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Sleep Deprivation Can Be a Weapon in the Hands of an Abusive Partner

Unlike other types of physical abuse, sleep deprivation doesn’t leave a mark.

by Kimberly Lawson
Jul 9 2019, 11:00am

Image: Ivan Obolensky/Pexels

Alice’s former husband often woke her up by slamming his hand down on the bed. He would keep her awake “until the wee hours of the morning,” she recalled. Sometimes, it didn’t matter who went to bed first; he would still find reasons to wake her in the middle of the night. “It could be because I was snoring. It could be because he [had woken up] and I was asleep and if he couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t sleep. [Or] he’d had a dream and I’d done something in his dream and therefore he was really upset with me.”

Nights were terrifying, she said, though she often felt it was safer to go to sleep after her husband. “It became a really big deal for me,” she said. “If I was to fall asleep before he did, that’s usually when something would get out of hand.”

It’s been 10 years since Alice left her husband, but she remembers those experiences like they happened yesterday. To process her experience and help others understand the complexity of domestic violence, Alice (whose last name we’ve withheld to protect her children’s privacy) started a personal blog. One of her most viewed posts was the one published in 2012 detailing how her partner intentionally deprived her of sleep.

Victims of domestic violence often have trouble sleeping. But when a person intentionally weaponizes sleep deprivation—including not allowing their partner to go to bed, interrupting their sleep or punishing them for sleeping—experts say it becomes a form of physical abuse and torture, one that often goes unnoticed to the outside world. “I don’t know that anybody really would have told me it was abuse [back then],” Alice said. “I had a very good therapist at that time who pointed out that that wasn’t okay, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on it either.”

Everyone needs sleep; it is a basic biological function that is critical for our health. And it’s only now that we’re realizing how powerful, and devastating, sleep deprivation can be.

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A 2007 exploratory study in the journal Violence Against Women offered a glimpse into how sleep loss leaves survivors feeling vulnerable to violence. Researchers interviewed 17 women whose sleep was disturbed by an abusive partner; all reported adjusting their sleeping patterns to minimize the daily threat of violence they faced. Some said they were afraid to sleep “too deeply” and others said they avoided sleep altogether when their partner was home.

“You would pretend to be asleep, then you would have to pretend to wake up. Either way it would be better to be awake, trying to figure out what he wanted or what he was going to do next,” one woman said.

As the study’s authors write, these narratives “bring into sharp relief the connection between sleep deprivation and the establishment of a regime of power and control by one person over another—the hallmark of domestic violence.”

In a follow-up study, researchers determined: “Sleep deprivation was clearly a direct strategy of abuse used by perpetrators. It also indirectly undermined the mental and physical resilience of women.”

Unlike other types of physical abuse, sleep deprivation doesn’t leave a mark. “Unfortunately, I think the only thing that society recognizes as abuse is a black eye,” said Heather Frederick, a spokesperson for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “A lot of people who are experiencing sleep deprivation as a part of abuse understand this isn’t healthy, it’s not sustainable...but they may not make the connection that it’s about their partner trying to control them or trying to strong-arm them or have power over them.”

"Sleep deprivation was clearly a direct strategy of abuse used by perpetrators."

At her organization, Frederick said sleep deprivation is classified as a form of physical abuse, though it easily falls under emotional abuse as well. Similar to stopping someone from taking medication they need, interrupting someone’s sleep has a significant impact on their bodies and minds.

Victims of sleep deprivation often experience drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, and eventually disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia. Chronic sleep loss can lead to serious health problems, including risk of high blood pressure, depression, and heart attack.

According to data gathered by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, four in 10 women and four in 10 men have experienced at least one form of coercive control (which includes any behavior a person uses to dominate their significant other) in their lifetime. One example where sleep is a vehicle for manipulation, Frederick said, occurs in the context of a long-distance relationship: A partner may require the other person to videochat with them to prove that they’re home alone or ask them to leave their phone on their pillow all night to listen to them sleep.

In Alice’s case, her partner even justified the sleep deprivation with one of the messages in the sermon given during their wedding, which had to do with married couples never letting the sun go down on their anger. “He used that against me for a long time,” she said, referring to her former husband. If she begged for sleep, he accused her of loving sleep more than she loved him.

In these scenarios, abusers usually aren’t trying to reach any kind of compromise, Frederick explained. “Their goal is to wear their victim out so that they cave in and give in to whatever it is the abusive partner is wanting to happen or whatever they’re looking for.”

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As recently as 2014, the United Nations’ committee against torture called on the United States to end its practice of using sleep deprivation on detainees, calling it “a form of ill-treatment.”

In 2016, Tania Tetlow, then a law professor at Tulane University and now president of Loyola University New Orleans, made a compelling argument for states to pass laws “banning torture by private actors” as well, primarily as a better way to address domestic violence. She included sleep deprivation among the techniques that should be outlawed.

Imposing sleep deprivation on someone isn’t a crime in and of itself, Tetlow said in an interview, but that’s why the analogy of torture and domestic violence works. Domestic violence generally is a pattern crime, similar to stalking. “Any one act in isolation will not seem that egregious. It is the context of the pattern of behaviors and the intent of those behaviors and their cumulative impact that really makes it terrible.”

Tetlow acknowledged that sleep deprivation is one of those abusive tactics that may not seem like that big of a deal on its own. But it is an effective way to render somebody unable to function and make good judgments. “The biggest risk of lethality with domestic violence is not measured by the level of violence; it’s about the level of control,” she said. “That is a bigger indicator of the chance that someone will murder their victim.”

Domestic violence generally is a pattern crime.

As an example, Tetlow pointed to one 2010 case in Louisiana: Jennifer Muse, 31, was shot and killed by her 78-year-old husband. Two days earlier, he’d been acquitted of domestic violence battery, a charge stemming from a fight in the middle of the night when she was upset that he woke her. According to Muse’s testimony, he did so often.

Repositioning domestic violence in the law as torture—a legal argument that’s yet to gain any traction—would send both abusers and the people they hurt a powerful message, Tetlow said: “Describing domestic violence as torture focuses the criminal justice system and the public on the defendant’s clear premeditation and culpability. We see batterers as merely angry, whereas we acknowledge torturers as cruel.”

For Alice, the survivor who left her partner over a decade ago, the long-term pain caused by the abuse continues to disrupt her life. She still has trouble going to bed at times. “I do feel like I’ve come a long way. I’m in a much different spot than I was then, but I still have my triggers. I still have things that can upset me quite a bit.”

If you have concerns about your relationship, visit The Hotline or loveisrespect.org to talk to an advocate.