How to identify coercive control and psychological abuse in a relationship
Domestic abuse, or ‘intimate terrorism’ as it is sometimes referred to, is at crisis point in Australia. Psychologist Elisabeth Shaw shares how to identify this insidious behaviour.
The belief that violence in relationships is always physical can stop us from coming to grips with insidious forms of psychological abuse, which could be the precursor to violent assault.
Coercive control is a form of psychological abuse. It can look different in each situation, but fundamentally it describes all the ways in which one person intimidates, threatens or pressures another to ensure that they will comply with directives, and often this can mean acting against their own preferences.
We are not talking about more ordinary examples such as insisting on Chinese takeaway instead of pizza, although it is the case that at a low level any pressure that results in a favorable outcome for one person over another could have involved coercion.
Coercive control is about imposing psychological force, which could include significant duress, the threat of violence or punishment if one doesn’t go along with the other. It is not a one-off, it is about a regime of behavior, a way of living according to one person’s mandate; that is where the term “control” comes in.
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter for more stories like this.
The intimidation and fear of retribution mean that one person becomes less of themselves, instead of behaving in ways that keep the tension in the house down and keep the physical violence at bay. It may be that actual incidences of physical violence are few and far between because the victim has changed behavior to suit the person using control tactics.
Take the following as examples
Note: as women make up the majority of victims of domestic violence, for the purposes of this article I shall focus on their experience:
Patrick has set up a complex tracking system to know where his partner Toni is at all times. Every so often, he appears at random events just to prove to her that she is truly under surveillance.
Hannah turned down sex in the couple’s first year of being together. She was raped by her boyfriend Dave. She never refused sex again. Ten years in, Dave describes their sex life as “great”.
Sally was not able to spend any money without permission. She was given one account to use which her partner Ted put money into and monitored. As he put money in, he would write lines in the transfer details like “I’m watching bitch”.
While these examples describe a singular example of behaviour, coercive control involves a broad regime of behaviour. The dynamic becomes pervasive.
This does not mean that other aspects of the relationship are not operating in more equal or even satisfying ways. For example, the woman could have the bigger career, or the man might be a very involved dad.
Sometimes these make it hard to really identify, let alone complain about what else is going on. Women could say “my relationship is not abusive as I have my own money or friends or independence”.
Others might be held almost hostage and are isolated, controlled, belittled and minimised in the relationship. Given what could look like a mixed experience, it may be harder to get friends and family to believe you when you try and speak up. Here are some ways to get a handle on your experience.
Review and reflect
Looking back, do you recall having more confidence, self-esteem and independence before this relationship? Compared to how your friends have grown and changed over the years, do you see any differences in what you feel able or allowed to do?
In your relationship, whose voice rules, and over what issues? Do you feel able to speak up or does that fill you with anxiety and fear? If you say something contradictory or controversial, what happens?
How much of the time are you going along with things that don’t suit you because you fear the ramifications if you don’t? What is your internal dialogue – are you arguing or sad on the inside a lot of the time?
Living with contradictions
Do you find yourself talking up the relationship to others when you know, when behind the scenes you are actually worried, anxious or fearful? Are you trying to convince yourself or others that everything is ok when you know that it is not?
You may not register actual fear anymore, if the threats have now gone underground. However, when you ask yourself “what would happen if I rocked the boat?”, that might be a better measure of the relationship dynamic.
Trust your judgment
If you and your partner outwardly look solid to others, that doesn’t mean you should ignore your own disquiet. Talk to others about what is going on. Don’t let yourself be talked out of concerns. This behaviour is not just ordinary relationship conflict, which every couple experiences. It may not fit the abuse stereotype you or your friends have in their heads. That doesn’t make it any less real.
If you are not sure about where you stand, or how to make sense of your experience, then consulting with a professional can be very useful. If the relationship is important and your partner wants the best for you both, then attending together is useful and he will agree to it (if not, and you are told not to speak to others, that is a bad sign in itself!).
If you picture any difficulty in speaking up in a couple’s sessions (as could be common in situations of coercive control) then seeing a counsellor well trained in issues of violence and abuse on your own would be far better.
Elisabeth Shaw is a registered psychologist and the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, a non-profit organisation that offers professional counselling for women, men and children specifically for domestic violence, and for elderly people at risk of abuse.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT for 24/7 support. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.