There is a growing awareness around the signs of coercive control – the emotional and psychological abuse of a partner, through threats and restrictions, as well as physical violence. This raised profile is thanks, in part, to last year’s storyline in The Archers – involving Helen Titchener and her emotionally abusive husband Rob.
The BBC Radio 4 soap was following a new law on coercive control, which was introduced at the end of 2015, after a Home Office consultation – and can carry a jail term of up to five years. The law – which has been praised by women’s charities – can help victims achieve justice and will hopefully instigate cultural change around this lesser-known side of domestic abuse. Although it was only used five times between December 2015 and March 2016, there are now signs that emotionally abusive behaviour is being recognised and taken seriously.
Now, the issue has raised its head on the BBC again, as the second series of Doctor Foster draws to a close – with counsellors reporting a rise in inquiries around abusive patterns of behaviour, in the wake of the programme.
It raises a number of questions for people in unhappy relationships, who might start to wonder whether their partner’s behaviour falls under emotional abuse. That’s why we asked Polly Neate, former chief executive of national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, to explain what constitutes coercive control – and where the line falls in any relationship.
1) It’s more than just one argument
Emotional abuse happens over a sustained period of time, where the perpetrator repeatedly controls their victim.
“From our point of view, when we are talking about domestic violence it’s not the case that one argument crosses the line and it becomes an abusive relationship,” explains Polly Neate. “It’s a pattern in the relationship, where one partner is controlling and there’s an ongoing sense of fear.”
2) An abuser wants to scare their victim
“With domestic violence, (usually male) partners behave in a way that’s designed to intimidate, frighten or coerce their victim’s behaviour,” says Neate.
When a victim is frightened of their partner and treads on eggshells out of fear of their reaction, that’s a problem.
[It’s abuse] if you feel frightened of your partner and you’re worrying about the consequences of what externally might be relatively minor things. If he gets angry at the slightest thing. If you have to do every thing his way. If you’re worried and feel like your behaviour will ’set him off‘.”
3) The small things count
Neate gives me one example, where a man told his partner that she had to wrap cheese in a particular way before putting it in the fridge. If she did it wrong, he would scream and shout at her.
“We all have funny little things like that. But the point is she was frightened of his response,” she explains. “He didn’t hit her, but she knew he would see it as a symbol that she didn’t love him and she was trying to wind him up. It seems like a minor thing to you – but it has a big impact to them.”
4) A one-way street
In a healthy relationship, equality is present. If one person has particular needs, they accept that their partner will also have their own needs.
But an abuser will not think about their partner, and generally puts themselves first. “It doesn’t go the other way,” says Neate. “There’s no consideration that you’re upset.
“Perpetrators of domestic violence do it because they feel entitled to behave that way. They think their partner is there to meet to their needs and they’re entitled to take whatever they want.”
5) Nothing ever happened
‘Gas lighting’ is when someone exhibits abusive behaviour and then pretends it didn’t happen – or even switches blame on to the victim. It’s also common among psychological abusers.
“It can be very confusing,” says Neate. “It can cause serious problems when a woman starts to doubt herself. That’s very difficult to get your head around as a survivor. It takes a woman a long time to recognise that the nice behaviour and abusive behaviour are both a conscious decision on the behalf of the perpetrator.”
6) Unhappiness doesn’t matter
In a healthy relationship, if one person tells their partner just how unhappy they are with their behaviour, they may be upset, annoyed or both. But they will eventually get over it. Neate explains that an abuser will not react that way.
“A perpetrator is unwilling ever to listen to why you’re unhappy and will often minimise what has happened. If they’re not willing to do any work towards your relationship that would be really concerning, as would being too scared to talk about it in the first place.
“All of us in relationships mess up sometimes and don’t behave appropriately. If you’re frightened and worried and feel like you have to give up on the things that are important to you in order to make your partner OK, and to avoid his bad behaviour, that’s where the line is.“
7) Controlling in many ways
Neate explains that control is a significant factor in psychological abuse, and a perpetrator can exact it in a number of ways, such as not letting their partner go out or visit friends and family.
It can also be financial, with a perpetrator controlling their victim’s money, or it can be a case of the abuser not wanting to ever socialise. Control can also extend to the online realm – with tracking software used on smartphones or email and social media accounts hacked.
8) Personal attacks
There doesn’t have to be any physical violence for someone to be guilty of domestic abuse. It’s not just about bruises. Often it can simply involve words, where a perpetrator might make comments designed to emotionally manipulate his victim.
Neate says: “[It’s abuse] if he or she puts you down and tells you you’re stupid and unattractive, that no one else will love you. Even if it seems to be done in a kind way, it’s still emotional abuse.”
‚I was terrified of my husband‘
One woman shares her experience of being emotionally abused by her husband soon after they married and had a child together:
„I married an abusive man. We fell in love, bought a house together, got married and had a baby – all very quickly. It was very romantic to begin with – or at least, it seemed that way.
His friends warned me of his bad temper. However, I never witnessed it, and he was never aggressive towards me until we had been together a year. Then he became verbally abusive, shouting at me in my face.
After our daughter was born, he became almost entirely intolerant of me. He did not want me to breastfeed, he refused to let me join in activities with other friends, and any baby equipment was always dismissed as a waste of money. Anything I did buy was either chosen by him, or had to be very cheap.
He gradually reduced my self-esteem by making extra work for me, refusing to help and watching me struggle, criticising me and my care of our child. If I resisted his behaviour, he would become consumed with rage and he would throw things. Once, he threw a candle in a glass pot and it smashed all over the kitchen. As time went on, the attacks became more unpredictable. I would try and leave the house, sometimes late at night, taking the baby from her cot – at which point he would threaten to burn the house down.
He began monitoring my every move. I became very scared of him and the way he was presenting so perfectly to others. To others, he was charming and normal and a ‘hero’ for working so hard for us and being such a good father.
Things continued to get worse and I temporarily separated from him – although I later felt guilty and went back to him. He was threatening suicide and saying he could not live without me. I was always making excuses for him – that he worked very hard for us, and that the baby had put a strain on our relationship. I attempted to get another job but he would dissuade me, telling me the best place was for me to be at home. .
Increasingly my family were not allowed to come to our house and visit us and I made the excuse that he was stressed from his job. Eventually, after yet another aggressive episode in our local town centre where he stood up close to me, threatening me for wanting to go into a different shop to him, I decided to leave him.“
If you have been affected by domestic abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247