This is the ninth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Using Social Institutions and Social Prejudices.
Many perpetrators of psychological abuse use social, health, legal and other institutions such as child protection services as arenas to further their coercive control over their intimate partner.
They use the legal system endlessly to stop their partners from leaving, or to stop them from moving town or country, they do dodgy things to implicate their partner so she will get a criminal record, and perpetrators with financial resources engage women in drawn-out, frequent court battles over property, or over day-to-day care and contact with children. They also use loopholes in the government agency system to avoid paying child support and many use religious ideologies as a tool to keep women and children in line.
Perpetrators who use coercive control also use male privilege and entitlement believing that they “own” their partner, that she must obey and serve them. The good news is that some perpetrators seek help to stop abusing their partner by attending stopping violence programmes. The bad news is that many men then use that programme to further control women. I’ll explain what is meant by all of this below.
Of all the women I interviewed for my Masters research, Adriana had experienced the least amount of psychological abuse. However, it was a different matter after she divorced her husband — he threatened to kill her and began to use social institutions as a vehicle to establish power and control over her. Adriana said, “I think what pisses him off is that I was always in control of my life. The only thing he can get at me with is through our daughter, using the system he can control me.”
How is it possible for perpetrators of psychological abuse to use social institutions to further their coercive control when there may actually be good quality legislations and dedicated well-trained professionals who work hard to protect victims of abuse? Well — there are flaws in the systems — which means some policies, legislations and professional practices can lead to colluding with perpetrators by not holding them accountable for their actions, and can lead to blaming the victims. One of the flaws in the system is a lack of staff training in the dynamics of coercive control in the context of intimate partner abuse. Women I interviewed for my Masters research and men I interviewed for my PhD research tell their stories below….
Using the Legal System to stop women from moving town or country
Adriana regretted moving from the UK to New Zealand with her partner Steven. His controlling behaviours increased when they arrived back into his home territory. After their separation Steven became abusive in the extreme — he threatened to kill her. For hers, and her daughter’s safety, Adriana wanted to take her daughter back to the UK. However, she could not leave “because he doesn’t want our daughter to leave the country, therefore I can’t leave with her. I wouldn’t leave without her, so I have to be here. I’m quite happy and settled here and doing what I’m doing, but my freedom is totally cut down. I don’t have the freedom to even move towns because he would prevent me. I would have to go to court. It would probably take a year before I could move. He wouldn’t allow me to. It’s the court who would possibly allow me to.”
Heather became pregnant when she was in the process of applying for university. She knew she wanted to leave Luke and pursue an education, so was going to have an abortion. But Luke had High Court papers served on her and the hospital to prevent the abortion. This institutional response fueled Luke’s fire, which enabled him to become even more controlling. Heather wanted to take out a protection order, so that if he breached it, the police would have rights to intervene and arrest him. However, the lawyer insisted she take out an “undertaking” instead. This is one way that the legal system fails to protect victims of intimate partner abuse. An “undertaking” is only a promise — it does not give the police legal rights to arrest a perpetrator of abuse when he breaches his undertaking. The legal system enabled Luke to breach the undertaking. He did this by approaching Heather in the street and also when she dropped her son off at the agency who provided supervised contact. Each time Luke approached Heather he begged her for more contact with their son, he cried and swore at her. Heather had been wanting to move towns with her son to pursue a new life away from the abuse, but Luke used the legal system to prevent her from doing so.
Using the Legal System to fight for custody of children, with the underlying aim of maintaining power and control over the children’s mother
Elizabeth and David attended a mediation conference where an arrangement was made for Elizabeth to have the children three or four days a week and David would have them for the other three or four days. Such shared care is very disruptive and destabilising for children. Elizabeth said no-one was enjoying it. So Elizabeth “tried to talk to David about ‘What can we do about this? Can we try this, can we try that?’ He wasn’t interested. In the end the kids were really unhappy and she just said, ‘I am just not going to do this any more’ and of course it forced all the legal eagles to get together and deal with it.” David was a wealthy professional so had the financial resources to use the legal system to continue to coercively control his ex-wife.
Elizabeth said, “The judge made the decision which was a much more viable arrangement, which David was really angry about. He still wanted to go to court for custody and of course I am on legal aid. I’ve paid altogether over $25,000 on legal fees, $13,000 I still owe. We worked our guts out to try and get some negotiation before we went to court about custody. He would not respond, he would not negotiate. As far as he was concerned he was going to get what he wanted and he was really pissed off when he didn’t. He said, ‘I paid all this money to get what I wanted and I still haven’t got it.’ He was really angry about that. But I think part of him continuing to push for doing everything legally was because it would cost me a lot of money — money that I don’t have.”
Coercive tactics that lead to the victim getting a criminal record
Elizabeth said David took “up this trespass order when the property settlement came through. A few weeks later I was caught up with my car, and I was going to be late, and he was going to be picking the kids up from my place. I tried to get him at work and tried to get him at home quickly but couldn’t get hold of him. So I rang my neighbour to say, ‘If he turns up can you let him know that I will drop the kids at his place.’ I did what I could to get the message to him. He was absolutely furious. So I dropped my kids there and then rang up a bit later to say, ‘I am really sorry about what happened I tried to get hold of you.’ He hung up on me. At that stage I was really angry, because I thought it was important that he and I have some communication because of the children, so I went around to apologise and say, ‘We need to sort something out here, like there are going to be times when one or either of us is not going to be able to meet a time. What are we going to do in that situation? This isn’t going to work.’ But, he called the cops, had me arrested for trespassing. The kids see the cops take me out of what was our home, off in a police car. Anyway I explained the situation to the cops. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll go and get your car, we’ll have a word with the guy, I’m sure he doesn’t really want to press charges.’ They came back — ‘Yes he does want to press charges. Don’t worry about it we’ll get diversion, first offence.’ But for diversion the complainant has to agree. He wouldn’t agree to me having a diversion coz he wanted me to have a criminal record. I had about three court appearances, and my lawyer eventually got it to the point where, I think he knew David years ago, and he rang off the record and said, ‘Hey listen mate I wouldn’t do this if I were you.’ Eventually got him to change his mind and I got diversion. But he was prepared to take it to the absolute limit.”
Anthony engaged in tactics that wrongfully led Susan to be investigated and prosecuted for fraud. After Susan separated from Anthony she did not have a car so he would take her to get the groceries. Her overlocker was not working so Anthony took it into town. Susan said that when he came home he said, “It’s not worth fixing, but they’ll give you so much for a trade-in if you want to buy a new one”. So Susan agreed. Susan told me: “This is how naïve and trusting I was. He brought me home a new overlocker. It was in his name. He put me down as being his spouse. He put my address as being his address. When he got his cell phone he did the same thing. He put me down as being his spouse.”
Unfortunately for Susan the government department that provides financial support to single parents contacted her saying, “’You know you’ve been living with Anthony while you’ve been on the single parent benefit.’ She said they had all this evidence that said I was with him because he’d put me down as being his spouse. I said ‘I wasn’t with him’, but they said, ‘He used to take you to town. You used to drive his car’. I said ‘Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that we’re together.’ Anyway, I didn’t know the overlocker was in his name until the last time we split up and I got done for fraud. I said we weren’t a couple. Anthony was telling everybody that we were a couple. That really hurts. I thought I’d got out from him, but he’s still doing these things to make it look good. I hated him. I hated the things he’d done to us, to the low level that he’d brought us down to.”
Using the Government Agency that provides financial benefits to single parents
After she was divorced, Elizabeth spent some time on the single parent benefit whilst caring for her children. During that time she was having a casual relationship with a man. When parenting of children is shared, it is inevitable that children chat to the other parent about what happens at the other house. However, many perpetrators of coercive control use children to find out information that they then use as ammunition to continue controlling their ex-partner. Elizabeth said one time when her son came to her place to stay he asked her, “How many nights a week does Stewart stay mum?” Elizabeth said, “Next thing there’s an investigation by the fraud squad of [the government agency that provides the benefit].” The fraud squad asked, “We believe you have a partner now, what’s his name, when does he stay here, is it a relationship?” Elizabeth was angry, saying this government agency “would rather that you were f***ing a different guy every night than seeing one person who was giving you a bit of moral support or having sex once every three months.”
Elizabeth said David’s accusations to the department that provided the benefit meant that “To stay on the single parent benefit was a challenge, it’s happened twice. In fact the first time was when I was doing some odd jobs from time to time, helping a friend with her business. Anyway the next thing I’ve got the fraud investigation people. Pretty much all of the work that I was doing I was declaring, and the next thing I’ve got them on my case, ‘Did you do work at this place, did you sell this, do that, dah, dah dah dah dah?’ If I did cleaning jobs the kids used to come with me. They told David and David collated all the information that the kids got and gave to him and sent it to the government agency.”
Using the Government Agency that manages child support payments by separated parents
After couples separate, perpetrators of coercive control often find loopholes in the system and use that gap to pay minimal money towards supporting their children, or they may pay nothing at all. Men I interviewed for my PhD said not all men have a problem with paying child support, but some men do. Some controlling intimate partners do not have the best interests of the children at heart. As James said, many men believe “they’re controlled by a government agency over the kids that maybe they feel they own themselves… It’s a loss of control thing, their own personal property.” Lazarus knew the loopholes in the system. He said, “as soon as they start taking money out of my wages, I quit and change jobs … probably every eight months.” This, meant the system’s policy did not oblige him to pay for a period of time. Children involved in such a climate of control are negatively impacted in various ways, for example, not being able to afford to attend school camps and so miss out on healthy social bonding, physical challenges and may develop anxiety, depression or delinquent behaviour problems.
Some perpetrators of coercive control threaten their ex-partners by telling her that if she pursues child support payments from him, he will use the legal system to push for shared custody of the children which would then mean he would not be obliged to pay child support. This is frightening for women victims of coercive control because most women will do what ever it takes to keep their children safe. In their book, The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics (SAGE Series on Violence against Women) Lundy Bancroft and Jay Silverman draw from their clinical work with men that shows many perpetrators of intimate partner abuse do not engage in healthy fathering practices and many push for custody or contact with children partly as a tactic of maintaining control over the woman, not because they want to develop a warm relationship with their children.
Using Child Protection Services to coercively threaten the children’s mother
Susan said that, “One time Anthony rang and said that a child protection social worker rang and wanted him to go in. When he came back he said someone’s reported that our daughter’s been sexually molested. He said, ‘It’s your father.’ I found that really odd that they didn’t contact me, that he had to just go in without having a set appointment time and that he could take our son with him. Anyway I said, ‘So you don’t want dad looking after our daughter?’ He said, ‘No that’s alright, but they’re going to contact the kindy’. I was absolutely distraught because my dad has a lot to do with my kids. I fully believed Anthony knew what he was bloody saying. I went to the kindy and asked if they’d been contacted by the child protection service social workers. They said, ‘No’ and would let me know if they were. When I did talk to the social worker she said, ‘We had an anonymous person whose given the names and ages of the children.’ The ages weren’t right. She said it was a man. She said, ‘We don’t follow up on these ones they’re very low priority’. It pretty much was Anthony that was doing this, because if there’s an investigation saying that my father’s molesting our daughter, then what happens, the kids get taken away. Of course he fully denies that he’d done it.”
Luckily, in Susan’s case, the child protection services did not remove Susan’s daughter. However, many perpetrators of coercive control threaten their partners saying they will inform child protection services that they are an unfit parent. Unfortunately sometimes the child protection system colludes with perpetrators and engages in mother blaming, partly because of a lack of staff training and understanding of the dynamics of coercive control.
Using Religion to establish and maintain power and control
Some men use religious ideologies to justify controlling their partners, by for example telling her she has to obey him because the Bible says so. They may use religion to stop their partner from leaving by saying that God does not allow divorce. Eva Lundgren (1995) interviewed fundamentalist Christian couples in Scandinavia. One man believed that keeping his wife in line was very important because it meant keeping the “pattern of nature” and meant he was following God’s plan. Part of the men’s aim for using the Bible as a guide was to enforce rigid gender roles for women, so that the more feminine they perceived their partners to be the more masculine this made them feel — a feeling which makes some men feel more strong, secure and superior.
Using Social Prejudices as weapons to degrade and control women
Some perpetrators of psychological abuse use social prejudices to reinforce their power. They may do this by drawing on a range of social hierarchies. Social hierarchies only exist because people decide who is superior and who is inferior. Here’s what I mean….
He may draw on the gender hierarchy that men are more superior than women and tell their partner she deserves abuse because she’s ‘just’ a woman.
He may draw on the race hierarchy that ranks white people as ‘better than’ and tell her she’s ‘just’ a Mäori, or ‘just’ a Black woman, or ‘just’ an Indian/Aborigine/Hispanic, and so forth.
He may draw on the hierarchy that classifies some age groups as having more rights and privileges, saying she’s ‘just’ a kid.
He can find many social messages that place him at the top of any hierarchy related to work and finances. He may be a breadwinner, earn more money than his partner, have wealth in his extended family, work as a lawyer, etc. — such positions are accompanied with kudos, status, respect and a sense of entitlement. She may engage in activities classified low on the hierarchy such as be a ‘stay at home mum’, do volunteer work, or work in paid employment as a cleaner — such positions tend to afford less respect and can be viewed as inferior…. In these circumstances, some men use their socially superior position to degrade, use and control their partners. They may do this by saying to their partners: “you don’t have any right to make decisions because you don’t have a ‘real’ job”, “you’re ‘only’ a mother”, “you have no money so you’ll get nowhere without me”. Then if a woman is dependent on her partner financially and she leaves him, he may further abuse her by engaging her in repeated and lengthy child custody and property battles, or may refuse to assist her and the children financially. Such unjust degradation can make women vulnerable to ongoing coercive control partly because what their partner tells them makes commonsense, because so many people have not learned to critique socially constructed concepts such as social hierarchies. The idea of equality between spouses flies out the window.
Other social prejudices perpetrators draw from include hierarchies relating to physical and psychological abilities — they may say to a disabled wife: “you will never amount to anything, you can’t even walk out the door”. Or they may use body image as a source of degradation by calling their partner “a fat slob”, and they may call a partner who does not have high level of education “a dumb bitch”. As Victoria points out below, all of these comments reinforce messages that surround all of us all the time.
Whenever Graham made snide remarks about Victoria’s size, he’d trivialise the negative impact on Victoria by saying, “Oh but it’s only a term of endearment”. Victoria said “I knew I was big, so it destroyed me a little bit more”. To cope with the abuse Victoria said, “I didn’t try to change my size because my weight is about safety. If I am overweight, I am fat, if I’m fat I’m ugly, if I’m ugly I’m safe, so I eat to keep safe. If you stop eating, you lose weight, people say ‘oh you’re looking good’, then you get abused. I ate because I was hurting. To get over the pain I eat.”
Some women learn that if they challenged their husband’s controlling behaviours, this would cause him to find more and more ways to maintain control by degrading them.
Using Social Prejudices that stigmatise mental illness
In our society, being healthy and well is considered worthy of praise, while having a mental illness and taking medication such as antidepressants is often stigmatised. Some people use these unjust social ideas as weapons to abuse and control others — by attempting to sway how the victim perceives themselves. Perpetrators who are hell-bent on diminishing their partner’s wellbeing may attempt to convince her that she needs a psychiatrist, or threaten to have her hospitalised for a mental illness. During the course of her seven year relationship with Dylan, Sally became depressed as a consequence of his incessant controlling behaviours. When she started taking antidepressants he said to her that her depression was the crux of their relationship problems. An effect of intimate partner coercive control can lead to the victim feeling as if they are going crazy — feeling as if they’re going insane or have indeed gone mad.
Using Women’s Immigrant Status as a weapon of power and control
Immigrants are vulnerable to abuse by their partner because they may not yet have a work permit, they may lack language skills in a foreign country, they may not know what services are available to them or how the systems work. Many women are sponsored into the country by their partner, which increases her dependence on him. There are various loopholes in the immigration systems that leave women who are victims of domestic violence very vulnerable and powerless.
Perpetrators use women’s immigration status as a weapon of control. They may constantly threaten to cancel their sponsorship of her, they may refuse to help her fill in the forms to get an extension to her work permit, some men threaten to have her deported and they use the legal system to get a court order preventing the removal of the children from the country. Thus children are left in the care of the abusing parent and grieve the loss of bond with the non-abusing parent who has been deported. Some perpetrators cancel their sponsorship, so that the woman’s application to reside in the country cannot go ahead. One Chinese woman, in a New Zealand study of women’s experience of Protection Orders, said her husband repeatedly told her, “I’ve been in this country for so long I know how things work. ‘I am telling you …’” Whenever she contradicted him he would yell: “You stupid Chinese. I’m going to call the immigration service right now and you’ll be out of here!” (Robertson and colleagues 2007:191) Some men will say to their partner ‘what do you know, you weren’t born here’, or ‘you can’t even speak English properly’. Such statements may not sound degrading to an outsider, but in the context of ongoing power and control they are statements that punch hard at immigrant women’s emotional wellbeing.
Using Male Privilege and Entitlement
Men I interviewed for my PhD talked about the kinds of privilege, entitlement and accompanying beliefs that drove their controlling behaviour towards their partners. These beliefs included the idea that men ‘own’ women, and that women are possessions who should serve and obey men. For example, Bill said:
“I can do what I want but you gotta do what I tell you to. That’s the way I’d see 90 percent of marriages, from a man’s point of view.”
Many couples have their money, house and car in both spouses’ names. Regardless of this, as Elizabeth and Sally said, their husbands used to repeatedly say the money, house and car belonged to them and not the woman.
Elsie said, “I was just something that he owned in every facet, whether it be sex or when friends are there, or if I was cooking, or doing some work, or whatever, it was nothing. Nothing I did was ever valued.”
When Pauline and Chris married, he chose the marriage vows — that led to Pauline promising to obey Chris. In line with the belief that women should obey men, Chris had sexist attitudes towards all women. Pauline said that when Miss World was on TV Chris would sit under the TV and look up. She said he had the attitude that all women are “tits and bums”.
Max said women should:
“Do as the man says. We can be very domineering. We want it our way. Our way or the highway, girl.… A lot of men do want to rule the roost, like, ‘I went to work, I paid for f***ing this, I’ve been working all week, get home to this shit’!”
Research with men who abuse women finds that those men justify their abuse by blaming women for failing to serve them as men. Geni, a man I interviewed said, “I would think the majority of men would think the wife is like the doting little servant, slave, there to do everything. But a lot of men come home from work in his suit and drops the briefcase and he expects the beer there and the meal on the table.”
Using Stopping Violence Programmes and Anger Management Programmes to further control women
Thankfully there are perpetrators of intimate partner abuse who seek help to change. Unfortunately though, research shows that many men use stopping abuse programmes and anger management programmes as yet another avenue to control their current or ex-partner. The ways men do this include telling her how lucky she is because his behaviours are “nothing” compared with other men’s, or by misinterpreting the training and twisting the definition of what constitutes coercive control by telling her that her behaviours are controlling, or by learning how to use a wider range of control tactics. Men who learn to take “time out” as an anger management strategy, can misuse this by not returning to resolve issues, or they may put the woman in charge of ensuring he takes time out. Many women get confused when their coercively controlling partner accuses them of being controlling. Yes everyone uses controlling behaviours in some form at some time — BUT…. There’s a big difference between destructive and constructive use of controlling behaviours. I write about this in the blog on Denial, Minimising, Blaming, and in my blog on the difference between “healthy” relationships and relationships where there’s “one-sided” power and control.
- Bancroft, Lundy, & Silverman, Jay G. (2002). The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics (SAGE Series on Violence against Women). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Jaffe, Peter G. (2002). Access denied: The barriers of violence and poverty for abused women and their children’s search for justice and community services after separation. London, ON: A summary report prepared for the Atkinson Foundation, The Centre for Children & Families in the Justice System.
- Lundgren, Eva. (1995). Feminist Theory and Violent Empiricism. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.
- Robertson, Neville, Busch, Ruth, D’Souza, Radha, Lam Sheung, Fiona, Anand, Reynu, Balzer, Roma, . . . Paina, Dulcie. (2007). Living at the cutting edge: Women’s experience of Protection Orders: Volume 1: The women’s stories.
Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:
One-Sided power games
Over-protection and ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation and Suppression of Potential
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Using the children