Lesbian and Bisexual Women & Abuse: Coercive Control

Publish Date: 21/07/2016

This article carries a content warning for alcoholism, coercive control, familial abuse.

Coercive control can be incredibly well hidden by both perpetrators and victims; often it can take years, even decades for the abuse to be acknowledged. As a child, I spent 8 years in an abusive family environment where I saw first hand the grip that coercive control can take over people. At the hands of my step mum, I watched the people I love lose all sense of self, self worth and belief in what was acceptable behaviour from a partner/step parent.

As the youngest, I was only 8 when it began, but I watched my sister get relentlessly worn down and stripped of her confidence and personality through systematic abusive punishments. I watched my Dad controlled, abused and towards the end beaten by the woman who stole my family, a woman who was supposed to be acting as a parent.

Back then, when I looked at them both of them all I could see left were shells of the people I loved. My Dad refused to recognise what was happening, convinced it was me and my sister’s behaviour causing the issues. I remember so vividly a conversation I had with my sister when I was 13, and she 16; I was trying to encourage her, saying that we just had to keep fighting, keep standing up for ourselves and each other. I can play back in my mind as though it was yesterday the blank look she gave me and her saying the words; “there’s no point, just do whatever they say, it’s easier”. She was right, we were trained to learn that the more we resisted the worse we were punished, if we stood up for what was right we were punished. My step mum would get drunk, smash something and my sister would be locked in her room as punishment, even though we’d all seen that my step mum had caused the damage. I’d stand there while my sister admitted to it and my Dad told her off, we were living in a completely distorted reality. Completely bewildered, I’d shout about how unfair it was and the more I stood up for my sister the harsher I was punished, until we both learnt to take whatever punishment we were given without responding.

Outwardly, my step mum was perfect, she was very well loved and I knew that if it came down to it and authorities got involved that no one would believe me. If the other members of my family didn’t back me up in the kitchen, why would they with the police? So I carefully chose who I told and how I worded it; I mentioned it to friends about how it wasn’t fair and my dad wasn’t listening to me- they’d respond with things like “yeah I got grounded too, it sucks”. I talked to friends parents and waited behind class and tried to tell my favourite teachers; I guess all they heard was a teenage girl who didn’t get along with her step mum; not exactly front page news. At the time, it felt like I was telling everyone around me but nobody could hear me, in hindsight, I didn’t know it was abuse, so I didn’t call it abuse. All I knew was that it wasn’t right; but I was a child, conditioned to understand that if an adult says that that’s the way it is then that’s what was right. I couldn’t say she hit us because she never did and I hadn’t been sexually assaulted. It didn’t occur to me to call it abuse because I didn’t know what coercive control was, I didn’t know that what was happening had a name.

After 8 years, she steadily got worse and worse, she was drinking more, she was violent towards my Dad and her veil of “perfection” began to slip. My sister and I moved out and finally, after losing both his daughters my dad woke up to the toxicity of his relationship, and power to him, he left her.

That was ten years ago; since then we’ve rebuilt our lives and our relationships with each other, we’ve spoken about it, spoken to professionals, taken responsibility for parts played and forgiven each other. Most importantly, for me at least (I can’t speak for anyone else), all of us acknowledge that what was happening was abuse. In my opinion, when we acknowledged it as abuse was the first time I was able to move on and begin to realise what I’d just lived through. Suddenly, it was identified and I no longer felt like I was alone and unheard.

One of the most dangerous things about coercive control is how invisible it can be, how it can exist right in front of people who have no idea it’s there. It is vital to raise awareness and keep talking about this so that, maybe, we can identify, prevent and bring an end to the patterns of behaviour that can bring about such a damaging loss of self and give perpetrators of abuse such alarming levels of control. With that in mind, let’s have a look at some of the ways that coercive abuse can take control over a person. Coercive control is by no means limited to sexual relationships, as you can see above, it can occur between any two people closely associated with each other. However, for ease of explanation in this article I’ll be referring to those who may be suffering coercive control at the hands of their partner.

FEAR:

It may be that your partner has never actually been violent towards you, it’s important to realise that this alone does not mean there is no abuse. It may be that that your partner threatens violence or has acted violently in the past and you live in fear of it happening again. The fear of violence in itself can be very powerful. It could be that the threats aren’t against you but someone you love, perhaps a child or maybe, even, they threaten to harm themselves and you feel obliged to do as they say in order to prevent them hurting themselves.

The fear generated, may not even be fear of violence. It could be that they have or have threatened to damage your property. Perhaps they are threatening to reveal private information about you such as your sexuality.

If you’re constantly walking on eggshells, afraid of your partner’s reaction, for whatever reason, this is a red flag and you should consider if your partners behaviour is abusive. Be clear; lack of violence is not always lack of abuse.

CONTROL:

Perpetrators of coercive control may have control over everyday aspects of your life, for example they may decide what you wear or when you sleep or you may worry about their reaction to these things. They may control your medication and convince you that you don’t need to take medication which has been prescribed by a doctor. They may also deprive you of access to support services, saying you don’t need counselling or medical support services. They could even deny you access to transport. All of these things allow an abuser to exercise control over you. Another way an abuser may control you is through financial means, perhaps they have control of your finances or you’re only allowed a strictly controlled allowance. Your time may be monitored by your partner and it’s not uncommon for coercive control abusers to monitor phone use and online activity. This means that coercive control is not confined to the home as abusers can monitor victims from a distance; for example via social media. The may force you into criminal behaviour, this in turn will encourage self blame and create a barrier to disclosure to authorities.

DIMINISHED SENSE OF SELF:

A diminished sense of self, low self esteem and a lack of self worth will all allow a perpetrator more control over you. There may be rules or activities which humiliate or degrade you. Your partner may put you down often and make you feel worthless, this can diminish your sense of self and make you doubt that you deserve better. All of this makes it seem harder to seek help, leave them or demand better treatment. Perpetrators of coercive control are fantastically manipulative and you may believe that you are the problem. They may convince you that you’re a bad parent; perhaps making you believe that you must stay with them for your children or that if you leave them you will lose access to your children. By diminishing your belief in yourself, you trust yourself less and this in turn gives them more power.

INVISIBILITY/SELF DOUBT:

Coercive control often leaves no scars or bruises but it can be a harrowing experience for those who go through it. Often perpetrators of coercive control can be extremely charming and are often adept at winning over professionals and authorities. In many cases, they are very skilled at appearing outwardly “perfect”; friends and family may even comment on how lucky you are. This reinforces your doubts about the abuse and encourages you think you don’t deserve better. You do.

Alternatively, you may be isolated from your friends and family and, therefore, they are simply unaware of what’s happening. Perhaps you fell out because of your relationship and now you feel you are unable to turn to them for help for fear they’ll say “I told you so”.

Perpetrators of coercive control will be incredibly effective in playing down their abusive role, justifying their behaviour by shifting blame, denying it ever happened or framing it as you both being as bad as each other. Because of this, it’s common for you to begin to doubt yourself, either during the relationship; you may wonder if it’s actually that bad; “after all, no relationship’s perfect right?” Or afterwards; “to call it abuse is just me being dramatic, I’ve not been beaten or sexually assaulted, it would be wrong to call it domestic abuse”. Coercive control is abuse, whether it’s acknowledged by your partner, your loved ones and those around you or not. It is abuse even if you have spent time defending your abuser’s actions and justifying their behaviour yourself.

If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship; seek help. If it doesn’t work; seek help again and again and again until you are heard. Coercive control can be extremely hard to spot, even from within the relationship. If you have any doubts at all that the relationship you’re in is abusive; speak to someone.

To read more from Amber Edmondson, connect with her on Twitter: @Aedmondson89