Explaining Coercive Control to People who Don't Quite Get It: A Series
Part 1: Busting the myth that incidents of physical violence are the most important aspect of domestic violence and abuse
I launched this blog in November and I’m delighted that it already has over 1,000 subscribers! My first entries of 2023 will be a series dedicated to myth-busting around coercive control. This series will explain why the common responses that people have to victims-survivors and to perpetrators are often based on misunderstandings, and how these misunderstandings can be really harmful and hurtful for victims-survivors (and helpful and emboldening for perpetrators). It is my hope that readers might be able to show this to someone in their life who doesn’t quite understand coercive control, and that it might be eye opening for people who previously haven’t read much around this subject but who are willing to learn about it now. It is also my hope that victims-survivors who’ve been on the receiving end of harmful or hurtful responses will feel validated by what they are about to read in these pieces.
I am going to provide these myth-busting insights in several parts over the next few weeks, so please subscribe now, if you have not done so already, to ensure that you get each one straight to your email inbox!
Once I’ve completed all the parts in the series, I will release one long post with all the parts together in same blog to make it easier for readers to send and share the complete myth-busting series!
Who am I?
Before we get started, let me explain why I’m qualified to write about coercive control. I have spent nearly 15 years researching the subject, and was delighted to publish my first book on the topic in partnership with Oxford University Press, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, last year. This followed many specialist academic papers which have been well-received by victims-survivors and by organisations in the domestic violence and abuse sector and beyond. I am a senior researcher (my job title is Associate Professor) at Durham University, which is an Ivy League-standard institution based in the North of England. (The usual disclaimer applies here, that I am writing in a personal capacity and what I write may not represent the views of my employer.) At Durham, I teach two courses on violence and abuse. So, having deep-dived into the subject and achieved success as a specialist researcher in this area, I am able to provide important myth-busting knowledge on coercive control, and set out some of the major keys to how coercive control can best be understood.
So let’s make a start.
Please be aware that the following contains descriptions of abuse that may be distressing. Do take care of yourself when reading, and stop reading or take a break as needed. Reach out for support if needed. Most countries have a domestic abuse helpline number that people can call, and a quick internet search will bring up the number. Sometimes, too, our own informal communities both online or offline can offer a space for supportive conversations.
Myth 1: When it comes to domestic violence and abuse, the incidents of physical violence are the most important thing
Survivors often get told many hurtful and harmful things based on this myth, for example:
‘they didn’t hit you very much or cause major injuries so the abuse wasn’t that bad’;
‘they haven’t hit you for quite a long time, so the abuse is over’;
‘they never hit you so there was no abuse’;
‘Because you weren’t subjected to severe, frequent violence, you weren’t justified in complaining about the abuse or fighting back physically or verbally against your abuser’;
‘we can’t help you with the stalking, economic abuse, or the weaponization of your children. Come back if they hit you, then we’ll do something’.
Coercive control is a highly serious, damaging, potentially life-destroying form of abuse in its own right. Some coercive controllers are very physically violent, perhaps causing injuries that might require hospitalisation. Others are violent at a lower level; for example, their violence takes the form of slapping, pushing, shoving and hair pulling. Meanwhile, some are not physically violent at all.
Does this mean the less violent ones are less harmful? No. Coercive control perpetrators’ tactics vary based on their resources and personalities, and they tailor their approach to their abuse based on what they think will work best. Sinister, isn’t it? The coercive control perpetrator’s ultimate goal is to completely subordinate and subjugate the victim-survivor. So if they judge that being highly controlling and very violent is the best way to completely subordinate and subjugate the victim-survivor, this is what they’ll do. If they judge that it is best to be highly controlling but not violent at all, then that is what they’ll do.
Remember, being violent carries risks for the perpetrator: It is a very obvious act of abuse that they might be punished for. So if a perpetrator can achieve their goal of completely subordinating and subjugating the victim-survivor without using much, or any, physical violence, that is often what they will do. Some perpetrators are more skillful and clever than others at strategizing and carrying out their plans. Sometimes the least violent ones are the most successful at meeting their abhorrent goal of subjugating and subordinating the victim-survivor.
As will also be explored in future blogs in this series, the perpetrator usually continues to pursue this abhorrent goal post-separation, while also often adding a new goal: punishing the victim-survivor as comprehensively as possible for daring to break away from them.
Understanding coercive control
So what exactly is coercive control? As mentioned above, coercive control is a highly serious, damaging, potentially life-destroying form of abuse in its own right. It typically involves situations where somebody subjects their ‘partner’ and/or children to persistent, wide-ranging controlling behaviour over a long period of time, and makes it clear that standing up for themselves against this highly controlling behaviour will be punished. By relentlessly punishing the victim-survivor for non-compliance, the perpetrator intends to keep the victim-survivor in a demoralized and terrorized state.
These punishments may or may not involve violence; but, whatever they are, they will be something the abuser knows the victim-survivor dreads and would go a long way to prevent. Remember: the perpetrator wants the victim-survivor to be subjugated and subordinated. Many perpetrators wish for the victim-survivor to live in a state of permanent obedience and submissiveness to them, cut off from the human rights and normal levels of autonomy enjoyed by citizens in their society.
The perpetrator builds up the coercive control over time, with the first stage often involving love-bombing and intense, affectionate behaviour from the perpetrator. When perpetrators then start their abuse, they adopt several minimization strategies to keep victims-survivors off-balance and make them feel uncertain. These include:
abusing the victim-survivor in ambiguous ways - a nasty insult was ‘just a joke’;
claiming that their abusive actions are actually motivated by love and care - ‘I hate it when you talk to other people because I love you so much and I want you all to myself’; ‘I’ll handle the decisions about money so you don’t have to worry about them’;
blaming the victim-survivor for everything that is wrong in the ‘relationship’ - ‘see what you made me do’; ‘you aren’t committed enough to me’;
drawing on various excuses for their behaviour - ‘I had a difficult childhood’; ‘I have a drinking problem’; ‘I struggle to control my anger’.
These tactics deflect attention away from what is really going on - namely, the perpetrator continually working towards the goal of completely subordinating and subjugating the victim-survivor.
Victims-survivors of coercive control are left with very limited ability to effectively stand up for their most basic human rights or freedoms, because the perpetrator punishes them every time they stand up for themselves. Victims-survivors, being demoralised and terrorised by frequent punishments, tend to self-police their own behaviour, often severely limiting their own freedoms, not exercising their rights or taking what they are entitled to, and living a highly restricted life to try to avoid angering the perpetrator and facing their reprisals.
Victims-survivors internalise what the perpetrator expects of them, and learn from experience what will happen if they disobey. So, for example, after a while a perpetrator may not need to do anything to stop a victim-survivor from seeing their friends or family: the victim-survivor has given up trying to see them because they have already faced so many occasions of backlash from the perpetrator when they saw their friends and family in the past. By self-policing themselves and giving the perpetrator what they want, the victim-survivor is doing what they have to do to survive in the nightmarish conditions created by the perpetrator.
To keep the victim-survivor entrapped, perpetrators need to use multiple tactics of abuse, weaving the tactics around the victim-survivor like a multilayered web or cage. These tactics include: many different forms of psychological abuse and manipulation, economic abuse, isolation, sexual abusiveness, threats, intimidation, micro-regulation, monitoring, stalking, legal and institutional abuse, religious abuse, and harming the victim’s-survivor’s children and other loved ones. The perpetrator may also carry out forms of physical abuse such as taking away the victim’s-survivor’s autonomy over what they eat, how they manage any health conditions they have, and regularly depriving them of sleep to keep them in a weakened and exhausted state.
If the victim-survivor starts to speak out about what is happening and starts to seek support, it is usual for perpetrators to respond with a DARVO strategy: Deny or minimise the abuse, Attack the credibility and character of the victim, Reverse the narrative about who is the Victim and Offender, and who is the safe parent and who is the abusive parent to any children of the relationship.
Indeed, perpetrators often spend years laying the groundwork for DARVO by suggesting to family, friends, neighbours, and community members that the victim-survivor is troubled, unstable, and generally not to be trusted. This will often be done behind the victim’s-survivor’s back. This is highly calculated and sinister behaviour from the perpetrator. When the victim-survivor does eventually get to a point where they seek support because life with the perpetrator has become intolerable, the victim-survivor may, to their shock and horror, find that very few people among their loved ones and community are prepared to believe them. Instead, nearly everyone seems to see them as the problem. Thanks to the perpetrator’s DARVO strategy, the victim-survivor has been betrayed by those they turned to, and feels more isolated and alone than ever.
Busting myth 1
Let’s return now to ‘myth 1’: that the incidents of physical violence are the most important aspect of domestic violence and abuse.
Hopefully we can now see how misplaced this way of thinking is when it comes to coercive controllers. Coercive control perpetrators are using many other tactics of abuse besides physical violence. Physical violence is just one tree in a whole forest of tactics. (I’m thinking here of the kind of scary forests you might find in a fairy tale or horror film; the kind you are lucky to make it out of alive.) To only focus on physical violence, or to position the physical violence as the most important part of the abuse, is to miss just about everything that the abuser is doing.
Victims-survivors can be - and are - very seriously abused and harmed even in the total absence of physical violence. They are subjugated, prevented from exercising their human rights, and punished repeatedly for wanting to have normal levels of freedom and autonomy. To survive this, the victim-survivor has to largely stop being themselves and mostly live how the perpetrator wants them to live. Every move or utterance they make will be dictated by the question ‘what can I do that won’t lead to punishment?’. Within this incredibly narrow space in which to take actions, victims-survivors do usually try really hard to make the best choices they can for themselves and for any children they might have. However the perpetrator’s regime of coercive control is continually limiting what they can do, and what choices are within reach.
As time passes, and the victim-survivor’s identity is eroded, they may eventually lose nearly all sense of who they are. They may become progressively more financially disadvantaged due to the perpetrator’s economic abuse; more and more sexually traumatised as the perpetrator sexually coerces them; more and more disconnected from their children (the perpetrator using DARVO tactics on the children, and/or not allowing the victim-survivor to parent in protective, affectionate ways); increasingly isolated, cut off from sources of support, with their movements tracked and limited by campaigns of stalking; more and more physically unwell (being made to live like a hostage or prisoner for years, being prevented from safely managing their health needs, and the toll this all takes on their health).
So, if your job brings you into contact with domestic violence and abuse perpetrators or victims-survivors, or you are a community member or part of a victim’s-survivor’s family or group of friends:
Please be aware that domestic violence and abuse is often about so much more than physical violence.
Look to the bigger picture.
Make it your business to consider all the tactics the perpetrator may be using, not just the incidents of violence.
The victim-survivor needs help for everything that the perpetrator is doing to them, not just for one aspect of it.
Don’t assume that the victim-survivor and perpetrator separating has brought about the end of the perpetrator’s abuse.
Don’t turn victims-survivors away with the words ‘there’s nothing we can do to help until they attack you’.
It is never too late to start letting go of myths. It can be tough to reflect on how your responses may not have been so great in the past. But remember, you probably never had access to good information about these issues. The myths around domestic violence and abuse in our societies are very strong and widely believed. And perpetrators can be extremely clever, when they want to, at presenting themselves well. You can do a lot of good now by letting your responses evolve and grow.
Goodbye for now
I hope you found part 1 of this series helpful. Feel free to let me know your ideas for what future parts could include. You can comment here on Substack or by responding under my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn posts for this blog. At the moment, I’m thinking that the series might focus next on the myths that perpetrators are ‘good people’ who have been ‘pushed too far’, and that ‘fights’ between perpetrators and victim-survivors are a result of mutual disfunction and partly the victim’s fault. These myths are still widely believed and are really harmful. I’m keen to get your ideas about what other coercive control myths I could write about, so do go ahead and leave a comment. Goodbye for now.
PS: You might be interested in downloading a free chapter from my book. Chapter 4, ‘Coercive Control: Harms to Children’, is free to read until 31st January 2023. Make sure to download your free chapter today!
Well done, Dr. Emma in helping us further understand coercive control. You make a point with which I agree and is not sufficiently underscored. The end game for the perpetrator of coercive control is subjugation and the psychological annihilation of the target-victim, that is, the erasure of self-hood.
Thank you for all you do.
Thank you Dr Katz. I am grateful for you and that this subject is being written about in a more layperson-friendly & accessible way. Someone very close to me has very recently begun their slow recovery from 15 years in a coercive-controlled relationship. The abuser was *only* occasionally physically violent, but consistently and persistently psychologically abusive. I am particularly interested in learning more about tactics the perpetrators might use to impact their victims after separation. You mention this above, and forewarned is forearmed etc. We were completely unable to intervene until the victim/survivor took the first step, and those 15 years were excruciating. Now that the step has been taken, we want to try to ensure we have everything possible in place…..