UK announced in 2014 that a new domestic abuse offence of “coercive and controlling behavior” was to be introduced, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison – as well as a fine. This was to help victims identify the behavior they are suffering as wrong and encourage them to report it, as well as cause perpetrators to rethink their controlling behavior. Controlling or coercive behavior does not relate to a single incident alone, but it is a purposeful pattern of behavior which takes place over time in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another individual.
- Controlling behavior is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behavior.
- Coercive behavior is: a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
For the most part, evidence of domestic abuse in court has been physical violence – a black eye or other physical injuries; however, light is being shined on partner psychological abuse because even when the bruises heal, victims continue to deal with the mental torture from their abusers. It should be made clear that exerting total control over a spouse’s every movement and action, forcing a partner to live in constant fear, is criminal and unacceptable in our society. That physical abuse and controlling behavior come as part of a pattern is something that has been acknowledged by front-line organizations who fight to end domestic abuse. Ways that this controlling behavior manifests are varied and include anything from controlling a partner’s access to money to stopping them from socializing with friends and family.
“he just started chipping away at me,” says a survivor. “he used to ask me where I was all the time. If I wore lipstick he would say, ‘Do you think you’re beautiful? Is that why you’re wearing lipstick? You’re nothing special.’ If he was on a phone call to his friends, which would sometimes be for hours, the kids and I would have to sit in silence. “He used to wash me after he’d beaten me. He used to make me strip. He used to say, ‘You’re a sad little woman. You’re nothing. You’ll always be nothing. Nobody will want you. You’re damaged goods.”
The types of behavior associated with coercion or control include (non-exhaustive list):
- Isolating a person from their family and friends; monitoring their time;
- Depriving them of their basic needs or access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services;
- Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware;
- Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep;
- Repeatedly putting them down such as telling they are worthless;
- Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanize the victim;
- Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities, shoplifting;
- Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance;
- Threats: to hurt or kill; to a child, to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone).
- Assault; Rape;
- Criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods);
- Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working
While all forms of abuse are about power and control, coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism that invades all arenas of the victim’s (mostly women) activity. Over time, victimization and dependence are replace by domination/subordination, agency and resistance. Emphasis shifts from what perpetrators do to victims to what they keep victims from doing.
Check in with yourself: How do you act toward your partner?
- Get angry or insecure about your partner’s relationships with others (friends, family, coworkers) and feel possessive?
- Frequently call and text to check up on your partner, or have them check in with you?
- Check up on your partner in different ways? (Ex. Reading their personal emails, checking their texts)
- Feel like your partner needs to ask your permission to go out, get a job, go to school or spend time with others?
- Get angry when your partner doesn’t act the way you want them to or do what you want them to?
- Blame your anger on drugs, alcohol, or your partner’s actions?
- Find it very difficult to control your anger and calm down?
- Express your anger by threatening to hurt your partner, or actually physically doing so?
- Express your anger verbally through raising your voice, name calling or using put-downs?
- Forbid your partner from spending money, or require that they have an allowance and keep receipts of their spending?
- Force or attempt to force your partner to be intimate with you?
- Blow up in anger at small incidents or “mistakes” your partner makes?
How does your partner react?
- Seem nervous around you?
- Seem afraid of you?
- Cringe or move away from you when you’re angry?
- Cry because of something you don’t let them do, or something you made them do?
- Seem scared or unable to contradict you or speak up about something?
- Restrict their own interaction with friends, coworkers or family in order to avoid displeasing you?
In any relationship there are issues both big and small that can cause hurt feelings. What distinguishes the issues in a healthy relationship from those in an unhealthy relationship is how they’re handled, how each partner responds to them and how both partners communicate about them. If any of these behaviors sound familiar to how you act or how your partner reacts, it could be a red flag that you may be hurting them. By acknowledging now that your behaviors might be questionable and taking responsibility for them, you’re a step ahead in beginning to correct them.