Understanding Controlling and Coercive Behaviour (by a survivor)

Everything you want to ask

What is Coercive Control?

Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate of Family Relationship became a crime in the UK in 2015. In short, Controlling Behaviour is a pattern of acts where an abuser makes their victim subordinate to and dependant upon them – very much a master/slave dichotomy – while Coercive Behaviour is the use of threats, violence and intimidation to harm, punish or frighten their victim.

I suffered both.

While the legal distinction of the two is useful in a courtroom, in the real world the line between Control and Coercive Control isn’t so clear. From my experience, coercion is just part and parcel of a range physically, mentally, emotionally, financially and sexually abusive behaviours designed to dominate and control you. It’s all controlling. It’s all demeaning, humiliating, manipulative and wrong. It’s the same crime.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if your abuse isn’t physical, it isn’t as bad. For me, violence was just an extra tool. The threat of violence, the behavioural explosions, the taking away of my dignity, were just as harmful, just as destructive and just as difficult to recover from.

From a legal point of view, it’s important to note that for coercive control, your abuser doesn’t ever need to lay a finger on you. If they have made you fear that violence will be used against you on just two occasions, it’s coercive control. Otherwise, you have to prove that the behaviour had a significant effect upon you e.g. physical or mental health deterioration or changes in your day-to-day activities.

For both, the behaviour has to be engaged in ‘repeatedly’ or ‘continuously’. For survivors of abuse, I’m sure we can all think of dozens if not hundreds of incidents that fulfil these criteria. I filled 200 pages with emails documenting the things my abuser did to me.

How is it prosecuted?

Lol. Badly. In my case, because the violence and threats of violence had occurred behind closed doors (though for some incidents I had witnesses), the police couldn’t use that to prove I had been made to fear physical violence on two occasions. Furthermore, while my medical records said that I was being abused and that my mental health was declining, they did not say that my mental health was declining as a direct result of that abuse, thus there was no evidence that the abuse I suffered had a significant effect on me. Therefore, the police were unwilling to investigate further as it wouldn’t stand up in court.

Yes, they could prove that I was abused and that my partner was an abuser; they simply couldn’t prove that the abuse caused me significant distress. Essentially, I couldn’t prove that I had suffered enough for my abuser to be prosecuted. My breakdown, tranquilisers, antidepressants, depression, anxiety and PTSD could have been caused by other things, not just the abuse. Therefore, my abuser got away scot-free.

I imagine the fact that I’m a man and my abuser was a woman meant the odds were stacked against me from the start, but I don’t think women have it easy either. The police seem to have few specialists in this type of crime and successful prosecutions are few and far between. In my experience, and those of others I’ve spoken to, the police like things that are neat and easy.

Controlling and Coercive Behaviour isn’t neat and easy. By it’s very nature, it mostly occurs out of sight in your home. Physical abuse is still prioritised over mental and emotional abuse, and easier to prosecute if there is evidence of bruises. I think all cases should be rigorously investigated and vigorously prosecuted. Unfortunately, that’s not where we are right now.

How does it work?

It’s actually very simple. Your abuser cuts you off from outside influence, often gradually, often without you noticing. They impose their wants and needs over your own. You become distant from family and friends. You start to give up your hobbies and interests. Your dreams die. You become isolated. You lose your freedom and the ability to escape. You become a prisoner in a relationship that was supposed to be built on love and trust, and is now characterised by exploitation and fear.

Abusers remove you from outside influence – anything from which you could derive pleasure or comfort or even an alternative viewpoint. Friends, family, hobbies and dreams connect you to a wider world outside the confines of your home – a world of ideas, of emotion, of gratification, enjoyment and pride. To people who might tell you that things aren’t right in your relationship. Those things are a threat to your abuser’s control of you, so they need to be taken away.

The aim of this behaviour to make you dependent on your abuser. They are your only friend, your only family, your only interest. They are your sole source of self-esteem and your only frame of reference for the world. They dominate your headspace so you can’t see what’s really happening. You don’t have time to yourself simply to think. Everything has become about them. Keeping them happy and fulfilling their needs is now your only goal in life.

You rely on them for your emotional and psychological wellbeing. The person that hurts you is the only one who can make you feel better. You crave their approval – some validation that you’re a good boy, that you’ve done right, that you’ve made them happy. When they show you kindness, it’s like nectar. You try to pretend the bad times never happen. You feel safe. So when they hurt you again, you do whatever it takes to make them happy again. You can be safe if only you try harder.

That’s how Controlling and Coercive Behaviour works.

What techniques do they use?

Any and all. It’s a multi-pronged attack on everything that makes you you. From talking to dozens of survivors of this type of abuse, the common factor is a complete disregard for their victim’s boundaries – physical, mental, emotional, social, familial. There isn’t a line in the sand that they will not cross. We’re told to stand up to bullies, but the word ‘no’ is like a red rag to a bull to these people.

Simple obstruction is the easiest way of controlling someone. Right from the start of the relationship, my ex would get in my bed and refuse to get out. Take my car keys and not give them back. Stand in the doorway and block me from leaving. When an adult behaves like that, there’s very little you can do. If you touch them, it’s assault. Abusers know that. It’s easier to just give in and do what they want.

Dominating your time and headspace is another key tactic. Constant phone calls and text messages. Wanting to see you every free minute you have in the day; unable to give you time to yourself. Reading your texts and emails. Stalking your social media. Everything becomes about them.

Belittling and putting down your interests, achievements, ambitions and dreams is pretty much Controlling Behaviour 101. “They’re all stupid. They’re silly, like you. You’re not exactly a success. You’re a fat loser, a disgrace to be seen with. Nobody likes you. You’re lucky I put up with you, because nobody else would have you. You’re so ugly. You’re so mean. You’re such a horrible person. You’re scum.” This lowers your self-esteem further, keeping you broken down and therefore compliant.

Emotional blackmail and guilt-tripping are very common. “You don’t love me, you’re being mean, you’re so selfish, how could you do this to me? You’re meant to be my boyfriend. You’re going to leave me, aren’t you? Everyone leaves me. You said you’d be there for me no matter what. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.” More than anything else, abusers seem to want you to pity them. If you’re a good, empathetic person, you want to be kind to people, especially when you feel sorry for them. Abusers use this to their advantage.

They make things very awkward when you see your parents or friends, insisting on coming along or otherwise sabotaging your arrangements – needing you to support them with urgent emotional crises, for example – until it becomes easier to cancel plans and not make any more. The same applies to hobbies, education, jobs. Anything that doesn’t revolve around them and their needs becomes too much effort to maintain.

Direct threats are commonplace. “Give me money, or I’ll tell the children you don’t love them. Do this, or I’ll tell our friends you hit me. If you ask me again, I’ll hit you. If you accept that invitation, I’ll abort your baby.” I stayed far longer than I should because my ex used to tell me that if ever I left, she would get custody of the children because “the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you.” I stayed because I was terrified I would lose my children. And I was right to be.

Bribery is another common technique, often tinged with threat. “If you do x, y or z, I will give you sex/allow you time to yourself/let you see your friend,” the implication being that if you don’t do as you’re told, sex will be withheld until you do, she won’t give you time to yourself, and you won’t be able to see your friend. Of course, the promised bribe often never appears after you’ve given them what they wanted. But there is another aspect to bribery. Gifts come with strings attached. When they buy you something, when they do something for you, you owe them now. You’re beholden to them. You have to do what they say.

One of the worst and most effective techniques is anger, pure and simple. Abusers often say they have an ‘anger problem’, but this isn’t true. Anger is just another technique they use to control you. They only get angry when you’re not obeying them. I lived in fear of my ex’s ‘behavioural explosions’. When she kicked off, she would shout and scream and pull at her hair and bite herself. Behind closed doors, it was terrifying. In public it was embarrassing and humiliating. Just the threat of a tantrum kept me in line. It was easier – safer – to let her get her own way. Fear keeps you in line. Even when things are good, they’re good because you’re doing everything you can not to trigger an aggressive response.

Violence – threatened or otherwise – is another aspect of control and domination. Hitting someone dehumanises them. It makes them an animal. You sink lower, losing the will to resist, the confidence and self-esteem to get away. You start to blame yourself. You come to feel like you deserve to be treated this way. And you believe her when she tells you she was provoked. “If you hadn’t wound me up, I wouldn’t have hit you. If you hadn’t walked away from the argument, I wouldn’t have had to follow you. If you’d been a better boyfriend, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Gaslighting – denying reality and making you think that you’re going crazy – is one of the most insidious techniques in a Controlling and Coercive relationship. Abusers often deny that things had happened – “I never hit you, it didn’t happen, you’re just making it up” – or alter recollections of events to suggest that your perceptions are faulty. They have a mastery of manipulating things to position you as the aggressor and themselves as the victim. “I lied to you to protect you, because I knew you’d get upset if I told you the truth, so really, you’re the one with the problem.” Or, “I had to hit you to stop you, because you were going crazy. Don’t you remember?” While the constant belittling and undermining damages your emotions, your identity and your perception of yourself, gaslighting destabilises your mind and makes your doubt yourself. It’s one of the worst things a person can do to another.

With these techniques, there’s no limit to the control a person can have over you. They can control when you eat and when you sleep, what you wear, how you style your hair, where you can go, with whom and for how long, what you can do, where you can work, children, pets, money. They control everything.

How does it feel to be in a Controlling and Coercive Relationship?

Pretty shit, obviously. But a lot of the time, you don’t even realise it. You know something’s wrong – you can feel it – but because your abuser dominates your mind and your emotions, you can’t quite get a handle on what’s going on. You spend your life fighting fires, going from one crisis to another, unable to stop, take a breath and see the bigger picture – the whole freaking world is on fire, and nothing that you do will make it any better.

From speaking to other survivors of Controlling and Coercive Behaviour, one thing is clear: while we started our relationships on an equal footing with our partners, we ended them broken down shells of ourselves at our lowest possible ebb. We were traumatised, depressed, isolated and alone. We’d lost our hobbies, our jobs, our interests, our personalities. The things that used to make us feel like us had been stripped away. We’d been hollowed out, turned into lifeless creatures that looked like us on the outside but had none of the substance inside.

Our abusers, however, hadn’t changed at all. They were the same person at the end of the relationship as they were at the start. They hadn’t grown, they hadn’t developed, they hadn’t suffered: their behaviour was unchanged. Their attitudes, values, belief systems, were unaltered. We were the ones whose behaviour had changed. We were the ones who thought differently about ourselves.

Before I left, while still under her spell, I thought I was the worst person on the planet. I thought I was an angry, hate-filled, violent, ugly, despicable monster. It wasn’t until after I left that I realised how effective her control had been: the person who hit me, threw drinks over me, cut off my beard with kitchen scissors; who shouted and swore and threatened and blamed; who blackmailed and manipulated and stole and lied; somehow convinced me that I was the bad one.

Why did you stay?

The easiest answer would be to say ‘fear’. It makes it nice and neat. She was a bad person, and I was afraid of her. She was the criminal and I was her victim. But that’s not the whole story.

I loved her. If it was bad all the time, that would have been easier, but it wasn’t. She gave me just enough honey to keep me hooked. Whether that was a deliberate tactic or not, it worked. It kept me craving the sweetness. And like a lot of survivors of this kind of abuse, I struggled – and still struggle – to blame her. I divide her into Jekyll and Hyde, with Jekyll all the things I loved, and Hyde the uncontrollable monster that lived with us. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome: to make sense of it, I piled all the abuse and all the responsibility onto Hyde, so that I could love Jekyll. I pretended that Jekyll was as much a victim of Hyde as I was. I invented a fictitious person that I could love, and spent years trying to make that person a reality.

And that’s the other reason I stayed: I wanted to help her. I cared about her. I wanted what was best for her. Everyone else abandoned her, and I didn’t want to be that person. The good times were good enough that I couldn’t give them up. I couldn’t stop hoping that one day, things would improve and we’d have the relationship I’d always dreamed of. So I always gave her one more chance. I always let her cross one last boundary, always thinking that this time – this time – things would be different.

I could have left many times – certainly before the children were born would have been easier as she couldn’t hold them over me – but I was mentally and emotionally bound to her. I saw her as a drowning victim that I had jumped in to save, and even though she was pushing me under, I thought that if I let go, she would sink. I therefore sacrificed myself to keep her afloat. Ultimately, that was my decision, and while she was to blame for everything she did, I have to address the thing in me that made me susceptible to this kind of abuse.

Why do they do it?

Is it deliberate or learned behaviour? Do they know what they’re doing is wrong? Are they conscious of their behaviour or is it instinctive? And what made them that way?

Ask a hundred different survivors, they’ll give you a hundred different answers. For me, I think abusers are horribly insecure and filled with self-hatred. They’re so uncomfortable in their own skin that controlling another person, trapping them and degrading them, makes them feel better about themselves. In particular, if they can take a person that has all the characteristics they don’t – kindness, empathy, tolerance, compassion – and beat the goodness out of them, it makes them think they’re not the outlier, they’re not the one who is fundamentally wrong inside.

I don’t think they feel guilty about what they do. I don’t think they feel regret. They’re good at faking these emotions. They’re good at hiding what they really are. But deep down, they’re predators. A lion doesn’t care about the antelope he slaughters.

Nor do I think they can be redeemed. From everything in my experience, it seems that these people can’t change. I hate saying that, because I hate the idea of giving up on someone – anyone. But it’s true.

You can’t fix someone who doesn’t even know they’re broken.

Is the behaviour conscious and deliberate or instinctive and learned? Are they responsible for it or are they so damaged they can’t help it? It doesn’t matter. The fact that they do it is enough.

What happens after a Controlling and Coercive relationship?

You rebuild. Dream new dreams. Reach out to old friends, if they’ll have you. Try to find something that gives you comfort. And swear you’re never going back.

It’s not as easy as all that. Your abuser gave your life meaning for so long that finding another purpose in life is tough. All your dreams revolved around them. Your only comfort comes from them. The only one who can make you feel better is the one you had to leave because they were destroying you. And now everything feels empty, and you’re alone.

You do the things you used to do, the things that used to make you feel good, and they feel different now, as you’re different now. You can’t return to the person you were.

That’s where I find myself now. Struggling to find new meaning, the new me, as I move forward to what I hope is a happier and healthier future.

Are you ever tempted to go back?

All the time. I think all survivors are. All you want to do is escape the cage, but you come out and find you’re in a desert. It’s dry, it’s hot and dusty, and there’s nothing you can see from here to the horizon.

Except behind you. Behind you is the cage you just escaped from. And it’s familiar. It’s enticing. It holds meaning and purpose and it promises comfort, albeit tempered with pain. Things might be different if you go back. You’ve shown your abuser that you’re not going to put up with their behaviour. They’ll be different this time. Things will have changed.

But I know I can never go back. Lions don’t care about the antelopes they slaughter. They are just food to them.

What can I do to help someone in a Controlling and Coercive relationship?

Probably not a lot. People told me I was being abused – I didn’t believe them. When you’re in an abusive relationship, you’re bound to your abuser by love, fear, guilt, dependence, often housing, money, children. They’re your everything. You have to break something in yourself in order to leave.

If you pull the person out of that relationship, they’ll go back. They have to hit rock bottom to see for themselves what everyone else can see. They have to choose to leave. As hard as it is to accept, you can’t fix someone who doesn’t want to be fixed – even when they’re the victim of abuse.

Maybe tell them you’ll always be there for them. Tell them they can come to you to talk anytime. Tell them about support groups, helplines. Advise them to see their doctor. Show them this blog. You can show them a way out, but ultimately, they are the ones who have to walk through it.

I always told people that I had to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I’d tried everything, because if I left, I was the one who had to live with my decision.

Now I live with it. I own it. And I know it was the right thing to do.

I hope this has helped you better understand Controlling and Coercive Behaviour.

Further questions

If anyone has any further questions they’d like answered, respond in the comments and I’ll add them to another post.

Published by riccain

Writer, abuse survivor.

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