What coercive control looks like

Many people wonder why women stay with obsessive controlling men or how they get involved with them in the first place. The descent into an abusive relationship is often slow and subtle. What may seem like a normal romance to start with, gradually turns into a controlling and intimidating relationship and escalates into a pathological end-stage.

“Domestic violence is a build-up, it wears women down over years and years.” An Le, Bonnie’s program manager

In the case of Hannah Clark and many other women, coercive control creeps up without them realising that they’re in a domestic violence relationship. Janey Davies, a psychologist who was also in a coercive controlling relationship says, “Controlling someone isn’t always about using violence. My ex would constantly used mind games. He’d change the boundaries. Coercive control is first and foremost about a person’s liberty and freedom. It is about having to obey a set of rules created by the perpetrator that keep the victim hostage”.

There are six main phases in a coercive controlling relationship:

1. The charm phase

The romance is new and the signs you are with a controller are there, but the obsessive narcissist can be charming. And his intense obsession is with you, so it seems as if the man is just very much in love. His need to know where you are at every moment of the day is flattering but beware.

2. The control begins

You get a joint account and he will start checking every statement to see where you have been going, Your card for that account is his tracking device. If he sends you more than a dozen texts each day, it’s unhealthy. If this manifests itself in his asking where you are and who you are with, that is not respecting your personal freedom.

3. The isolation phase

This can begin innocently enough. He might ask you not to go out with your friends but stay home with him because he’s feeling sick. If you are out with friends he might demand you be home at a particular time. He will start on the destruction of your social network, including seeing your family, sabotaging plans with “sickness” or by getting angry and starting a fight. If friends come over, he may be moody or unfriendly, and when you are alone he will start chipping away at the characters of your closest mates. After the tenth or twentieth time a friend asks you out and you say no, people don’t keep up the friendship.

4. Denigration

“Belittling … is a very calculated technique,” says An. “These men plant the seed of doubt and they wear down her self esteem.” When it escalates to a fight, a ‘honeymoon period’ will follow with flowers and an apology, “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I will change, give me another chance.“ Then the violence escalates again. Just as Rowan Baxter told Hannah Clarke, “It’s your fault” all controllers blame the victim. ‘You are responsible’ for whatever he is upset about and he may give her the silent treatment or fly into a rage. Indeed his anger, his excuse for starting a screaming fight is her fault because she went out with her friends, she looked at another man. He might tell her she dresses like “a slut” or that she is cheating on him, but the essential message is that she is ‘worthless’.

5. Submission

By whatever method, the man is now in full control. During this time he might be making her have sex every day. Some women just submit, others fight. But he’s ‘the boss’ and it’s her job to keep him happy and attended to. He will be checking on her constantly and won’t brook any objection or he will lose his temper. She tiptoes around him. Apart from social media and her bank card, he may check through the messages and emails on her phone. He may demand the home is obsessively neat and it’s her job to keep it so.

6. Danger and punishment

Women who manage to escape an abusive relationship are the ones we mostly don’t hear about and they suffer the lingering trauma out of plain sight. It’s only the utterly tragic ones that make the news.

We have a ‘Staying Safe’ page on our website explaining “the safest time to leave” an abusive or controlling partner. It has a checklist of items for a woman to take when she leaves, but we also say,
“If the time is right to leave, just go – even if you have not had time to prepare”. We also have a list of guidelines to use when a woman is planning to leave, to help keep her safe.

Written and collated by Celine from an interview with An Le.

Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

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