There is a dangerous, sometimes hidden, element of domestic abuse which affects men and women of all ages, yet is still often misunderstood.
Coercive control in relationships is at the ‘heart of domestic abuse’ – and only 18 months in from a new law coming into effect, there’s still a long way to go.
This pattern of behaviour has only been acknowledged as a criminal offence in this country since the Serious Crime Act 2015 came into force, so it’s little wonder people aren’t recognising it.
It is a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control with the use or threat of physical or sexual violence to harm, punish, or frighten.
In a survey of over 450 domestic abuse practitioners, 54 per cent believed there needs to be improved understanding of the traits and techniques of coercive and controlling behaviour among front-line police officers.
According to the latest ONS crime stats, there has been a 10 per cent year-on-year increase in police flagging offences as being domestic abuse-related. However, less than one per cent of domestic abuse-related offences were recorded as a coercive control offence.
Typical signs of this pattern of abuse include control over who that person can and can’t talk to, be friends with, constant accusations of lying and infidelity, phone-checking, controlling money and frighting the victim into being and acting a certain way.
Most victims become withdrawn and nervous and find it hard to speak out. Often abusers start out to be charming individuals, creating the illusion of being perfect, but slowly begin to control their victim, often without that person realising it at first.
Lucy, now 27, and in a loving relationship spoke to UNILAD under anonymity about her ex-boyfriend.
She told UNILAD her story:
When I was 18, I was slim, I was attractive and had a certain amount of body confidence that only comes with being young and naive. I had opinions and ideas and enthusiasm for life. I wanted to change the world, although I hadn’t worked out how yet, and I wanted to travel.
I wanted to have babies and get married. I had friends, I had a social life, I had hobbies that I loved. I believed in love and soulmates and romance and passion.
I moved 300 miles away to university. I was incredibly nervous on my first night out there because, like everyone else, I didn’t know anyone.
Lucy went out on her first night, got drunk and couldn’t remember how to get back, so one of the guys who was out with her offered to take her home.
By morning, I was convinced I had met my soulmate. Over the next few weeks I did revise my initial thoughts as he was quite clingy.
But he took my breath away. He had a way with words, he swept me off my feet. He made me believe that I was the only girl in his whole world, that I was special.
We spent every evening together. I had made friends with some girls in my halls but he didn’t like them. He said they were childish where I was mature and that they ‘brought me down to their level’.
He couldn’t understand why I wanted to spend my evenings with them when I had seen them all day and could only see him after work or at weekends. I stopped using the canteen because he said he didn’t like eating without me and that I should wait for him and he would bring stuff for us to eat in my room.
When I went home for the weekend every now and then, he got really upset when I didn’t text or call as often as he would like and he would say things like he felt I didn’t love him, that being away from me made him feel awful. Eventually I stopped going home, because I did love him, so much, and I didn’t want to hurt him.
— Women's Aid (@womensaid) August 8, 2017
After Christmas students were supposed to start looking for somewhere to live for the next university year. I was still friendly enough to do this with the girls but, as time went on and I would talk excitedly about moving in with them, the more my ex turned up his disapproval of them and his love for me.
He asked me to move in with him instead, because otherwise we would never see each other and what was the point in being together if that was the case?
We found a flat, moved in and I had to get a job to give him money to pay for rent and bills instead of going travelling and spending time with friends.
— Women's Aid (@womensaid) August 24, 2017
Once we moved in together the belittling started. I wasn’t really the right shape to wear that skirt, was I?
Did I really think I should be eating that? He loved me whatever I looked like, but did that make-up really suit me?
I couldn’t do anything right – the house was never clean enough, I was either too dressed up or hadn’t made any effort.
He constantly changed the goal posts and I always felt on the back foot. I tried to cook for him but it was never right.
I learnt to turn the notifications off on my phone because it annoyed him to see me getting messages.
Eventually, I gained a little of my confidence back as it turned out I was good at it. Around the time I started mentioning girls’ names regularly, he started turning the alarm off on my phone so I would miss my morning lectures.
If I mentioned it, he would say it was because I looked so tired, I deserved a break I would be working so hard.
I had learnt very quickly to toe the line. I never did anything wrong, or tried not too anyway. I was so desperate to please him because when he was nice, he was amazing.
He was like the man I met who adored me and wanted me to know it, but I could never tell what mood he was going to be in from one day to the next.
Living in limbo like that is very draining. I was a ball of nerves most of the time. I didn’t know how to please him, I only knew that it had to be my fault that this man that loved me so much was angry with me so often.
I am healing, I have a son and a partner and I’m learning that it’s okay to stand up for myself. I’m remembering I had hobbies and I wanted to change the world, but most of all I am learning that it is my absolute right to expect to be happy.
Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:
Controlling behaviour – checking their phone, dictating what they wear or who they can see – is often dismissed as ‘laddish behaviour’ or showing that they really care. But these subtle behaviours are not romantic; they slowly erode a woman’s confidence and are often part of a pattern of possessive, controlling and ultimately abusive behaviours.
The law has made coercive and controlling behaviour illegal, yet still too few people are aware of it or recognise it. This lack of understanding is one reason young women, and even their family and friends around them, don’t always recognise abuse for what it is straight away, or until it has escalated.
This simply has to change. Coercive control is the heart of domestic abuse, and that’s why at Women’s Aid we work hard to raise awareness of coercive control and offer expert support to those who are experiencing it and their friends and family. If you are worried that your relationship, or that of a friend or family member, is controlling or unsafe, visit the Women’s Aid website to get help and advice.