“In the end I doubted my own sanity because I couldn’t bring myself to believe this man I once loved and trusted could be so evil. Every way I tried to grapple and make sense of it, the ground continually shifted and it was ALWAYS my fault.”
Coercive control is not just an issue for individuals, it is a major social problem that has its roots in patriarchal male dominance and continues to be supported by social norms, laws, and institutions. For centuries our society has given more power to men than women, granted permission to dominate women, permission to control female partners, and entitlement for men to get what they want from a woman.
Luckily not all men agree with these attitudes.
However, those men who do perpetrate coercive control against their female partners continue to believe they are entitled to treat her as his possession and have the right to use and abuse and control her for his own selfish ends and gratification.
This blog post gives some insight into women’s experience of an intimate male partner controlling whom she can, and cannot, interact with. The subjugation which reaches deep into all aspects of her life … how to dress, how to act … where she is allowed to go, when to go, who she can go with …is an endless abuse and denial of human rights.
Men who entrap their intimate partner are generally jealous, possessive and insecure. They do not like feeling vulnerable, so they intentionally use power and control tactics to hold themselves up.
Men who coercively control their partners are driven to gain some form of status and some sense of being accepted by other men. —Think about the men who “joke” that their female partner has him under the thumb.
In their pursuit to be top dog, some insecure possessive men isolate their partner by locking out friends and family and thereby narrow the lives of their female partners. As a result he becomes the woman’s only lifeline. A lifeline that he ends up sucking the life from.
Women I interviewed explained ways they tried to make sense of his behaviours. No physical violence was involved, which meant they had no tangible touchstone to help them understand his weird behaviours.
I call it The Experience with No Name.
In reality, some of the weird behaviours these women were experiencing, and were unable to name, are what Professionals label coercive control, psychological abuse, entrapment, intimate partner violence, brainwashing, isolation, intimidation and enslavement.
Many of these women live on the hope that he will change.
Coercive Control can be subtle and stealthy, like death by a thousand cuts, and my hope is that you will see clues in these stories that the following five women bravely shared with me: Donna, Elizabeth, Susan, Teresa and Raewyn. These women explain their thought processes when they were grappling to make sense of their partner’s controlling behaviours and the endless coercion.
Donna told me that “Everything in Frank’s life was about me, me, me, me, me, me and you are there to serve him, that is a woman’s place. Our relationship wasn’t about Frank and Donna, our relationship was about Frank, everything was about Frank.”
“You didn’t respond to Frank, whatever he said happened, however he wanted it to be, that’s how it was. What I thought didn’t count. I didn’t have an opinion. What I thought didn’t come into it ever. He controlled me, he owned me, everything was about him, him, him.”
In order to survive Frank’s self obsessive attitudes and behaviours, it was necessary for Donna to make many sacrifices in her attempts to make the relationship work. However she told me —
“I ended up being a prisoner, I went nowhere without him saying so, mainly because I didn’t have any money and he made sure there was no gas in the car. I lost everything, everything about myself, I didn’t have an opinion, I didn’t want anything I just was his woman that walked around in the shadow of what she used to be. I was known for being really happy, always having a smile when I first met Frank, he took that out of me.”
“I lost my life. My whole life became making him happy, picking up after him. Just quietly died inside.”
“The stress of what he was doing to me was killing me. I was so weak I couldn’t help myself, I couldn’t think anymore, I couldn’t do anything. I still went through my chores, I stopped doing gardening because of my back, the pain.”
“We broke up three times before I finally left and he would abuse me, throw me out and kick me out. I wasn’t allowed to take my possessions, I wasn’t allowed to take anything. I had everything when we went into our relationship and then by the time it was time for me to come out of the relationship, everything I had was his.”
“He truly believed that I belonged to him, my mind belonged to him, everything was his and he even thought he had the right to keep all my things.”
“When we finally, finally, finally broke up he wouldn’t even let me take my things from the house.”
Early warning signs
Looking back on her relationship with Frank, Donna said the early warning signs of abuse and coercive control were “everywhere, everywhere you look. It’s just that I was too stupid or uninformed or trusting. The signs were everywhere, every turn I looked, but I didn’t see them. I didn’t see them, nothing set warning bells off in my brain.”
Donna did not believe she could have labelled Frank’s behaviours as abuse in the early days of the relationship because she felt she was too lost within herself.
She said, “It’s only been since I’ve come out of it. Now looking back I can see the signs. I didn’t deserve to be treated like that but I didn’t recognise the symptoms, I didn’t recognise the behaviours and with all my heart, and with everything in me I thought it was my fault, I thought everything was my fault so I didn’t recognise it.”
Frank used Threats and Intimidation to try to keep Donna in the relationship
“I left him three times. When I finally left him I was told either you come back or people are going to start getting hurt – your boys are going to start getting hurt.”
“I loved him with all my heart, but he was a compulsive liar and it screwed my brains.”
“I’m one of these women that if you tell me something I tend to think it’s true cause I don’t tell lies myself and I tend to treat other people as I am and so when they tell me something I just think it’s true. It took me a long time to wake up to the fact that you couldn’t believe what Frank said.
“Now looking back, everything was a scam, now looking back Frank loved having me round, oh he loved me so much, and he did love me in his own way, but everything he touches he destroys be it a motor, a car, and especially being a woman.”
“My biggest regret is that I let him break my family up. I didn’t let him but it happened. I couldn’t stop him. I blame myself for that. I’ve made some terrible choices, but not all these things are my fault. I’d taken the blame for everything on myself and everything he did was my fault cause I let him.”
“This might sound really stupid, never ever once did it occur to me that the tantrums were not my fault, never once. I just tried to think sideways and put my brain on super fast to anticipate what might upset him next time to make sure it didn’t upset him because it was my fault.”
“The more abused I’d became the less I wanted, the less I thought. It virtually just shut down everything in me.”
Donna did finally leave. She went on to attend a protected women’s domestic violence program where she learned to understand the dynamics of power and control. The more she educated herself, the more she was able to move on and flourish.
Elizabeth and David went to couples’ counselling for a while. But Elizabeth said “it was like he would be ever so charming in the session, and he would agree, “Yes we’ll try this way of communicating,” or “Yes we’ll do this for a week.” And we would get home and I’d be all like, ‘oh wow, I thought this was going to happen’. I’d say, “Shall we try…..?” But he’d retort — “Don’t be bloody ridiculous you don’t think I’m going to do that crap.”
So he would agree with stuff and then he would not do it. I would be really broken hearted by it. I’d be incredibly disappointed because, I’d say, “But you said you would.” So that really wasn’t very successful.
Well it wasn’t going to be was it? Because it was about me having to change and him not having to change.
The more I did change and the more that I did start to speak up, the worse things got at home because he didn’t want me like that, he wanted me back how I was.
He couldn’t admit that maybe some of the stuff that he was doing wasn’t okay, because as far as he was concerned he was fine.
And we used to have blow ups about all sorts of crazy stuff. Of course it wasn’t about this and that — it was about . . . he was losing control of me and he didn’t like that.
The whole thing was just such a crazy, crazy time. Before leaving, there’d been a couple of years at least of counselling, of talking, or trying to talk. He wasn’t interested.
There was no discussion about that he couldn’t possibly be wrong, it wasn’t about ‘let’s talk about this to find a solution’ or ‘let’s talk about this to get some understanding’.
I sacrificed myself, I sacrificed everything trying to make the relationship work.
He’d say to me: “Who else would want you?” “Who else would put up with this stuff?” Like I was so bad that he was doing me this big favour by putting up with me.
I think at the end of the day what I was to him was a possession and he was really pissed off that he lost his prize possession when I left. He is still really angry now, and it’s nearly eight years down the track.
I thought that no matter what was going on, that we could sort it out, that I didn’t think divorce was a good idea. When I married I thought I would be married forever and I didn’t think divorce was an option. I thought it was an option for some people, but I think underneath it all I probably thought it was an option for some people if they couldn’t work out their differences and I believed that there was always a way to work out differences. I guess what I thought then was if people are getting divorced it must be because they won’t work it out.
I hoped it would all be alright, I hoped it would get better. I thought it was wrong to leave.
I think I stayed because I was scared shitless as to what I would do if I didn’t. I just couldn’t see myself surviving outside the relationship. I hadn’t worked for quite a long time, I had four children. I didn’t have any financial resources of my own at my own disposal.
I didn’t really know I was depressed. I knew I felt bad, I didn’t even think that that was something I would talk to a doctor about. For me it was about feeling, there’s something wrong with me, I’ve got to work it out, I’ve got to be better. There was a lot of that, I’ve just got to do it better, I’ve got to be better.
I used to have days where I wouldn’t have to go out and I’d just be so relieved that I wouldn’t have to go out that day, because I wouldn’t have to put on this pretend face that everything was okay. I hated it if the phone rang because I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
In the beginning I thought that this is the person that I’ll marry and be with forever. Over time I realised he was a nothing, but unfortunately I’d had children by the time I realised this is going to go nowhere, that this is a fight, fight, fight for my sanity and self esteem. I tried so hard to make things fine and he just walked all over me. Everyday he walked all over me. And yet I put up with it didn’t I.
He’d say our relationship was the best I’d ever get. Well, more that I wouldn’t get anybody else. No one else would want me.
I decided to move to another place up north in the country. Anthony had decided ‘well if you’re getting a place in the country I’m coming with you.’ I thought well this is the father of my children, the children love him, I was madly in love with him, still hated him, but loved him because you’re taught when you get married you stay married. That was it I was trying to stick it all together.
I kept hoping he would change and everything would turn out how I thought it should. I spent a lot of time crying, and trying to figure out why he was doing it.
I became disappointed in the fact I wasn’t getting the things that I felt I needed. One of those was the honesty and the understanding and someone that would make things better. That would have solved our problems instead of making them. The disappointment came really early. I kept on expecting the same things, knowing I probably wasn’t going to get them, but with the hope that it would come and I will get someone who’ll look after me.
During the course of the relationship, and after it as well, he tried to diminish my professional achievements in quite insidious ways, where I didn’t realise what he was doing because it didn’t occur to me that somebody would do that to somebody that they supposedly loved. You expect people to be supportive and kind and proud of you. By diminishing me and my achievements, he’d build up his own.
If I talked about something a friend was doing, or had said, or some problem that a friend had, if I was talking about it sympathetically, he would try and turn it around and point out negative things about people that I liked, to change my judgment of them, and so I wouldn’t like them as much.
He would tell me that people had said things about me. People at work, that they had said that I was this, that I was that, horrible things, which I believed. I didn’t know whether they had said them or not. I think that he probably twisted a lot of things like that and I believed him, so that would change my judgement.
My self-esteem through the relationship just dropped to absolutely zero. By the time the relationship was over it was incredibly low.
I’d grown up wanting, and still do, wanting to get married and to have children and to have a home. That’s what it meant to me, it would be our home and we’d have our family, a dog and a cat. It felt to me as if it was going to be my own family, that I felt as if I didn’t really fit well into my family and hadn’t met their expectations, but it didn’t matter because I had my own thing.
It was like an achievement as well because my mother used to make comments about how no one would ever want to marry me and it was like “Look, they do, they do, I’ve done it. I’m a real person” (laughter). I saw it as a long term commitment, not as a convenience thing.
I didn’t think I had any rights in my relationship really. I think I probably thought that you should accept anything as long as it wasn’t physical violence. I wished he’d hit me, then I’d have an excuse to leave that other people would believe. I thought I should accept pretty much everything and take responsibility for everything. I thought I was there to make him happy.
I felt I had no control, I had no confidence in myself or in being listened to by him. I felt quite helpless really. I felt sorry for him because he had this drinking problem and I felt as if I should help him, and be able to help him.
I thought he was lovely. I thought he was really nice. He’s one of those really charming people. I thought he had a lot of potential for a lot of different things professionally and career-wise.
I obviously thought he had potential as a good partner.
I trusted him not to hurt me and he kept hurting me. But because I loved him and trusted him not to, I couldn’t believe that he was doing it, so I must be misinterpreting it. I don’t know why I kept trusting him when he lied so much.
I hoped I would be able to make a success of it. That I would be able to change him into being a normal person (laugh) and that we would be able to have this stable, happy relationship.
For a long time I thought it was my fault and then once I discovered the drinking and the drinking pattern, I thought that was my fault as well and that I was responsible for it because that was the way he would fling it back at me, and that because I was in a relationship with him it was my duty to help him. It would be wrong to walk away and leave him, that he needed help and that I should be able to help him.
I couldn’t imagine how I could function by myself by that time and I was tired, I was so tired. It was almost too much effort to have to look for somewhere to live and to think about packing and moving and all of those sorts of things. It was just too much. It was easier just to look at the next square along rather than down to the end of the road.
I thought divorce was a bad thing to do. Two years into the marriage things were pretty bad and I think, at that stage I was thinking “God I want to get out.” I suppose because of what I thought about divorce sort of subconsciously brought me back, from actually leaving, fear I suppose.
I really had become a lot like Brian, but there were times when the real me started coming out. Then I used to wonder what is this other thing that is coming out? It was like I’d forgotten that side of me and I didn’t know really what it was any more. So in a way that was a bit confusing.
Some things he said made me realise I shouldn’t talk to other people about it. And I knew because when I did talk about Brian and me to other people, which I didn’t do often, I would feel scared that he might find out.
I felt absolutely like I was suffocated by being with him, but I didn’t really know why. I mean I could see why, but then I’d be confused because he’d be nice again and I’d be absolutely at my wits end thinking ‘shivers, is there something wrong with me?’
“I couldn’t have labelled his behaviours as abusive at that time. Probably even if I’d read a book, I probably wouldn’t have because I wouldn’t have wanted to have seen it as that. I don’t think I would have been ready to see it. I would have denied it. I think it took about four years before I was ready to see it.”