repeatedly accused of infidelity by a husband who makes little effort to conceal his own extramarital infatuations and promiscuity. He prohibits her intimate friendships wherever possible and expresses a pathological, and at times psychotic, jealousy about her relationships, even with members of the same sex.

Hope-instilling behaviors. The woman in such relationships is nearly always provided with periodic hope that somehow the beatings, the manipulation, and the sense of imprisonment will end if she pleads, cries, prays, endures, or sacrifices long enough These occasional hope-instilling behaviors, of course, provide powerful intermittent reinforcements that prompt further self-sacrifice and tolerance of abuse (Dutton & Painter, 1981; Steinmetz, 1977; Walker, 1979).

Required secrecy. Secrecy is intimately a part of such abusive relationships because they are characterized by dominance and by defensive, dictatorial control. The woman's defense system has been effectively destroyed so that contacts with individuals who might observe her bruises and encourage disclosure are nonexistent. Her secrecy is further prompted by shame and bewilderment. Interestingly, while some difficulties are repotted in the initial contacts with these women, the battering is rarely mentioned (Hilberman, 1980); when it is, the women often excuse their husbands' violence by attributing it to intoxication or to other forces external to the man.

Risks Associated With Escape

Upon leaving her husband, the woman in this type of relationship frequently experiences insecurity, lethargy, and fear similar to that described by defecting cult members (Singer, 1979). Frequently these symptoms are exacerbated by the husband's active recapture behaviors and by other behaviors reflecting a separation reaction on his part. Thus, the woman's own symptoms (including self-blame, guilt, and a wish to "help" her suffering husband) may cause her to repeated to return to the victimizing situation or to fail to leave the situation in the first place. It is, therefore critical that the woman be prepared to recognize her husband's typical manipulative strategies and those he may manifest when she threatens to leave so that she may ultimately resist them (see also Andersen & Zimbardo, 1980).

The husbands in such cultic relationships have been found to exhibit the following sequences of responses to their wives' attempts to escape the relationship:

Cocky disbelief. The husband's reaction typically begins with cocky, self-assured, and contemptuous comments about his wife such as, "She'll come crawling back," "She won't make it without me," and "She'll never leave me." At this time he is incredulous and appears tough and emotionally distant.

Confused searching. The next stage of the husband's reaction typically involves aimless, anxious, and pressured searching for his wife's whereabouts. This reaction is often accompanied by symptoms of panic and agitation.

Bargaining. Next, the man may begin a bargaining process, whereby he attempts to send messages to his wife or to directly bargain with her. He promises to change, professes love, and commits himself to fidelity and kindness in the relationship.

Pleading. If the husband's bargaining attempts are unsuccessful, he may begin to cry inconsolably, to plead for another chance, and to beg his wife to return. The woman typically equates these tears with "love," feels sorry for him, and frequently returns to him as a result. If she does, a brief period of improvement or honeymooning may occur, followed by the previous oppressive pattern, now intensified to prevent her repeated escape.

Threatening.  If the preceding four stages have not resulted in the wife's return, the husband now threatens to kill her, to kidnap the children, and/or to terrorize her family and friends until she does so.

Revenge. Finally, the threats are likely to intensify and the husband may make specific plans to harm his wife or her "accomplices." The husband may, in fact, find and threaten her, her relatives, friends, or therapist.  If she is careless during this phase, due to exhaustion or distress, she or her loved ones may actually be injured or killed.

Some Theoretical Explanations

While available research literature clearly demonstrates that men and boys engage in more physical violence than women and girls (Maccoby & Jackin, 1974; Gove, 1979), and that males are typically under more pressure than are girls to learn sex-stereotypic behaviors, the literature is, nevertheless, quite barren as to how these factors may be related to the phenomenon called "battering." The battering husband has rarely been studied and the available literature is somewhat confusing. Battering men have been described as passive aggressive, obsessive, compulsive, paranoid, and sadistic (Shainess, 1977). Yet they have also been characterized as passive dependent and even as relatively stable but triggered by a current emotional crisis (Faulk, 1977). Of course, none of these descriptions explains either the phenomenon of battering or the behavior of the battering male.

The literature on the use of coercive power (Kipnis, 1976) suggests that battering may often be provoked by the power holder's excessive feelings of dependency on the targeted person and his doubts about the sufficiency of his own power to influence this person. These feelings may then provoke hostility and anxiety and may lead the power holder to strike out violently or to construct other elaborate methods for gaining control. Thus, battering men may be excessively dependent on their mates and may feel insecure about their own worth, masculinity, and influence

Theories of attachment and loss suggest other interesting hypotheses about the excessive attachment battering men often have to their mates (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980). Specifically, individuals who make very strong demands on others and respond with anger when these demands are not met may have experienced, at one tune, a loss or a threatened loss of a mothering figure early in life. Such adults may then come to have not only excessive dependency needs and fears of abandonment but also underlying feelings of hostility and anger, which may later be directed toward a spouse.

Social learning theory (Bandura, 1973), by contrast, provides a theoretical backdrop for understanding the correlation between a reportedly violent family background and becoming a victim or perpetrator of abuse (Fleming, 1979; cf. Gaylord, 1975; Kipnis, 1976). Past family violence may contribute to the learning of these patterns and of pathological sex-role behaviors (Frieze, Parsons, Johnson, Ruble, & Zellerman, 1978). Moreover, men who observe their mothers enduring this type of suffering may become desensitized as adults to observing manifestations of pain and suffering in women, which might otherwise have an inhibitory effect (Baron & Byrne, 1977). Conversely, female children raised in such violent homes may learn important victim characteristics such as passivity, self-sacrifice, and tolerance for abuse and may also come to feel a particularly profound attraction to insecure, domineering, and hostile men. Further, previously learned aggression may create a state of arousal or readiness that can trigger blatant violence when external cues previously associated with aggression are present (Berkowitz, 1978). Thus, the learned tendency some women may have to startle, cower, placate, and plead, may actually trigger this previously learned aggression.

Finally, social-psychological research has demonstrated that powerful social situations, combined with specific role expectations and personal vulnerabilities, can have a profound impact on human behavior--both with regard to leading people to perform abusive actions and to accept such aversive experiences (cf. Zimbardo, et al., 1977). Thus, it is quite possible that a marital situation could be constructed in which the features of mind control were of sufficient magnitude (cf. Andersen, 1984) that women from any number of different backgrounds might be seduced and retained within it. Such is the power of the cultic techniques of mind control that may be adopted by the power holder in a relationship to influence the decisions and outcomes of his partner.

Assessment and Treatment

The marital mind control detailed here is best construed as a psychiatric condition affecting both male and female participants and one that typically involves physical violence but that may primarily involve painful emotional abuse. It has been suggested that the three psychological states likely to result from the experience of mind control or brainwashing are debility, dependency, and dread (West, 1963), and these are remarkably similar to what is experienced by victims of chronic battering and by victims of rape (Hilberman & Munson, 1977-78). They experience paralyzing terror, constant anxiety, apprehension, vigilance, and feelings of impending doom. They may also come to feel fatigued, passive, and unable to act, exhibiting concrete thinking and poor memory (see also West, 1963). Clinically, these victimized women often appear detached and smiling when describing their frightening experiences, demonstrating denial as a coping mechanism. They rarely express anger over their plight and typically report multiple somatic and other symptoms that fit within the diagnostic categories of panic disorder, major recurrent depression, dysthymic disorder, or somatization disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1980).

Given the complexity of this phenomenon, treatment for either participant will always depend on a comprehensive individual assessment. One major challenge is that treatment for either partner is likely to remain unsuccessful while the couple remains together, yet their separation is, perhaps, the most difficult change to effect. The battering husband, for example. is typically inaccessible to treatment because he denies any problems and projects all blame onto his wife. His vulnerability to a therapeutic intervention is likely to develop only when his wife's escape ultimately triggers intense feelings of abandonment, anger, and despair. Prior to this stage his wife will not be allowed to seek treatment because her improvement would signify a further decrease in his power and would aggravate his feelings of insecurity and his fear of abandonment. The irony is that the separation may be necessary not only for treatment but for the woman's survival yet when the woman leaves her husband, this exposes her to an ever-increasing probability of violence. The husband is likely to have strong feelings of rage associated with the shame of being vulnerable. Thus, the wife must not be encouraged to leave her husband until she has the resources to stay away either permanently or long enough to facilitate significant change.  In dealing with the female in this cultic relationship, it is critical to assess not only the symptoms and the level of her impairment but also her potential for being hurt or killed. Depending on the degree of danger and debility, the therapist may initially need to allow the woman to retain considerable dependency on her mate, while she is provided with information, support, and direction aimed at reducing the violence and facilitating escape. The availability of police intervention and shelters for abused women and their children must be discussed at this time.. If the woman remains in the home her treatment may need to be kept hidden from her husband and shared only with family and supportive friends. Either way, therapy will involve identifying and collecting the distorted social and personal beliefs that have helped establish and maintain the cultic relationship. The woman must be encouraged to understand and to change her self-destructive attachments by redirecting efforts from placating her husband to rescuing and improving herself, using both cognitive and behavioral techniques. Ultimately, her own conflicts about vulnerability, power, and control must also be explored so as to discourage her from repeating the same pattern with other abusive men. As she improves, she may be reinforced by changing her role from the victim to the rescuer, helping other similarly victimized women in social support groups established for this purpose. Participation in such groups, however, should only be encouraged after considerable progress has been made. Moreover, when the woman leaves the relationship, she must clearly understand its dynamics in order to predict and resist her husband's persistent and manipulative recapture behaviors.

Assessment and treatment of the battering male in these relationships must initially focus on evaluating and minimizing his potential for further violence. After this early effort, grief therapy (Worden, 1982) is usually needed to assist with the sorrow, anger, and guilt associated with the temporary or permanent loss of his mate. After some degree of symptom reduction, therapy can then proceed toward identifying and resolving the conflicts and early losses that are associated with needing hostile and excessively dependent marital unions. If a personality disorder such as borderline or antisocial is present, the therapeutic task may be much more difficult

Children in the familial situation must also become involved in some form of therapy directed toward working through the repeated parental separations and exposure to dysfunctional and violent parenting. Otherwise, developmental delays, symptoms of anxiety or depression, or indications of a conduct disorder may emerge for these children who are at risk to become victims or perpetrators of violence in adult battering relationships.


While the precise methodology for identifying cultic relationships, i.e., those that involve intolerable degrees of mind control or regulations over individual freedoms, will have to await future research, the assessment can tentatively be made based on the sheer quantity of coercive and deceptive practices these relationships manifest (cf. Andersen, 1984). All human relationships involve compromise and some amount of pain. Yet when one of the individuals in a relationship loses the will to be self-determining (Enroth, 1977) and the ability both to recognize and to avoid mental and physical abuse, there is sufficient cause for concern. Such relationships may constitute cultic systems in that they are totalistic in nature and they, as a result, increase the probability that pathological and degrading interactions will transpire within them. To the degree that clinicians and community workers can effectively recognize and deal with this syndrome and its developing signs, the prevention of physical and emotional spousal abuse may, perhaps, be nearer in sight.


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Teresa Ramirez Boulette, Ph.D. is a registered nurse, marriage, family and child counselor and a licensed psychologist. She is currently employed at Santa Barbara County Mental Health Services as a senior clinical psychologist.  Of her 20 years clinical experience, 15 have been primary with low-income and Chicano/Mexican adult populations She has designed and tested diagnostic individual and group therapy as well as health promotion models for this population and is the author of articles and papers in the field.

Susan M. Andersen, Ph.D., an Editorial Board member of the Cultic Studies Journal, is Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has published on such topics as self-definition, sex role behaviors, psychopathology and the nature and functioning of religious Cults.  She is also affiliated on a part-time basis with Santa Barbara County Mental Health Services in a clinical capacity.