The environment of fear is created around a code of silence. This is intended to deprive those who would question harmful behaviour of having a voice. The code of silence may be imposed on the intended victim of abuse, or on any person who identifies that abuse is happening and sounds the alarm about it.
Code of Silence
At the start of an abusive relationship, an intended victim may be given special privileges, always with the words: “this is our secret”. This is both coercion and an assertion of power by a potential abuser. As further contact follows, this becomes: “don’t tell anyone’. This is rapidly followed by: “don’t tell anyone, or else ......” as the victim expresses reluctance about what is happening, or tries to escape the situation.
Don’t Tell Anyone
Initially, “don’t tell anyone’ can be a part of a strategy of belief of inclusion in a special, privileged group or club. The intended victim is one of the chosen few to participate. This could well be true, but the nature of what they have been chosen for is not clear at this stage.
When the words become: “don’t tell anyone, or else....” a range of conditions are added. This may be in the form of coercion, such as an opportunity withheld or exclusion from the chosen group. It may also be bullying, as in being falsely accused of doing something which is wrong. Sometimes an abuser will impose a punishment at this point, a reinforcement of the assertion of power which generates fear. When this strategy is repeated it becomes harassment and persecution and leads to a loss of good reputation in the community. If the victim is employed, this loss of good reputation can be used to justify firing the person.
Using the fear of exclusion can be the way an abuser asserts power over another person.
There are different forms of intimidation, these can be direct or indirect, and asserted against those who would help victims of abuse as well as those individuals being abused. They are intended to undermine the value and credibility of anyone who challenges the abusive behavior of a person with perceived authority.
A common method of intimidation is to spread lies and gossip about the people who challenge the authority of abusers. This can extend to making false police reports, a ‘look over there’ strategy designed to turn the focus away from the abusers, and discredit the people sounding the alarm on bad behavior at the same time. It is a form of projection of an individual’s actions onto others.
Another method of intimidation is to question the motives of those reporting abusive behavior. This can be very effective when challenging victims of the abusers, as it undermines the belief in oneself: am I at fault? Is it only me who causes this to happen?
Similarly, the competency of any person drawing attention to abusive behavior is questioned. The intention is to discredit anything that person has to say, to deprive that person of a voice.
Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid lost her voice to a monster so she could pursue her dreams. It worked for a little while, then she was abandoned. She had lost her voice, all for nothing.