You want to spend all your time with them. You want them to constantly check-in so you know they’re safe. You love them so much you don’t want to share them with anyone. To many, these are all signs that someone is “head-over-heels” or has found their “bae”, however, they can all be early warning signs of isolation in an abusive relationship.
One of the forms of abuse used to maintain power and control in a relationship, isolation lays the foundation for other abusive behaviors by severing ties with family, friends and co-workers who could threaten that power and control. Without these support systems, people experiencing relationship violence can become dependent on the person isolating them as they have nowhere to turn for help.
So how do you know the difference between healthy affection, unhealthy jealousy and abusive possessiveness? We explore that question by taking a look at isolating behaviors – including those that occur in unique populations – and the motives behind them.
What Isolation Looks Like
Isolating behaviors can be as overt as dictating where they can and can’t go, making them ask permission to do things on their own, taking away their keys or even physically preventing them from leaving, but are often much subtler. This can begin with the seemingly-innocent behaviors that introduced this post or can entail more outright demands and refusals.
“I remember distinctly a time when I was cutting up strawberries to take to my grandma’s birthday party and once I was ready to go he decided that he really didn’t want to go,” said a woman from Colorado Springs who used to be in an abusive marriage. “I can’t remember the reason he gave, but because of that we didn’t go. I had already told my family we would all be there and I didn’t know how to go and explain why my husband, at the time, refused to go.”
Even as these behaviors evolve and become more apparent to the person experiencing them, their emotional and psychological impact often results in a sense of insecurity, anxiety, depression and detachment from others.
“Because of my embarrassment and shame about being in this situation and not thinking I’d be believed, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others what was really going on at home,” said a woman from Denver who experienced isolation in a relationship.
“My self-esteem went lower and lower,” said Mary Jane, a woman from Colorado who was isolated in an abusive marriage. “We are all still affected by the years of struggle.”
That sentiment is one shared by many people who have been isolated in a relationship. Even after it has ended, the long-term effects can be difficult to cope with.
“I’ve been divorced six years now and still find myself struggling from time-to-time with the damage caused by isolation,” said Jenn, another Colorado woman who also experienced isolation in an abusive marriage. “It’s been hard to get close to people, feeling comfortable obtaining a job has been very hard, and just going out and being active in my community is not as easy.”
Isolation in Unique Populations
Although isolating behaviors are used to control individuals of all races, ethnicities, gender identities and socio-economic status, their impact can be compounded in specific communities. That is particularly the case in relationships involving someone with a disability, who is an immigrant or is LGBTQIA+.
“It’s done by controlling access to social support and forms of communication, threatening to take away basic support and assistive technologies, and limiting employment possibilities,” said Ashlee Lewis, Executive Director at The Initiative. “Furthermore, the ableist society that devalues or discredits people with disabilities leads to an exacerbation of their isolation. This causes a serious deficit in survivors with disabilities reporting due to the fear they will not be believed.”
Carmen Murillo Stevens, an immigrant advocate at the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center in Alamosa, is all too familiar with the isolation that occurs in immigrant relationships, including those that involve a U.S. citizen. These behaviors include preventing them from learning English and cutting off their communication with family, friends and others who speak their language. Immigrants in abusive relationships can also be physically isolated – especially those who live in rural areas secluded from others.
“(They have) no access to transportation,” Stevens said, “no access to a vehicle – if they know how to drive.”
LGBTQIA+ abusive relationships also include unique tactics of isolation, such as forbidding them to communicate with others they identify with or denying them access to medical treatments. Other isolating behaviors are also compounded by societal phobias – especially when it has led to an individual being excluded from their family and friends due to their sexuality or gender identity.
It is OK to Respect Their Freedom
Although emotions such as jealousy and possessiveness are powerful, they don’t have autonomous control over your behavior. A pattern of actions that isolate someone from others is a choice, but it is also a choice to respect their freedom, boundaries and independence. Everyone has the power to choose to use healthy relationship behaviors such as encouraging them to spend time with family and friends or supporting their participation in activities that don’t involve you.
Isolation is not OK, but it is OK to ask for help. If you or someone you know is using isolating behaviors in their relationship, change is possible. contact the Stand Up Colorado Helpline where our Colorado-based, trained professionals are waiting to answer questions and connect you with support resources in your area. Call 885.9StandUp (855-978-2638) or visit our website to chat with them online.