Coercive control: a silent epidemic
The law is meant to protect us. But for most of history, there has been a gap in the law that has left people vulnerable to patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour in an ongoing relationship. The Home Office identifies coercive control as “a purposeful pattern of behaviour which takes place over time in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another”. It causes significant psychological and emotional damage to victims, but only became a specific criminal offence at the end of 2015. This was too late for me.
Over a decade ago, I found myself in an abusive relationship. At the time, I thought domestic abuse meant black eyes, bruises and broken bones. The threats, humiliation and intimidation that I experienced looked completely different, and I didn’t begin to have the words or understanding to see what was happening to me. Coercive control feels like being taken hostage; it was disorientating, often terrifying and completely overwhelming.
He was initially charming, funny and successful and to everyone else he remained this way. However I quickly found myself being subjected to a pattern of manipulation and control. Looking back it is hard to pinpoint when or how it started, it was so insidious and subtle. Many of the ways he exercised control revolved around basic things we take for granted in our lives as adults. There became rules around the clothes I could wear, the words I could use, even the people I could make eye contact with. It was like living in a fog, while getting constant whiplash; I didn’t understand the rules and the rules were constantly changing. He would threaten to kill himself if I didn’t meet his demands and I learnt to be hypervigilant to his every mood and facial expression, never knowing what would trigger his anger next.
I was constantly walking on eggshells, while contorting myself to fit his demands. It was an emotional chess game with unknown rules that I was never going to win. He would deny he was being unreasonable or threatening, distorting my reality to the point where I questioned my own memory and sanity. The nature of coercive control enforces self-doubt and reinforced the idea that this was my fault and I was to blame.
After several false starts, I was eventually able to get out of the relationship with the help of my parents. I thought escaping would mean the worst was behind me, but the aftermath has been far harder than I ever could have imagined. The manipulation, the control and constant threats had chipped away at my self-confidence and left me a shell of who I used to be. To the outside world, I may have seemed successful, holding down a series of good jobs, maintaining relationships and a busy social life. But inside, I was falling apart. I lived my life at a million miles an hour, trying to outrun what had happened. The trick was to never allow myself a second to breathe, so I didn’t have to confront anything. I couldn’t say to anyone that I frequently had nightmares, had huge trust issues, was always hyper-vigilant and suffered from explosive anger and crippling anxiety. Without me realising it, he had completely crushed my sense of self and left me thinking that there was something unspeakably wrong with me.
When the pandemic hit, I lost all my coping strategies and realised that I needed help. I found a psychotherapist who has been transformational in helping me to understand and process much of what happened. Labelling it as coercive control has been incredibly powerful. Giving it a name has allowed me to make sense of it and begin to untangle myself from it. She has also helped me to understand that my reactions have been entirely normal and understandable responses to trauma. I thought trauma was something that affected those who had experienced war, serious accidents or violent robbery. But really trauma is anything that is too much, too fast or too soon for our nervous system to handle, so our ability to cope is overwhelmed. Trauma fundamentally alters our brain and hijacks the nervous system. It left me feeling trapped in an overwhelmed state, affecting my memory, ability to stay in emotional control and my perception of danger. While my mind has forgotten or blocked out many things, my body has viscerally remembered everything. I have experimented with a range of different therapies that focus on calming the nervous system and have found huge benefits from breathwork, yoga and TRE (tension, stress and trauma release exercises).
Domestic abuse is still devastatingly common and can happen to anyone, regardless of background or stage of life. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the means to access therapy and a support network that has helped me through the past few years, but I know for many victims this will not be the case. I wanted to write this piece to share a small insight into what I went through, as there are still many misconceptions and so much shame surrounding abuse and mental health. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, the justice system has only just caught up with the fact that coercive control needs its own specific criminal offence. Other systems and structures meant to support victims are often lacking, from a lack of space in refuges, to a lack of funding for domestic abuse support services, to a lack of knowledge of the signs of an abusive relationship.
Coercive control thrives in silence and shame. Opening up about what I went through and the resulting impacts on my mental health has felt like opening a window and letting the sun in. It has reduced the shame and guilt that I feel, and really shown me the value of speaking up. It always surprises me how many people have felt similar things, often through completely different experiences and circumstances, but it can be very comforting to know it is not just me. There is still a long way to go to solve the huge issue that is domestic abuse, but I hope this piece might raise a small bit of awareness and understanding of an often ignored and misunderstood issue.