Recognising and then healing after coercive control.
Abusive relationships are not always physically abusive, which can be challenging for people to realise - with the term 'domestic abuse' regularly being used alongside 'domestic violence'. It can be helpful to think of relationships that can be abusive to help us move past these phrases, and to include in this the term 'coercive control'.
What is coercive control
Coercive control is a pattern of abusive behaviours that harm, punish or frighten a person - all considered abuse. Coercive control can be seen in abusive relationships, and can include:
Isolation: The abuser may control the victim's social circle, limit their access to friends and family, and restrict their movements.
Monitoring: The abuser may constantly monitor the victim's movements, including their phone, email, and social media accounts.
Threats: The abuser may make threats, such as harm to the victim, their children, or themselves, in order to manipulate and control the victim.
Economic control: The abuser may control the victim's finances, limit their access to money, or prevent them from getting or keeping a job.
Humiliation: The abuser may publicly shame the victim, belittle their accomplishments, or spread rumors about them in order to undermine their self-esteem and confidence.
It's important to realise that these experiences are very common, alongside the difficulty in noticing or leaving partners who are abusive. Important because many people feel guilt and shame when they do notice and / or leave, often failing to realise how common their experience is:
In the UK, a recent study found that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience domestic abuse, with many of these cases involving elements of coercive control.
In 2015, the UK introduced the "Serious Crime Act" which specifically criminalises coercive control, making it a criminal offence to engage in a pattern of behavior that is intended to control, intimidate, or cause fear. This was achieved after lengthy campaigning by organisations such as women's aid.
It is also important to realise that the law recognises this as a crime, whether the victim is male, female or another gender - with the gender of the abuser also being recognised as more than just men.
Recognising it in our own lives, is challenging.
Why do we often fail to see it?
Despite coercive control being illegal, it can be difficult to recognise in relationships. This is because the behaviour is often gradual and insidious, with the victim feeling like they are to blame or that they are not being abused. Victims are essentially groomed over time in a relationship that can cycle between love and attack, both leading to confusion over what is real and a bond to the drama cycle that emerges in the relationship. Coercive control is delivered as a pattern, that shapes the psychology of the victim over time and causes harm in many way.
We can be left feeling very unaware that any abuse is occurring, rather that a narrative that we are the cause of the relationship problems.
This is made worse by the abuser hiding their abusive behaviour from others or manipulating the victim into believing that they are the only one who can help them.
We can feel dependent on the abuser for self-worth and support, in a world where we see relationship problems only when they are with us (not others), again - suggesting we are the problem. For some, their power is actually removed when money or liberty is controlled - leading to isolation and a loss of access to resources that are linked to quality of life and freedom.
It can be less obvious than you realise
Coercive control can be very subtle, but a campaign over time. It can feel like jabs and pokes at self-worth and freedom, but not strong enough to justify the word "abuse". Here are a few examples that may ring bells:
Isolation: Your partner may feel stressed if you leave them alone too long, criticise your friends and family to the point that you avoid them to avoid your partner being upset, become jealous if you speak to people.... you try to keep them happy by reducing contact with others over time. The Outcome: loss of a social network and support.
Monitoring: You feel a need to let your partner know where you are all the time, they check your phone, email and social media, you feel you are not allowed private space. It can all feel like love and adoration, or be described as this, and be connected to distress or anger in a partner. Freedom is chipped away over time, as we try to keep partners happy. The Outcome: Loss of freedom.
Threats: Threats to harm the victim, threats to leave, threats to take the children, threats to reveal humiliating facts, threats to kill themselves / harm themselves... threats that create a panic in the victim and force submission to avoid the consequences. The Outcome: fear, addiction to a drama cycle.
Economic control: Money may be controlled or every penny spent may need to be justified, with heavy criticism for unauthorised spending. This may be framed as being frugal or sensible, rather than as a control. This can even be after a split, where money is restricted and poverty is forced on the departing partner. The Outcome: loss of financial power.
Humiliation: Body shaming, comparisons to better others, insults, rumours spread to others, dismissing any success. This can be framed within suggestions that it is meant to help or as a distress response. The Outcome: loss of self-worth and confidence.
What recovery needs to we have, after these experiences?
Very regularly people experience deeply problematic emotions and thoughts when they leave relationships that were coercive:
Fear: a fear of retribution from our ex, or a fear that we will not survive in the future... lots of fears in reality, many of which are not justified.
Obligation: a sense of duty to our ex, feeling that we need to meet their needs and that we are to blame for the pain now - caused by leaving.
Guilt: guilt for staying, for going back, for the children, for our ex being upset....
Shame: an often deep shame for being vulnerable and for having needs and living as we did. Often the greatest barrier to getting help.
Confusion: a lack of understanding about why we stayed, why we have gone back and what to do next.
Addiction: we often feel a pull back to our ex, so strong that it can sabotage our escape. This can reveal itself later as a pull to other partners, who are similarly bad for us.
Our primary needs at this point are to escape, achieve safety and then to start the work on understanding our past, to liberate us from shame and allow us to redefine our identity and face the future. This needs to be alongside work that soothes challenging emotions and allows us to feel self-worth in the context of a broken relationship... which is tough.
Where to start
It starts with going zero contact with our ex and then taking a journey to recovery. For many people, help will be needed at the point of trying to escape or immediately after via support from a domestic abuse service, you can find links in our signposting page (for all sexes). Sometimes, it is best to book an appointment with your GP and to ask for help, if it feels unsafe to contact services with devices at home.
From a safe escape people sometimes need therapy but definitely need to learn or relearn how to invest in their own needs and to learn self-compassion. Most importantly, to realise this is a common human need, after coercion, and not a unique failing. This is a human need and there are routes towards meeting the need to heal and avoiding abuse into the future. Believing this, is the first step.
For those who need the next steps, we developed a long-term, self-paced digital journey for people to support this - sparked by the experience of our founder on his own journey out of an abusive relationship. Check-it out.