Content note for domestic abuse.
A note on language. In this post I use victim to denote someone currently in an abusive relationship, survivour for someone who has escaped such a relationship.
I am a fan of the Archers. It is a not so guilty pleasure, as much about having fifteen minutes to myself at the end of the day as catching up with the adventures of Linda, Brian and Ruth. One of its strengths is that in being on nightly for a short time it can take stories very slowly, a word here, a vignette there. Currently it has a domestic abuse storyline, one which has built up over many months, and one without any physical violence. It is a storyline around coercive control
What is Coercive Control?
an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim
The Tactics include
- domestic violence: ‘violating physical integrity’, causing fear and physical harm
- intimidation and humiliation: ‘denial of respect and autonomy’ using threats, surveillance (eg stalking), degradation (eg name calling), emotional withdrawal, destruction of possessions
- isolation: undermining and deprivation of social contacts and support
- control: of resources required for autonomous decision making and independence, including
- deprivation of money and food
- monitoring of time
- restricted mobility and transportation
- restricted access to communication
There is a longer list here, from The Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. As a society we still struggle with the idea that some people physically assault their partners. However a black eye or broken arm provides “proof” that abuse has occurred. Coercive control very often takes the form of emotional and psychological abuse and manipulation. I write here on the different forms that abuse can take. Coercive control can be either dismissed or ignored by those who know a victim, and sometimes even by the victim themselves.
Lets look at the example of Rob and Helen in The Archers to see how he is using coercive control in their relationship.
- He has made her financially dependent on him by convincing her that to be a good wife and mother she must be available to him 24/7 and give up her career.(Abusers often play on a victims already existing insecurities. Helen has had a number of failed relationships and was a single parent.)
- He criticises how she dresses if it is too sexual, according to him. (Abusers dislike any attention their victim might garner from other men)
- He has isolated her from her closest female friend, Emma, (Friends mean support which negates the attempt of the abuser to make the victim solely reliant on them)
- He used her child to emotionally manipulate her to take up hunting, against her wishes. (Abusers have no respect for boundaries)
- Expresses displeasure at any activities Helen suggests such as the Valentines Dance or Linda’s drama group (Abusers must be the center of attention)
- Is critical of Helen any time she does not instantly reply to texts or calls.(Abusers do not believe their victims have a right to be independent)
Any one of these things might be seen as behaviour we would not want in our ideal partner. With coercive control the abuser is grooming the victim, creating the mindset they desire, manipulating their victim. They may not leave physical bruises, yet, however it can be as devastating. Survivors of this kind of abuse have compared it to a form of brainwashing, one that leaves them without any self-esteem, autonomy in their lives, isolated from friends and family. They are totally reliant on their abuser in a way that is reminiscent of victims of child abuse.
Perhaps the hardest part of coercive control to understand is that the abuser defends their actions as love, as concern for their victim. The victim is not strong enough to deal with the world, the abuser presents themselves as self-sacrificing in doing all the difficult things the victim is not able too. Often the outside world will see only this narrative. Abusers are saints, while no one considers the impact of being disempowered on the victim. If someone tells you daily you are not able to do something, you will end up believing them. Victims are even stripped of their self belief and self-esteem.
Even in our fictional example Helen knows, on a subconscious level, that Rob is an abuser. She has started to lie to him about working in the shop, knowing that this would be disapproved of by him. She has learnt that her abusers disapproval is to be avoided at all costs.
There is another fictional couple in the news right now who I think it may be worth mentioning. There is much discussion around Fifty Shades of Grey, is it abuse or is it just a fantasy? I have not seen the film, but as this excellent post by a survivor of coercive control explains, it depicts a relationship she is all too familiar with. As a therapist my first rule is listen to the lived experience of those I encounter. For many who talk about having met Mr Grey that experience is one of abuse, fear and removal of agency and autonomy.
It can be incredibly scary to try to break away from an abuser. It can also be physically dangerous. If you decide to seek counselling it may help to know that during the first session issues such as contact between you outside of the therapy session will be discussed. If you feel it is safest then there will be no contact, if you pass your therapist on the street they will ignore you. There will be no reminder texts or calls if that is what you feel you need to keep you safe. As therapists we are bound by a duty of confidentiality. Without a court order we cannot disclose the fact you are attending therapy, not even to your partner.
If you are concerned that you may be a victim of domestic violence Refuge or Broken Rainbow may be able to help. Broken Rainbow is an LGBT domestic violence support org. It is important to remember that men can be abused too, and help is available,