In my years as a therapist, I have met many people that have been greatly impacted by intimate relationships that are coercive and controlling. But what exactly is to be in a coercive relationship? Due to the slow-burning nature of such a relationship, many people do not even recognise that they are victim to abusive behaviour. The abuse instead, is often confused with and overlooked as gestures of deep love, protection or care. In the beginning, controlling behaviour is often taken by the victim as romantic, the abuser in their eyes is the ultimate Prince Charming. Steadily, however, the gestures of care begin to feel controlling, until they manifest into full-blown unhealthy patterns of dominance, resulting in the harmful loss of freedom for the victim.
Coercive control is present in the majority of reported domestic violence cases and has now become a criminal offence in many countries across the world. Whilst overwhelming cases illuminate women to be the victims of coercive control, it should be pointed out that men can also be victims of this type of behaviour.
What are the signs?
There are numerous ways in which coercive and controlling behaviour is conducted within relationships. They include but are not limited to the following signs.
Isolation: Many victims report having been isolated from friends or family members. Purely a tactical and logistical move by the abuser, such isolation enhances the victim’s vulnerability and capacity to be controlled.
The ‘‘nice guy’’ façade: Time and time again it is reported that the abuser wore a mask of kindness and generosity for everybody else around them, particularly whilst in front of a crowd or whilst in a public space or attending a family gathering. This mask is upheld to all those outside of the relationship, to the extent that even friends or family members of the victim will have a hard time believing the truth. It is always only a matter of time before the mask comes off and the abuser reveals his true self to the victim, during times when the two of them are alone or in the private confines of their own home.
Overprotectiveness: What begins as a caring and chivalrous regard of knowing where you are for reasons of safety, often communicated in a deeply loving and caring way, gradually becomes a persistent, domineering and terrifying pattern of behaviour, often leaving the victim feeling intense fear, weakness and vulnerability. Rather than notifying the abuser as to their whereabouts, they find themselves having to ask for permission. This can result in victims being denied any social outlet whatsoever, instead, being locked away in their homes by their abuser who is intent on having absolute control of their freedom.
Controlling the victim’s food or drink: Many victims report their abuser limiting their food intake or restricting their food choices altogether. Many also report their partner either insistently encouraging or forcing them to take drugs or alcohol against their will. All with aim to elicit control and ensure the victim is overwhelmed with a sense of suppression and helplessness.
Controlling the victim’s appearance: What begins as the abuser’s enthusiastic interest about the choice of outfits or hairstyle the victim may choose, descends into control over every aspect of the victim’s appearance, be it their make-up, their footwear, or the length of their skirts. Over time, abusers will frequently belittle victims to make them feel unattractive and unlovable, directly and purposefully weakening their self-esteem and self-worth.
Sexual control or rape: Victims of coercive relationships often report sexual assault. Sex is used as a means of control, whereby victims are forced through threats of violence or fear tactics to comply with the abuser’s wishes and needs. This also extends to abusers hiding forms of contraception and forcing victims to become pregnant against their will.
Restriction of finances: Victims often report of how financially reliant they had become upon their abusers, often forced to leave work or prevented from pursuing any ambitions or dreams. Money is used as the ultimate source of power and dependency, whereby victims come to feel that they have no means of supporting themselves alone in the outside world.
Threatening or violent behaviour: Verbal abuse or physical abuse becomes an everyday normality over time. Victims often report how they become so stripped of their confidence and their individual rights that fear becomes an everyday experience. There feels to be no way out. Abusers will often resort to threatening a victim’s children or loved ones as a further enforcement of control and preventing a victim from attempting to escape. Abusers are also highly likely to display erratic behaviour and extreme episodes of anger or volatility.
What to do if you are in a coercive relationship?
Regardless of social or religious norms that still exist in some societies, coercive control within any relationship is not okay. Do not withstand coercive control any longer. Seek help from authorities and confide in close friends or family members. Over time, existing with a relationship such as this can wear down your confidence, your self-belief and your self-worth. Be brave and take action, for you deserve far better. If you are victim to domestic violence or abuse, contact the emergency services right away.
Whether it be a past, or a present experience, to be on the receiving end of abusive conduct such as this takes time to recover from. It is highly likely that you are suffering from depression or severe anxiety as a result of your abuse. Seeking therapeutic support can be incredibly beneficial in order for you to reflect upon the horrors that have been endured, as well as heal from them. The therapeutic process can also greatly assist you in restoring your confidence be it in terms of your inner confidence, as well as in terms of rebuilding your outer confidence and courage for your life moving forward.
Remember always that you are worthy, that you are strong and that you are capable of living whatever life you choose.
Wishing you happiness and good mental health,