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Coercive Control

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

This week in Australia, we remembered Sorry Day - when colonist-descended and other non-Indigenous Australians acknowledge the suffering caused to our First Nations peoples through centuries of mistreatment. Juxtapose this with our recognition of the subjugation of women, and domestic violence, and the atrocities in other countries (for instance Palestine/Israel and West Papua), and you get a sense of the injustices that humans can perpetrate on each other.

Thankfully, most people are kind and respectful.

But I was reminded recently, that coercive control can happen in any relationship, in any place, at any time. It can be overt (incredibly obvious) or covert (so subtle, you might miss it). I'd like to give you some examples from real life, to illustrate.

Maybe, the relationship is professional, and the person in a subordinate position is obstructed from applying for promotions by their manager. I recall a postgraduate student, whose supervisor stopped them from publishing their thesis manuscripts and applying for funding, and wouldn't help them get a job when they finished. If the supervisor had not obstructed their student, the student had the potential to become a more successful researcher and professor than their supervisor.

I remember a dentist, who was in a sexual relationship with his receptionist. The receptionist was significantly younger than his boss, and the power balance in the relationship was non-existent. The receptionist wanted to leave the relationship and the job, because he was unhappy with bullying behaviour from his boss; but felt that he couldn't, because he knew he wouldn't get a reference if he left. Talk about a conflict of interests. The receptionist was coercively controlled - psychologically, financially, vocationally, socially, and romantically - by the dentist. In the end, someone from outside the relationship accused the dentist of misconduct, and he was sent to jail. The receptionist was free!

Often, sadly, the coercive control is meted out by a parent or guardian. Once upon a time, there was a girl whose father molested her. He molested her cousin too, but the family did nothing. Why? It would ruin the family name. And so, those girls had to put up with being raped by a family member, and being forced into silence. They were told to tell no-one. Imagine feeling like you were the only one? Imagine worrying about your cousin, your sister, your friend; and not being allowed to warn them. One day, at a family lunch, the rapist's niece was told to swap seats with her teenage friend, so the friend wouldn't have to sit next to him. Why was it more important for him to be at lunch, than for his niece to be protected from him? Not only did he have control over those girls, he had control over their parents and the rest of their families. A physical, sexual, psychological menacing control - over decades.

Those sorts of experiences stay with you; and if you're a victim, they could stay with you and your children too. There's plenty of evidence for intergenerational trauma which shows that the depression and anxiety experienced by a primary victim can be passed on through behaviours, attitudes, and even DNA. There is a promising treatment for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, that even I (anti-drugs as I am) acknowledge could be a path to healing. I think, if you love your children and want them to be happy, investing in your own wellbeing is paramount. But, often, those primary victims just can't get the help they need. It might not be available, or they might not know that it's there for them. Or, as is often the case, they might not think that there's anything wrong.

Remember, how near the start, I said that coercive control can be overt and covert?

So, is this next example overt or covert? A government restricts access to healthcare for a certain group of the population, or just fails to provide that healthcare, but regular people across the nation are unaware of the imbalance. Failure to treat each member of a population equally is discriminatory, but it also has serious long-term effects. Those effects can include increased risk of serious illnesses, like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and blindness. These illnesses can restrict a person's capacity to live their fullest life, to enjoy their home and holidays, and restrict their ability to provide for their family. On a population scale, it becomes a human rights issue, and becomes overt discrimination (and coercive control). But, what if it's just plain old negligence or ignorance?

A clear example of covert coercive control, is when one half of a romantic partnership finds excuses to get out of the family dinners or time with friends of the other. There's no clear mention that they hate your in-laws, or that they've had a bad experience with one of your friends. They just find reasons not to go, and when you say you might go without them, that's when things get a little spikey! Instead of saying out loud that they don't want to go and you're not allowed to go without them, they find reasons to make you stay home with them. Maybe they say that they'll miss you, if you go without them; or they would prefer you to be around, "just in case". Maybe they make sexual advances on you just as you're leaving, which makes you so late that it would be rude to show up! They plan holidays with you and their friends (but not your friends); they invite their parents around for dinner (but yours don't ever seem welcome). They are fun and gregarious when in a social situation with their family and friends, but if they get a whiff that you had contact from one of yours, you get interrogated. If you say you'd like to invite your sibling around for a coffee, they ask, "where did that come from?" as though you shouldn't have thoughts of your own or come from some other family. You might not realise it, but you are a victim of coercive control.

Another example might be to do with your accounts. Your partner has access to your phone records, banking, and emails, because they say that you never tell them when you've received an invitation, or because they want to help you at tax time. That way, they see everything. In wanting to see everything, they are showing that they don't trust you.

Sure, in a positive, mutually nurturing and respectful relationship, both partners having access to these sorts of things won't be a problem. It's when one person uses them to control the behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs of another, that the balance of power shifts and one partner exerts coercive control over the other. I once knew a person who wouldn't contribute to flowers for a family member who'd been treated for cancer, because their spouse would see the debit in his bank account. A simple transfer, from one family member to another, would have caused no end of grief, because that man's spouse would be angry that he'd heard from a sibling. There was no feud, there was no slight incurred; just many years of mistrust.

So, what causes coercive control, and how can it be avoided? That's a big question, with many answers. There may be various experiences that lead someone to exert coercive control over another; but so often, it boils down to a lack of trust. Sometimes, it might involve anxiety, but on the whole, it's about trust.

Those members of a population who don't have equal access to healthcare - does their government trust them to utilise the services, if they are provided? Or, is it about politics? Does their government trust them to vote those politicians back in at the next election?

That rape victim - can she be trusted to live her life free of abuse? Or, is it about a cowardly rapist who knows that if they don't swear the child to silence, they'll be sent to jail?

That spouse - can they be trusted to come back, after spending time with their own family and friends, or will they start to think that life is better without their coercive partner? Can their family and friends be trusted not to "hold an intervention"?

It's usually much more complicated than what I've described. When outsiders ask, "Why doesn't she just leave him?" - they may be surprised by the answer - she "loves him". There may be many reasons why the victim-partner loves the coercive-partner, and they may be great reasons to stay. But, if both parties love the families into which they were born, love each other, and love their children, then you would think that the victim-partner would seek help for their situation. And you would think, that (in finding out they've been hurting the one they love) the coercive-partner would seek help too.

So, where to start, if you're in a coercive controlled relationship? Maybe start with 1800Respect, Lifeline, or BeyondBlue.

1800Respect: 1800 737732
Lifeline: 13 11 14
BeyondBlue: 1300 224636

And a final note about Sorry Day, and the Uluru Statement. There has been talk this past week, that the Uluru Statement opened a dialogue about the possibility of two important changes. Those changes were to acknowledge the original custodians of Australia in our Constitution, and a suggestion to establish a third cabinet for our Parliament that would enable our First Nations Peoples to have a voice in legislature. These changes would involve a referendum, and I - for one - would vote YES to both. You know, it's about so much more than "trust".

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