This is How Abusers Control the Narrative
This is How Abusers Control the Narrative

When the abuser controls the narrative it's terrifying - we worry that no one will believe us. Sometimes we don't even believe ourselves.

“I just know that no one is going to believe me.”

Have you considered telling your story to other women, clergy, therapists, or even the police – but you’re certain that they won’t believe you?

Abusers use coercive tactics to control the narrative – ensuring that you’ll feel isolated, crazy, and off-kilter. This is how.

Chandra, a Shero and member of the BTR.ORG community, shares the first part of her incredible story of surviving abuse despite her first husband’s many attempts to control the narrative and keep her spinning in isolation. Listen to the BTR.ORG podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

Abusers Control the Narrative By Talking First

It’s strategic – the way they control the story. And the first step they take is telling the story first.

The first one to talk is generally the one that people believe, unfortunately. So if the abuser seeks out religious counseling, back-up from law enforcement, or “emotional support” from family and friends before the victim, they are more likely to be believed and to discredit the victim.

Further, abusers will spin the narrative to make themselves look like the victim. They often do this by admitting to a degree of abuse, but giving an excuse that draws pity or praise:

  • “Yes, I did cheat, but I’m working a therapist on overcoming my childhood trauma, and I’m hoping she’ll forgive me for my attachment issues that led to me betraying her…”
  • “If it wasn’t a sexless marriage, I wouldn’t have to do the things I do…”
  • “My family was abusive, and I’m working so hard to be a better man. I just wish she’d stop ignoring my texts so that I could tell her how hard I’m working. Can you ask her to talk to me?”

Abusers Spin the Story: “I’m The Actual Victim Here”

Whether they blame the affair partner, like Chandra’s ex-husband did:

“He told me that she had basically attacked him and that he was the one that had taken the high road and said, ‘There’s all these people we need to think about. We can’t have this happen. There’s all these children and my wife.’ And he was trying to make himself look like he was the good guy and that he stopped it.”

Chandra, Member of the BTR.ORG Community

Or blame the abusive family they grew up in:

“I was raised to _____” (objectify women; use pornography; hit; sexually abuse women, etc);

Blame society:

“I’m a man! What do you expect?”

Or blame a host of other situations or people, including their hormones, friends, alcohol, drugs, stress – abusers are incredibly adept and shifting blame from taking accountability for their own choices to making it appear that they were the victim of just about anyone and anything else.

The message is loud and clear: “I’m the victim! So feel sorry for me! Stay distracted from trying to ask me to stop hurting you and don’t even think about asking me to be accountable – I want to be babied and given all the so-called privileges that I perceive victims receive!”

Abusers Control the Narrative Early & Often

Healthy people are generally pretty compassionate and abusers know this.

It’s common from abusers to disclose childhood abuse and other traumas early on in the relationship in order to elicit a blanket of pity that allows them to behave however they want to without consequences. This way, they can be as awful as they want to be and can never really be held accountable because of the pain from their childhood trauma – but here’s the thing:

Many, many adults have severe childhood trauma – but many, many adults choose not to abuse others.

In some cases I feel like they just make stuff up to make people feel sorry for them or to elicit pity. And they kind of ride off of that and that’s how they get away with a lot of things.

Anne Blythe, Founder of BTR.ORG

Ultimately, we can feel compassion for abusers while still holding them accountable and holding tight to our boundaries – which include maintaining a healthy distance between ourselves and abusive behaviors.

YouTube video

BTR.ORG Is Here For You

When abusers control the narrative, it’s terrifying. We feel like no one is going to believe us – sometimes we don’t even believe ourselves.

But at BTR.ORG we believe YOU. You aren’t alone and we know that you are not crazy.

You’re safe here. Come join our Group Sessions today and find the community that will always have your back.

Full Transcript:

Anne (00:00):
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne. We have Chandra, a fellow Shero, on today’s episode. In 2020, 13 years after her first marriage ended in abandonment and betrayal trauma, and two years after emancipating herself from a second marriage in which her second husband repeated many of the traumatizing secret sexual behaviors and abuses that occurred in her first marriage, Chandra had a powerful experience while meditating that led to the decision to finally speak out and share her betrayal trauma recovery story. Silenced by a request from her faith communities clergy to keep her first husband’s indiscretions quiet, by the desire to protect her children, and by the victim blaming that seems to plague partners of abusers, Chandra is now on a mission to speak out and help other women make the shift they need to break out of the abuse cycle, find truth, safety, peace, and the beautiful life we all deserve.

Chandra is a Shero, a mother of four children, she’s a professional mechanical engineer, which is awesome, a certified instructor at the Academy of Culinary Nutrition, a running enthusiast, she happens to be a Boston marathon finisher. So good job there. She’s a yoga lover and she’s now been happily married for three years to a healthy, kind, humble man. Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, Chandra.

Chandra (04:38):
Thank you, Anne.

Anne (04:41):
Our stories, Chandra. Where do we even start? Right?

Chandra (04:44):

Love Bombing In The Early Stages

Anne (04:45):
Yeah. So, because you have, I would say, your own story, which is one complete story of your experience, but your story includes two marriages. Let’s start with the first marriage. How old were you when you met him? And did you recognize that you were experiencing abuse at first?

Chandra (05:06):
I met my first husband when I was about 17 and we started dating. Then he was known for having a girl in every city and when he “chose me,” I felt like I had won the lottery. You know, he was a very charismatic, outgoing person and I wasn’t so much. And so what I didn’t recognize early stages was that he was a bit of a womanizer and loved that attention from other women. And he was really love bombing me a lot at first. But I didn’t recognize that’s what that was. I felt like I really enjoyed the attention that I got from him and his prolific love letters and professions of love. It was very intoxicating, right? So that’s kind of how things started. And I didn’t really see any red flags early on, right before we got married.

Red Flags: Constant Love Letters And Last-Minute Confessions

He did actually go on a mission trip, a two year mission trip for our church. And right before he left, he gave me a little promise ring and said, “When I come back, we’re gonna get married.” And we’d been dating for about six months when he left. And I was really excited about that. I thought that was gonna be awesome. And I decided to wait for him; I was very in love with him. And while he was away for those two years, he wrote me a lot of love letters. And to the point that I started thinking, this guy’s not getting any work done on his mission, he just writes me letters and they’re full of all these professions of love. And when he returned, we basically got married within less than a year. We were both, uh, 21 at the time.

So it was a little, you know, it was a little young and I was still in university. And um, the thing was a couple of days before we got married, he told me something that he had just realized. He told me, he had just realized that he remembered that he had been sexually abused when he was five by a foster child that was living in his family home. And I remember at the time thinking to myself, oh boy, you know, what kind of can of worms is this gonna turn out to be? And if he’s just realizing this, you know, it sounds like something we’re gonna have to deal with during the marriage because he hasn’t obviously dealt with it up to this point. So I was expecting, you know, some issues and I was aware also that he had, you know, confessed to me that during his teenage years now he had made some “mistakes.”

The First Admission of An Affair

If you’re thinking about what the standards of our church was, he’d had some indiscretions and had sorted all of that out, but he never really wanted to get into any details with me about what was involved with that. So, you know, I saved myself for marriage and as far as I knew he had as well. And that was sort of how we were raised. And he checked all the boxes. He had all the right things when it came to a marriage partner, even though we were very young, I didn’t expect to run into any problems. And I know that everybody really liked him in my family. And everyone was really excited about our marriage so we got married and basically the first time I really became aware that I could have a problem in my marriage was when my oldest daughter was 18 months old and my younger sister had actually just passed away.

And he decided that was a good time to tell me that he had been actually developing a relationship with someone else at work. And I remember reflecting on this later, why I responded this way, but I immediately thought that it was something to do with me – that I was not good enough. And I was in school and we had a baby and it was, it was a rough time. Like we were tired and we didn’t have a lot of money. And I thought, oh, you know, all the pressures of getting our lives off the ground, it’s been too much for him. And so I thought, oh, I’ve gotta make life better for him. And I’ve gotta fix this. And I, maybe I’m not good enough. And I basically spent the rest of the marriage trying to be the perfect wife and just getting angrier and angrier. As I noticed red flags popping up, I noticed he would lie to me about small things, about money. I could see him flirting with other women and he became more and more deceptive and withdrawn and never really emotionally connected with me or opened up to me. And I sort of always had this thing in the back of my mind thinking, oh, well, you know, he was sexually abused when he was five. And I kept like trying to get him to address it.

Anne (09:52):
Do you think now that that was true?

Chandra (09:55):
I actually do. The reason I believe it is because his sister who is a wonderful person, she was also sexually abused by the same person. So his story was corroborated by her experience.

Abusers Love Playing the Victim

Anne (10:10):
The reason I ask that is my ex has a story about how he was sexually abused by a neighbor. And I am convinced now, although I have no proof and there’s no way of knowing that he actually abused the neighbor is what I think really happened. So he wanted to share that for some reason to maybe make me feel sorry for him, or, you know, I don’t know what elicit something, but I think that if it is at all true that he was the one that did the abusing.

Chandra (10:39):
Yeah. That’s interesting you say that because I remember gathering that over the years after my ex-husband had had that happen to him when he was young, that strange things came out in his own behavior around his cousins as he got older. And, you know, I understood later on that he got into porn at a relatively young age, probably also because of all of that, but he may have become a bit of a perpetrator himself at a very young age, but I don’t have all the details on that. So I’m not exactly sure what happened.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne (11:17):
I’m gonna take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book is a picture book for adults. So it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it. It’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

The Abuser’s “Desire to Control the Narrative”

So many of us, when we begin our experience with our abuser, they tell us some story that we kind of hold onto. Right? And I have learned to actually question that story, whether or not it was the exact opposite of the story they told, like they were the perpetrator or alternatively that it didn’t happen at all. And I’m not saying that with your ex because it was corroborated by a sister, but in some cases I feel like they just make stuff up to make people feel sorry for them or to elicit pity. And they kind of ride off of that and that’s sort of how they get away with a lot of things. So that’s why I ask that.

Chandra (12:54):
Yeah, well, I think that’s all part of their desire to control the narrative. And as I get into my story more, I do definitely have some examples of how he did that kind of thing, making it about him telling me things that were not true to control the narrative and what I was experiencing. So it was, I mean, it’s very confusing to be around someone doing that. The first time I really had any inkling that I was in something that might be abusive in terms of a relationship was when we were living in this neighborhood. I had three children at the time and was just, I think I was a pregnant with my fourth and my last child. And there was a lady that moved into the neighborhood. She was a single mom and she was separated from her husband and she had three children and she needed a lot of help.

When Clergy Enable Abuse By Keeping Secrets

I remember befriending her and having her over with her kids and talking to her and doing things for her. I would watch her kids sometimes. And at Christmas time she didn’t have a lot of money and we were doing reasonably well. So, you know, I went out and I actually bought some gifts for her kids and took them over to them and invited them for Christmas dinner, you know, like she was in my life. And I think at some point we actually invited her out to church with us and she was sitting behind us in the pew with her kids and the bishop in our congregation at the time actually came to my ex-husband after the meeting and warned him and said to him, I think you need to be careful of that woman that you brought to church. And what I didn’t know at the time was that he was fooling around with her.

I don’t know the extent of what was happening, but I was starting to feel kind of strange about the situation. And I went to visit a friend of mine, my closest friend at the time. And she was actually married to his best friend at the time. And I was talking to them and mentioned the situation and her husband, my friend’s husband, his best friend said to me, you don’t know everything about him, you know? And I thought, what does he mean by that? And I went home and that was the first thing I asked him, what’s going on with this neighbor woman? And I think at the time she’d actually moved out of the neighborhood. And he told me that he and her had become friends and they were working on a business together and she had this really great business idea.

Controlling the Narrative By Blaming the Affair Partner

And he had this pattern of always starting businesses. I don’t know why, but he just loved to start businesses. And sometimes he would make a bunch of money and then he would spend it all or he would lose it all. And it was kind of this cyclical behavior that he had. And so he was starting a business with her. He told me that she had basically attacked him and that he was the one that had taken the high road and said, there’s all these people we need to think about. We can’t have this happen. There’s all these children and my wife. And he was trying to make himself look like he was the good guy and that he stopped it.

Anne (16:06):
And at the same time she’s coming, he’s not cutting off contact with her.

Chandra (16:11):
No, no. You know, and I still don’t know if he completely cut it off, but she wasn’t living in the neighborhood anymore. And I honestly don’t know what happened after that. But the interesting thing is though when my, when my friend’s husband told me that I didn’t know everything about him, he actually was not talking about this woman. He was talking about something else that I knew nothing about.

Anne (16:35):

When Family & Friends Enable Abuse By Withholding Information

Chandra (16:36):
He was talking about how my ex-husband had been going to strip clubs and that he was aware of his my husband going to strip clubs. And I knew nothing about that until many years later when my husband did a big disclosure dump on me right before he left. So what bugs me about my friend’s husband, knowing that, and not sharing that with me is feeling like there was someone else that knew about his destructive behaviors and was complicit in his abuse of me. I was, I was so upset by that later on, you know, just knowing that.

Anne (17:15):
And why he didn’t just flat out tell you.

Chandra (17:17):
Yeah, he was kind of being like, oh, well this is between you two. And I’m gonna let you go home and talk to him about this and ask him. Yeah.

Anne (17:24):
But he’s already been lying to you the whole time.

Chandra (17:27):

Clergy Should Protect Victims – Not Enable Abuse

Anne (17:28):
The other question I have is, did you say it was the bishop that came over and said, I’d watch out for her?

Chandra (17:35):

Anne (17:36):
Okay. So in that case, I don’t know if he knew what was going on or not, but why didn’t he say, watch out for your own husband?

Chandra (17:43):
Well, he didn’t talk to me. He talked to my husband. He said, he thought this woman looked like she was, you know, he just had a funny feeling about the situation.

Anne (17:55):
He assumed it was her rather than assuming it was him.

Chandra (17:58):
He assumed it was her, not him. He assumed my husband was innocent in the whole thing. I know scary. Huh?

Anne (18:06):
That is super stupid.

Safe People Will Feel Strong Emotions on Your Behalf

Chandra (18:07):
Nobody said anything to me either. So I, I had no idea, but so what happened was I had a sister-in-law living in the same city as me at the same time and we were close and I was just talking to her one day and I told her about all of this. And I said, oh, you know, this stuff happened. And I was just kind of telling her and her reaction, she was so indignant. She was so upset about the whole thing. And her reaction actually shook me loose because I was kind of just going along, like, yeah, this happened and it, it’s not great. And I don’t really know like what to do about it, but she was really upset about it. And I actually had a fight with him, I think that night, or like later that week. And I brought it up again and I was like, feeling like, so he was like telling me all these lies to cover up what was going on.

Chandra’s Moment of Awakening

But I, I had no proof that anything he was saying to me was true or not. And so I could feel that there was something wrong, but I had no proof. And I was upset. I went for a walk. I was like five months, six months pregnant. It’s the middle of winter. I’m out walking for about an hour. And just the sum total of all the, the small lies and seeing him flirting with other women and all the things and all the bending over backwards I’d done to be the perfect wife so that he would be happy. I just thought, I need to get out of this relationship. I remember thinking that and just thinking, I don’t wanna be here anymore. I don’t wanna do this anymore, but I was pregnant. I had been outta school for six or seven years. I had no work experience and I was scared.

I was also really afraid of how I would be treated by all the people, all the people, putting pressure on us to succeed in our marriage. You know, the faith community, the families. I knew nobody would believe me because he was Mr. Charisma. And everybody thought that he worshiped the ground I walked on – the way he behaved outwardly made it look like that. So I didn’t think I could do anything at the time. And so I didn’t, I didn’t leave. I wish I had, because being abandoned is a lot worse than getting the courage to up to leave yourself.

For Women in Faith Communities

Anne (20:21):
Mm. Do you feel like now that that was God telling you to leave? I mean you kind of mentioned that, but do you feel now that that’s really what that was?

Chandra (20:31):
Oh yeah. Absolutely. Like, I mean, you know, I believe in God and I’m a praying woman and I can definitely see when I look back many, many situations where God was trying to help me move forward, get away from dangerous situations to protect me and help me, you know, I do see that.

Anne (20:53):
Mm it’s funny. Cause God’s telling us something, we can feel that. And yet the religious scripting or maybe even our religious leaders are telling us to go against our own, the revelation, God is giving us, right? Like we’re thinking, no, we can’t break our vows or our covenants or we can’t, uh, quote unquote, break up our family or, you know, something like that when God is directly telling us, you are not safe, you need to get to safety. And we don’t have the words or the understanding or the knowledge to interpret it that way at the time. Right. So I don’t think it’s our fault, but it’s just so hard to do what God wants us to do. When the people who we feel like I’m gonna say, quote, unquote, represent God on the earth, perhaps you know, our minister or our pastor or a bishop or whatever it’s telling us to do something different. It’s, it’s very confusing.

TW: Finding Pornography on Her Husband’s Computer

Chandra (21:44):
It’s very hard to overcome that. I agree with you. So that happened that whole situation with that woman where, you know, and my sister-in-law her reaction sort of woke me up. So I, I had my fourth child. We moved out of the city that we were living in at the time; we moved away and he got laid off from work and an opportunity to take a job came up for me. And my youngest was three years old and I had kind of planned to sort of get my career off the ground and start working towards, you know, becoming a professional engineer, what I’d been to school for, you know, when my kids were in school. So, you know, she was almost, my baby was almost there and I thought, okay, I’ll take this job and I’ll start working. And so one day I was, I had borrowed his computer and I was doing a search for something.

And uh, so somehow as I was searching, this, uh, history came up, it basically said something like naked pictures of someone’s name. And the name, it was actually the name of a coworker of his I’m so glad it was almost near the end of the day because I could not even function. Like I just lost my mind. I mean, you know, the stress reaction fight or flight, my heart started beating. And I was like, oh my gosh, all these years. And you know, I had, after I decided to stay in the marriage, when I was pregnant with my youngest, I had kept doing what I was doing. I kept playing the part and wearing the mask with him because I didn’t know what else to do. And I kept trying to be the good wife and, you know, do all the things. And to see that I realized it was just sort of, the gig is up.

“I Knew I Was With Someone That Was Never Going to Change”

Like I knew that I was with someone that was never going to change. I confronted him with it. When he came to pick me up, I have never screamed at someone so loud in my life. It was just all the years and years and years of pent up frustration and fear and anxiety and sadness and just all those feelings of not being good enough. And I just thought, this is ridiculous. So I discovered the porn and we went to see our clergy. I didn’t find him abusive. He was supportive and suggested we start getting some counseling. Of course, like most people, they go for couple’s counseling as if it’s a couple’s problem, which it really isn’t. I understand that now, but at the time I didn’t know better. And so we arranged for some counseling and somehow when we went to the first session, the person didn’t show up and I’m not sure what happened with the scheduling, but I remember thinking to myself, okay, so this needs to be rescheduled.

And I thought the only way I’m gonna know that my husband cares about this relationship and actually wants to do something about this is if he makes the appointment. And so I stepped back and I said, okay, you need to make the next appointment and get this all sorted out because this is on you. Right. Uh, but nothing ever happened. He didn’t set up an appointment, he did nothing. And so we carried on for another year. I don’t even know why suddenly he decided that we should buy a new house and the house we were living in had sort of two separate units to it. I mean, we were living in the house as if it was one house, but there was a back area that you could rent. And we decided to hang onto the house and rent it out.

TW: Abandonment

And so we bought this new house. This was in June of 2007, after the sale had gone through and we were just packing up and getting ready to move. And we were gonna be moving in a couple of months. And he was working on getting tenants for the house we were living in at the time. And he got a tenant for the one main part of the house, but he hadn’t gotten anybody for the back of the house. And he was acting really, really strangely. And this was in July and there was something really wrong with him. I didn’t know what it was. And I’d been reading a book called Fierce Conversations. And I thought I would put, you know, into practice something I’d learned in the book. And I asked him one night, I’m like, you know, I’ve noticed you’re really, you’re not yourself. I just said, are you okay? Is anything wrong? And he’s like, well, nothing is wrong. And I said, well, what would be wrong? If, if there was something wrong, thinking I’m using my fantastic conversation skills. And he said, oh, well, I’m thinking of leaving.

Anne (26:23):
We’re gonna pause the conversation right here, Chandra and I are going to be talking the next few episodes. So stay tuned and make sure you join us next week. If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. And until next week stay safe out there.


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