How Abusive Women Brainwash You

How do so many smart men fall for toxic, abusive women? Why do they remain in painfully self-destructive relationships when their higher intelligence knows better? Many men frequently cite, “but I love her.” Do they love these women or have they been brainwashed by abusive personalities? Are they confusing love with dependence on their partner/torturer—a kind of Stockholm Syndrome?

Emotional and physical abuse wears you down over time. It erodes your confidence, independence, sense of efficacy and good judgment. Successful abusers use brainwashing tactics to disassemble your personality and extinguish your natural responses to abuse. In other words, you become numb and submissive instead of fleeing or fighting back in the face of her abuse.

Abusive women establish control over their targets by using “brainwashing tactics similar to those used on prisoners of war, hostages, or members of a cult” (Mega, Mega, Mega & Harris, 2000). Most abusers instinctively know these behaviors. Their behavior is mostly unconscious; they’re natural predators. However, some abusive women know exactly what they’re doing. In such cases, I’d argue that they’re sociopaths.

Brainwashing Techniques

In the 1950s, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton studied POW’s from the Korean War and Chinese prison camps. He concluded that these soldiers “underwent a multi-step process that began with attacks on the prisoner’s sense of self and ended with what appeared to be a change in beliefs” (Layton). Lifton defined 10 brainwashing steps that occur in 3 stages.

Stage I: Breaking Down the Self

1. Assault on Identity. “You are not who you think you are.” This step is comprised of an unrelenting attack on your identity or ego. For example, You’re a jerk. You’re a loser. You’re selfish. You don’t deserve me. You don’t have any friends. Your family doesn’t care about you. You don’t make enough money. These kinds of attacks have a destabilizing effect that breaks your stride and keeps you off kilter. The assault continues until you become “exhausted, confused and disoriented,” which causes your sense of self, beliefs and values to weaken.

2. Guilt. “You are bad.” Once your identity crisis sets in, you’re then criticized for offenses great, small and imaginary. You snore. You’re not sensitive enough. You’re too sensitive. You breathe wrong. You blink too much. You don’t fold the towels correctly. You never do this. You always do that. Why can’t you be more like so and so? The constant arguments and criticisms that cast you as the bad guy make you believe you deserve to be punished and treated badly. You feel a general sense of shame, that you’re wrong and that everything you do, don’t do, say or don’t say is wrong.

Humiliation and shaming tactics destroy your confidence and make you feel bad about yourself, which puts you in a malleable and submissive state. Shame is a form of paralysis. Inducing a sense of shame doesn’t just make you feel bad; it makes you believe that you are bad.

3. Self-Betrayal. “Agree with me that you are bad.” Once you’re disoriented and feeling a pervasive sense of guilt and shame, she can manipulate you into going against your own best interests. You forsake your own needs and make choices that are detrimental to your well-being. This is when an abusive spouse or girlfriend may begin to isolate you and/or get you to turn against friends and family. The betrayal of yourself, your beliefs and the people to whom you were once loyal increases feelings of shame, guilt and loss and also makes you easier to control.

4. Breaking Point. “Who am I, where am I and what am I supposed to do?” You no longer know who you are. You’re confused and disoriented from gaslighting and being fed a distorted version of yourself and reality. You may feel like you’re “the crazy one” and/or feel depressed, anxious, traumatized and a host of other negative emotional and physical symptoms like insomnia, paranoia and digestive problems.

You question your judgment, perceptions and sense of reality. She tells you she loves you yet continues to treat you horribly. You believe she loves you and that you must be a colossal jerk for her to always be so upset. If she’s successfully isolated you or gotten you to isolate yourself, you can’t reality test or receive outside support. By this time, she’s made you totally dependent upon her and solely focused upon pleasing her, gaining her approval and avoiding her wrath or disapproval. You probably feel completely alone. Alternatively, if you’re still in contact with friends and family, you fear that if you tell them what’s going on that they wouldn’t believe you or wouldn’t understand.

Stage II: The Possibility of Salvation

5. Leniency. “I can help you.” This is what I like to call the tyranny of small mercies. Periodically, this kind of woman will offer you some small kindness or you’ll have a “fun” afternoon together in which she appears normal. Because your perception has been so warped, the tiniest act of kindness or absence of overt hostility and/or icy withdrawal fosters gratitude, relief and a sense of adoration within you. In reality, she’s not kind and she’s not normal.

The disparity between her bad behavior and good/neutral behavior is so great that the simple act of heating up a can of soup for you makes her seem like Lady Benevolence. Her minuscule and infrequent acts of normalcy cause you to romanticize her. “This is why I love her. She can be so sweet.” It also causes you to experience a destructive sense of false hope. “If only she could be this way all the time. Maybe she will if I just try harder to please her.” The only way you can please this kind of woman is by continuing to allow her to harm you, that is, until she starts to resent you for becoming a doormat that she demanded you be.

6. Compulsion to Confess. “You can help yourself.” You’re so grateful for the small kindnesses she bestows in between periods of covert and overt abuse that you agree with her criticisms and devaluations. For example, you agree that your friends are bad for you and that your family is controlling and dysfunctional (um, hello, pot meet kettle). You promise to be more attentive and sensitive to her needs and see your needs as evidence of your selfishness.

Alternatively, you agree with her just to make the rages, derision and accusations stop. By the way, this is why torture techniques don’t work for intelligence purposes. People will say anything to make the torture stop. By this time, your personality has changed. You’re hypervigilant to her moods and ego gratification  demands and wishes.

You’re overwhelmed and confused by her accusations and criticisms. Subsequently, you feel a compounded sense of shame. However, you’re so disoriented that you don’t know what you’re guilty of anymore. You just feel wrong.

The Goal: Pointless Control with No End to the Abuse

Individuals or groups who use brainwashing techniques are deliberately trying to convert followers, change political allegiance or get people to buy their brand of soda. The ultimate goal is to breakdown your identity and replace your belief system with their doctrines in order to make you an obedient follower. Once they achieve their aims, the psychological torture stops because you’ve become a faithful acolyte.

Unlike professional terrorists, cult leaders and prison camp commandants, most abusive narcissistic, borderline, histrionic and sociopathic wives and girlfriends don’t have an end goal for their brainwashing techniques. They don’t know what they want. They just know that they want to control you in order to feel in control of themselves. This is why they don’t progress past the sixth brainwashing step and complete the process through the third stage, Rebuilding the Self.

By keeping you stuck in the Possibility of Salvation stage, you become locked into perpetual hoop jumping mode. She says if you do x, y and z she’ll finally be happy. You do x, y and z and then she either has a new set of expectations, demands and requirements or tells you that you didn’t do x, y and z to her satisfaction or that you only did it to make her happy not because you wanted to do it. You’re caught in a maddening cycle of trying to please her and not being able to please her with no relief or “salvation” in sight.

Oftentimes, abusive borderline, narcissistic and histrionic women’s moods, beliefs and realities change from day to day and, in extreme cases, minute to minute. They want whatever their current mood or insecurity dictates and change their beliefs, demands and perceptions accordingly. The only doctrine they offer is, “You’re wrong and bad” and “It’s all about me, my needs and my feelings” and “you need to fight for me” or “you need to fight for this relationship” (never mind that she is the one who is destroying it). This keeps you destabilized and in a perpetual state of guilt, shame, hypervigilance and confusion.

She puts you into no-win situations, double binds and keeps raising the bar of her expectations for as long as you let her. You never get to reach the third stage of a new identity that brings some relief. She keeps you stuck in the cycle of abuse where she will psychologically torture you until there’s nothing left of you.

Next week, I will discuss other aspects and techniques of brainwashing and how you can deprogram yourself.

Shrink4Men Counseling, Coaching and Consulting Services

Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides confidential, fee-for-service, counseling, consultation and coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.


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Mega LT, Mega JL, Mega BT & Harris BM. Brainwashing and battering fatigue: Psychological abuse in domestic violence.  NC Med J. 2000, Sep-Oct; 61(5): 260-265.

Layton, J. How brainwashing works. HowStuffWorks.

  1. TC
    September 13, 2022 at 2:04 pm

    TK, thank you for sharing your experience. For once I know someone understands what I’ve gone through…and where I ended up.

  2. momk
    July 10, 2016 at 1:08 am

    I just read this article. It is a horrifying reality for my family right now. It is destroying relationships. How do you begin to help your loved one see the destruction that is and has happened to them? Now a presumed pregnancy is involved. I fear for the baby and my grown up child. I don’t understand why the family of the bpd did not have them committed. A failed suicide attempt and the hospital never kept her for observation. She is a cutter, is physically and verbally abusive. No empathy for anyone. Yet she accuses everyone of being abusive to her. Cold no expression when another is in pain physically or emotionally. I fear it is more than bpd, sociopathic.

  3. June 12, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    I’m almost puking my guts out having read this; You have perfectly described the relationship I just extricated myself from. Thank you for putting this out there and helping guys like me see the matrix. It’s the first step to getting help and healing.

  4. Reclaimmyself
    May 30, 2016 at 6:25 pm

    This site has saved my sanity and prevented another bout of deep depression.
    I got away from my emotionally abusive partner a year ago when depression sent me over the edge…….when i was away from her i felt better but then went back for round 2! I could kick myself for all the wasted time and effort on her. The most frustrating thing is that she has everyone fooled about what she really is and plays the victim with expertise.
    This article has rung so true with me, i felt i was reading about myself exactly.
    By conceeding to her constantly and getting nothing in return, i lost my identity and that was sending me into depression again….but i have recognised the signs and I am now done and feeli g strong. I know she will try to regain control over me when she sees i am stronger and not interested in her games anymore…but i am now entering the no contact ( bunker phase) …..thanks so much for this site.
    Good luck to all.

  5. JP
    January 25, 2016 at 8:35 am

    thank you for this helpful article.
    i have lived with my abusive wife for a 2 years marriage while i forgave her for cheating on me and noticed an emotional relation between her and a long time friend of her.she even said she doesnt love me anymore and doesnt want me to even try to fix things and she doesnt want to love me again or even allow me to simply kiss her cheek for the past 7 months.i was the one that kept trying all those past 7 months to fix things and do my best to take care of her more but she always rejected all my attempts and threatened me to leave several times.
    and above all that she got furious and left the house with my son one morning because she simply woke up at night and saw me caressing her hair and kissing and holding her hand.after she left i was devastated, confused and angry.
    i talked to my family about the situation.and they all agreed and have been noticing her abusive behavior since i met her and she pulled me away from all my family and friends and even my own parents.and i allowed all that to happen without even noticing my situation.
    now i have put an end to any kind of contact with her for the past few days after i finally took the decision to file for divorce.
    but my biggest concern is my 1 year old son. should i let her raise him? should i take custody of my son? he is so attached to her more than he is attached to me. will she treat him right? can she raise him well? would she be abusive to him? what is best for my son? this is all i am concerned about right now. i need my son to live a healthy and happy life.
    please help me.

  6. Beat down
    April 4, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Once again the site hits the nail on the head. It’s like Dr. T has been living in my marriage for the past years. My NPD/wife has convinced me that everyone in my life was trying to manipulate me and didn’t care about me and that she’s the only one who does. As a result, I isolated myself from everyone. Including my family. To the point where my family has never met my 4 year old son. She’s done everything on the NPD list. Withholding intimacy/affection has been her greatest weapon. We have had sex a handful of times in the past 5 years. Each time as asked to turn her on. She basically lay there and when Ive asked what I could do different she just rolls her eyes. I’ve been jumping through hoops to try and please her but nothing is ever enough. Finally I ended up connecting with someone on emotional level because I was starving for the affection. There was no sex but my wife found out. She got what she wanted. Now she is divorcing me and I have no friends to speak of and no real life to look forward to. Thankfully my family has never abandoned me. My soon to be ex even tried to put language in our settlement agreement barring my parents/siblings for seeing our kids after the divorce. She also told me to get a vasectomy and never remarry because new children and/or a new wife would have a negative effect on our children. She actually said this with a straight face. So even post divorce she’s trying to control me. The sad thing is I still can’t get to the Acceptance phase of letting go. Sometimes Im angry and then aometimes I want her back. Sorry for the long post. I guess I write all this so that I can see it in black and white in order to figure out what the hell I’m trying to save in the first place.

  7. Hellen Arnold
    April 30, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    My son is in the relationship– the article describes my daughter in law 100%. My son sees his sister and me and my husband as their enemies– that we are trying to destroy thier family– she has brainwashed him– she strikes out at the apartment management, the elementary school principal, her own mother, — no one is exempt- either you bow OR you are “dead” to them– only the Lord can reach him and wake him from this delusion!-

  8. Mpp
    March 30, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Oh yeah. and i forgot to mention.

    While franticly trying to get into contact. So that we could just level Things out and still be able to talk.
    She also wrote.

    “I did not think it would go on for this long” like nothing can exist outside her, one-up.

    Its like.. Your swimming in the emotional ocean together. Your feeling down, and your going under, and you just need a little hand… But she pushing down on your head, while smiling, and looking the other way. Sometimes she looks over..
    Or she strapped a lead weight onto your foot, and swam away.
    You try and grab her foot maybe, but she kicks her foot. Because she wont go there.
    And it was not because you wanted to bring her down.

    It is said, that your just suppose to stay strong, stand your ground, dont take Things personal, keep your sense of self. etc.
    And i will agree. But when devaluation sets in, that is pretty much near impossible.

  9. Mpp
    March 30, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    I think it is important to remeber that we all have aspects of these personalities.
    But in some, it has gone wrong. And the personality is maladaptive. Not healthy.

    And that there are differences between BPD,NPD,HPD,ASP.

    I started reading pages like this 2 years ago.
    But then went into reading over 40 books,(which have more depth) to make sense of an experence with a woman.
    But now i came back here, and it just reminds me how crazy it can be.

    I will try and make my story short.

    Girl contacts me on the internet: Its about taking chances, what do you like, what love, what makes you happy.
    (i asked her the same, but she did not reply… she also later complains i dont ask her anything)

    I was very happy,because. Frankly, whatever she did or did not do. She was someone i had wanted. Else i had not entered.

    On the first phone conversation we have she says this, when replying to what to do on first date:
    “.. Make babies.. hi hi.. ahh no… im a phycopath..”

    I once hestitated, or didnt know what to say. When she asked me about how i saw the future.
    And she wrote. “FORGET IT!”


    Cancelled, 3 dates, in the last minut. I told her. “Either we do this. Or i am out of here right now, i dont want this.”

    I acually felt very strong. I am not used to saying that.

    And i told her, that i would walk thru fire and Water to make it happen, if i had to.
    Yayyy <3. she was happy.

    Anyway.. I finally meet her.
    And only here 2 years later. I acually remeber that she had the guts to tell me that i was 10minuts late. When she had cancelled 3 previous dates.

    She spoke so much, and asked me so much at times. That i could not think of anything.
    She keept saying at a time.. "What are you thinking?… What are you thinking?.. cmon.. Say it.. What are you thinking?."

    "Such a dumb bitch.. huh?".. Hmm.. no?.

    We sat on a bench. And she gave a small sigh.. gasp.. "It would be easier to meet a rich man………… What were you plans Again?".

    "I am very selfish… very selfish with facebook Pictures and such.. I take a piece of the cake first"

    And later, when we were about to say goodbye.. And she wanted a "Serious talk"
    And i was about to explode of worry.. future… responsebility.. etc.
    She told me.. "Dont worry, everything will be fine.. I can also move to you…. I will like to meet Again"

    Anyway….. But then..
    She said she did not want me.. She wanted someone more serious, and direct.
    But she always wanted to be friends.

    And later abit confused. I ask her, if she wanted to come visit. I would even pick her up.
    She asked. "Why?. what for?"
    .. To see all the Places around here, like you told me, you wanted to.
    "No, not interested".

    Etc. Then makes punitive comments on facebook, of my photographs, which she previously had adored.
    Flirts like a crazy on facebook, like she had just broken some chains off..

    I call 20 times. without an reply of any sort. total denial. I ask myself, do i exist?.
    I delete her… But want to speak to her..
    I tell her i dont want to be a spectator on facebook.
    I want to relax, i just need to talk.

    Etc.. I just felt guilty. I had promised so much. Also promised myself.
    Also, i only wanted to be friends, if that was the case.

    But yeah.. Then when i went crazy, wanting to just talk. And she didnt..
    it was like…
    I wrote alot of Things, and she replied.

    "Dont you have anyone else to talk to"
    "Why do you keep spilling out your thoughts onto me"
    "Your sickly dependent"
    "Can you do anything right"
    "Give up"
    "Remeber it was 1 date!!"
    "You dont understand anything"
    "Your bad"
    "You dont have any sense of reality"
    "What do you want!!! say it now! short and precise!!"
    "Your sick. You need help. Good you see it now yourself"
    "It was you who went crazy"
    "You make me insane"
    "Give up"
    "I cant tell you everything"
    "I dont ever want to speak to you Again"
    "No i didnt care, when you started calling"
    "What do you want of me!!?"

    Once i got so mad, i wrote she was the dumbest, most childish, sack of…
    And she just replied . "Good. Then stop writing me, day in day out".

    Still just, one-up position.
    And i start feeling guilty, etc. I only wanted to talk.

    When she had asked me "I am such a dumb bitch right?, huh".
    I was thinking in my head, that it would be one of the very last Things i would like to call her. Because i saw her as a potential mate. A mom in my eyes, like she wanted to be.
    And i knew she had a bad father.



    I have come to learn.

    Anyone who demands. Explicit, safety, honesty, and respect.
    While admirable, and we all want that, you haft to be careful. There might not be much in the other direction.

    Extremes of hot/Cold
    pride in manipulation/doing/controlling Things.

    Etc. many warnings.
    It may have been the only way they learned to cope with Things.
    but yeah.

    Hey, do i need to add, she was a professional caregiver, a dog lover.

    And befor the meeting, she sent me some tekst/image saying. something along the lines of this.

    "Whatever you mental state…."
    Something, like.. Dont worry.
    I never really understod it. Only, it seemed like something out of a book she had read.
    And it was a nice gesture.

  10. tim
    August 7, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Wow. This article is like a case study of my ex. She used every tool in the abusive bitch tool kit. She really had me convinced that it was all my fault until I started reading around the internet and found stuff like this. I always came running to her aid after she broke up with me. Every time I would run to help her she would treat me like shit and tell me that I never did anything for her. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. Up was down and down was up. The more I tried to be kind and understanding the more she shit on me. It’s just so very hard to accept that the person I spend so much time with would treat me like this. It’s really messed up and it hurts.

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