Post-Separation Abuse via Social Media
“I often wish I’d stayed with Harry. Although living with him was torture, the post separation abuse he subjected me to was so much worse. When we were together, he’d manipulate me by being either nice or disappointed in me. When he was disappointed, he still pretended to be nice. His method of control was very cleaver and so subtle that even now I struggle to acknowledge it was coercive control. Everything he did was carefully planned and fine-tuned. I became his agreeable puppet, too scared of his disappointment to behave in any way that may risk triggering this. I learnt never to express an opinion that might differ with his, it became safer to wait for his lead on everything. When disappointed in me, he’d withdraw eye contact, somehow look through me, change his tone of voice to a slightly more monotone one. He would physically withdraw too, being sure to sit a distance away from me and lie on the edge of the bed at night as if repulsed by my proximity to him. This behaviour could go on for days and it tortured me to the point that I became consumed with pleasing him.
A culmination of events led to me leaving Harry, my decision, my choice. On this occasion I didn’t wait for his permission. During one of his extended periods of disappointment with me, I began a relationship with a work colleague. I blame myself bitterly for not being strong enough to just tell Harry I’d had enough and wanted to leave. I was a coward and he had every right to be angry with me. It’s not as if he was properly abusive either, if he’d assaulted me this would have been a different matter, I could have claimed to have been too scared to tell him of my intentions.
Harry started a campaign on social media to run me down, wreck my friendships and destroy my reputation. He’s been very successful at this and still is. Everyone seems to sympathise with a man who has been wronged by a promiscuous women. Harry initially purported to be heartbroken by my action and generated a lot of attention from this. When he had gathered support from various people including those who I’d considered my friends, his tactics turned more hostile. He phoned me one day and threatened revenge porn – ‘to prove to everyone what a slag you are Sarah’ he told me. This terrified and worried me, but then that same day he purported that I’d threatened him with revenge porn in a Facebook post. ‘To all my loyal fiends, it hurts and embarrasses me to say this but I need to pre-empt what Sarah might do. Because I refused to take her back, she told me she will upload some intimate images of me online. This is very distressing for me, but I think it best that I let you all know what might be coming.’
I was horrified and immediately started getting messages from ‘friends’ telling me stop what I was doing to Harry, that I needed to accept he didn’t want me back and to move on. This abuse continued on various social media platforms, accusing me of controlling him throughout our relationship, being completely selfish and self-obsessed and making him feel scared and desperate.
I lost friends, Amy, who I’d known for 20 years decided to side with Harry. She told me he loved me and didn’t deserve to be treated so badly. Family members judged and doubted me, this made me judge and doubt myself. I became very anxious and low, this started to affect my work and it culminated in me taking an extended amount of time off sick. I lost confidence in feeling able to trust people and withdrew socially.
Harry’s abuse continued despite me pleading with him to stop, but it became more subtle in nature, more about him being wounded and hurt than overt attacks on me. I guess he was mindful of the balance of wanting to appear as the victim and not the abuser. He fine-tuned this pretty well. I don’t feel as if I can ever escape him. I have taken myself off all social media platforms but friends still update me about what he’s been saying, I wish they wouldn’t. It’s been six months since I left but I’m feeling worse than ever.”
Domestic abuse experts’ thoughts:
This is a very common form of post-separation abuse, several familiar issues come up:
Minimising of her abuse. ‘Even now I struggle to acknowledge it was coercive control’. This comment indicates that Sarah was aware she may have been coercively controlled but hasn’t completely accepted she was. Domestic abuse survivors commonly minimise their abuse, particularly when they haven’t been subjected to physical abuse. There is also a common myth that it can’t be abusive if it doesn’t come in the form of shouting – the quiet, covert abusers who are pretending to be nice don’t fit with the angry man stereotype. Although minimising of abuse is almost universal, it’s not helpful to recovery. When we minimise, we are more likely to self-blame and less likely to acknowledge the damage abuse has caused us or understand why we have responded as we have. Another issue is that if we minimise what has happened to us, others are likely to minimise our abuse too and may be inclined to feel less sympathetic. This is certainly the case with Sarah.
Self-blame for her abuse. ‘I was a coward and he had every right to be angry with me.’ Self-blame is such a common theme in female survivors of domestic abuse. There are many reasons for why self-blame is almost inevitable, but particularly so when she has made a decision she considers to be cowardly or in some way morally wrong. One problem with self-blame is that when we judge our behaviour negatively, we tend to give the ‘green light’ for others to judge us negatively too. Perhaps Sarah might have been judged by her family and friends for her affair in any case, but certainly her own self-blame would have further encouraged the blame of others. Having an affair in the context of an abusive relationship is not uncommon. We, as humans have a huge need for love, compassion, security and affection from our intimate partner. When this need is not met, in Sarah’s case cruelly withheld, then in seeking out a basic human need outside of our relationship is arguably not morally wrong. For good recovery, Sarah needs to fully understand the context of her behaviour with a view to developing some self-compassion. When she develops self-compassion, others will be more likely to feel compassionate towards her too.
The need for validation from others. ‘Family members judged and doubted me, this made me judge and doubt myself’. Although it’s normal to seek validation externally from others, it’s not healthy. When we overly rely on external validation, we are at the mercy of others and external forces and lose our own sense of control or internal self-worth. Of course validation from others is important and it’s nice when we get it, but being too reliant on the opinion of others can leave us very vulnerable if they decide to negatively judge us. It’s important to learn to self-validate and trust our own judgment.
‘Friends’ becoming hostile. ‘I lost friends, Amy, who I’d known for 20 years decided to side with Harry. She told me he loved me and didn’t deserve to be treated so badly.’ Friends will quite commonly become hostile following the break-up of an abusive relationship. Abusive men commonly manipulate family and friends against the survivor. Quite often survivors are closed about how abusive their relationship is until it ends. Sometimes those around them will just not believe that the relationship was ever abusive. Other ‘friends’ seem to enjoy the drama, often purporting to sympathise with the survivor and then passing information on to the abuser. There is often a need to audit friendships. True friends will always be there for us, they won’t judge, they’ll show compassion and they will never bad mouth us behind our backs and pass information to our abuser.
The ‘friend’ who just wants to tell you because you need to know. ‘I have taken myself off all social media platforms but friends still update me about what he’s been saying, I wish they wouldn’t.’ This commonly happens. These friends need to be asked in direct and clear language not to pass this information on. If they continue despite having been asked (they often do), then you need to ask yourself – are they a true friend or are they just enjoying the drama at your expense? You may choose to give them another chance but if they continue, then they don’t have your best interests in mind and it may be best to withdraw from them. You also need to wonder if they’re feeding your reactions back to the perpetrator, this happens.
Losing trust and withdrawing. ‘I lost confidence in feeling able to trust people and withdrew socially.’ Domestic abuse survivors commonly become isolated by their abuser. Another dynamic is that they will often quite deliberately isolate themselves. This can be highly damaging to our feelings of confidence and self-worth. We are generally sociable people and when isolated, recovery becomes more challenging. Even if we have one good friends or contact that we can trust and confide in, this will help in our recovery. In the absence of a good friend, seeking the support of a domestic abuse professional will be of benefit.
Anxiety and low mood. ‘I became very anxious and low.’ Anxiety and low mood or depression are normal responses to the trauma caused by domestic abuse. Women are not weak, losing their minds or going mad when they experience these type of symptoms. It would be unusual not to experience some sort of mental health issues during or following a highly abusive relationship. Despite it being normal, it’s important to take pro-active steps to recover – recovery generally won’t just happen without interventions. Whether it’s prioritising self-care and exercise, seeking talking therapy or taking medication, much can be done to recover from the anxiety and low moods that so often accompany domestic abuse.
Reacting to his abuse. ‘Harry’s abuse continued despite me pleading for him to stop’. Abusive men ‘feed’ off the distress of their victims. They relish a reaction to their abusive behaviour, this is their reward and it will motivate them to think of further ways of abusing and causing distress. The ‘grey rock’ strategy is often advised here. If we behave as disinterest, unemotional and unresponsive to the antics of our abuser, the abuser will not be ‘rewarded’. This strategy is intended to cut off the abusers ‘supply’, thereby causing him to lose interest in us, his target. This strategy may also have benefits for us aside from encouraging disinterest in our abuser. By failing to show emotion, we can gain control over our emotions and the situation. We are more likely to be able to choose not to feel so damaged by the abuse. We likely have little control over what our abuser does, but we do have the potential to control our response to the abuse. They grey rock technique can help us to exercise this control. It can also encourage us to understand that he is not able to cause a reaction in us, but that we are in control of how we choose to respond to his behaviour.
Could this abuse be reported to the police? The threat of revenge porn became a criminal offence in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. If a person threatens to share a private sexual image or video without consent and with the intention of causing distress, then it is a criminal offence. It doesn’t even matter if the photograph or video doesn’t even exist. In Sarah’s case, this is clearly a threat of revenge porn. Sarah would be quite entitled to report to the police. Would the case be progressed to CPS for a charging decision? Possibly not. Harry made the threat verbally and unless he admitted the offence in police interview (unlikely), then the matter would not likely be progressed. It may be that Sarah chose to report the matter anyway – it may deter Harry from considering threatening this again. It may also give Sarah some satisfaction in knowing she had at least reported it.
Harry is also harassing Sarah both verbally and using social media. Sarah might consider reporting this harassment to the police and possibly has more evidence to rely upon – various social media posts that she may have screen shotted to preserve them should they be removed.
“I’ve made a lot of progress when I look back on the two years since I left Harry. I now have just three very good friends who I know I can rely on and trust. The others I had to distance myself from – the ‘friends’ who were constantly updating me about what Harry was saying about me. I don’t think they were bad people, but they sided with Harry and I realised I wasn’t prepared to explain myself to anyone who didn’t believe me.
I’ve had to work on my self-esteem and get to a point where I’m less concerned about the judgment of others. Learning to self-validate and to have an inner sense of belief in myself has been liberating. People will still, occasionally make snide comments about me but I’m so much less affected by this now. I know that I suffered coercive control, that I was in a terrible situation. I still wish I’d had the courage to tell Harry that I wanted to leave, but I’m at peace with my actions now. I don’t blame myself for the affair.
I wish I’d never experienced what I did, but out of the pain has come self-discovery and self-compassion. I’m much kinder to myself now and much less likely to be affected by the negative judgments of others. I still have days when I feel low and dwell on the past, but these days are becoming fewer. My focus is more on the future and possibilities that lie ahead.”
Published 23 November 2022