Coercive, manipulative and controlling behaviour can be insidious in a relationship and often goes unreported. Here is an article that I first wrote for Psychologies Magazine LifeLabs
Domestic abuse is an all too common story in the news: a woman is killed by a man she knew. This type of case can be the ultimate culmination of domestic abuse. Despite these horrific headlines, this type of abuse largely remains hidden. Yet the statistics show that 13 per cent of women in the UK have experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives.
Men can be victims too
Men can also be the victims of abuse, but women are statistically far more likely to suffer. Such abuse is often thought of as being physical or sexual, but emotional or psychological abuse is far more insidious and widespread. At the end of 2015 a new law on coercive control was introduced to help victims and instigate cultural change around this lesser-known side of domestic abuse.
How to identify coercive control
People in unhappy relationships need to be aware of this type of behaviour and question whether they are experiencing emotional abuse.
Here are some things to consider about controlling or coercive behaviour:
- The perpetrator sees their partner as an object to control
Whether the person is aware of their behaviour or not, emotional abuse is all about control. The perpetrator feels that they have a sense of entitlement over their partner. This control may extend to the use of the victim’s mobile phone, including putting tracking apps on or having access to passwords and looking at their partner’s phone regularly. It can also extend wanting to know about all their partner’s movements or whereabouts, or perhaps paying too much interest in the other’s choice of clothing and what they wear. Some abusers even focus on body shape – insisting that their partner is too fat or too thin. It can even include control over sleep by deliberately depriving the victim of sleep. Slowly, over a long period of time, this type of behaviour reduces the victims control over aspects of their life, ultimately it can lead to them being isolated from family and friends. It can be incredibly insidious, and often not obvious to those outside the relationship. But when looked back over time there is clearly a purposeful pattern of control that, concsciously or unconsciously, the perpetrator is choosing to do.
- It’s a form of brainwashing
It might sound extreme to say this, but think about it. Brainwashing is the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques and behaviours. In this type of abusive relationship, the controlling person can fluctuate from being delightful and charming one minute then nasty or abusive the next. This ensures that the victim is not only left confused and doubting, because the behaviour is confusing and unpredictable, but also on guard and constantly watchful. By keeping the victim watching and hyper-alert all the time, the abuser has control. The abuser may use the children as ‘weapons’ in their tactics of abuse, perhaps manipulating the kids to side with him or using threats to his partner if she retaliates. Gaslighting is another common tactic, this is when someone exhibits abusive behaviour and then pretends it didn’t happen – or convincingly switches blame on to the victim. This can cause the woman to doubt herself, particularly when she is repeatedly told that she is the one ‘going mad’ or being abusive.
- The person who suffers abuse doesn’t love themselves enough and doesn’t tell
People can spend many years in the abusive relationship and not tell anyone. They may be protecting that person, or may be deluded in thinking that ‘if I just love him enough he will change’. But also there is deep personal shame experienced by what is happening to them; such depths of shame will keep the person quiet or even in denial. They may, of course, also feel they won’t be believed and this is often because the abuser puts on a very different face to the rest of the world.
- The perpetrator is often seen by others as charming and widely loved
Abusers are often charming and charismatic people. Their partner may have been seduced by this charm in the relationship. But this makes it even harder for the victim to get support. Perpetrators of controlling behaviour are often loved by others and are good at seducing with their charm. They can be pillar of the community, and may have a degree of power and influence. This makes it even harder for the victim to seek help because she may fear she won’t be believed.
- It happens to strong women
Emotional abuse often happens to seemingly strong women, which adds to the shame experienced and makes it even harder for the victim to accept. In addition, if the woman (or man) is a typically strong person, they may be more likely to dismiss the controlling behaviour, particularly in the early stages.
- Any attempt to fight back can escalate the behaviour
Care must be taken to make changes in such a relationship, because the nature of abusive partners (who are often highly narcissistic) is that any attempts to stand up to them or to put them in a bad light, will escalate their behaviour. If you try to instigate divorce or separate it will not be accepted, and the abuser will increase his difficult behaviour. And don’t just leave. Once narcissistic rage is triggered, any type of dangerous or violent behaviour may be possible. Get specialist help from the likes of Refuge or Women’s Aid, and of course the police. All this can be treated confidentially. It will be important to have a plan that maximises safety.
Whilst it is obvious that the (mainly) men who show tendencies to controlling behaviour need specialist help to understand their underlying belief structures and behaviour behind their actions. The victims will also need help. Simply leaving the perpetrator will often risk an escalation in their behaviour, sometimes to dangerous levels, so specialist help should be sought.
Embodied Counselling offers a helpful psychotherapy and counselling service for victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse.
Places to go for help:
Respect (male victims of domestic abuse)