Women’s Wise Words
Coercive Control is about patterns of abuse designed to isolate, intimidate and force submission from a woman. SiSi says women because in 96% of cases of Coercive Control, the victim is a woman and the perpetrator is usually a man whom she has trusted and he has violated that trust. Most often women we come across in SiSi have left abusive relationships and are grappling to navigate abusive court proceedings where ex-partners enforce their ‘entitlements’ in a whimsical fashion with life destroying financial abuse and post separation control continuing for as long as the court allows abusive applications to be made.
In the aftermath of escaping domestic abuse, or intimate partner violence, survivors often struggle with the concepts of “why did I stay as long as I did?”, or “why didn’t I phone the guards for help sooner?”. This is reinforced in so many ways by a society that doesn’t understand the complexities of domestic abuse. “Domestics” are not something people feel they should get involved in. It’s considered “private” — between two people, so it’s not always easy to talk about it and share intimate details with others without feeling some level of judgement or shame. Even if we start to share some details, we may be met with the attitude of “you made your bed, so lie on it” type thing. There are many more answers to the above questions, so I’ll try to cover some that are now glaringly obvious to me (although not so at the time), having escaped such a situation myself.
We cannot name what is happening to us — This might seem a bit of a strange thing to hear. Surely if anyone was being abused they would recognize it, right? EH-EH! Wrong! Abusers are cunning in their tactics and strategy. They don’t start off punching us in the face and choking us. That would be too obvious and we’d run at the first hurdle. They often appear kind, charming, loving, supportive and interested in our well-being in the beginning. They might also appear vulnerable, appealing to our caring nature. In fact, most survivors I’ve spoken with would agree that they believed they had found their “soul mate”, because of their earlier encounters with their abusers. We trust that they are who they say they are. The abuse is so gradual in most cases, that we can’t see it for what it is…a little put-down here and there, planting some seeds of doubt about our friends and family, disguising controlling behaviour as caring too much, or loving us too much, them “taking care” of all the financial stuff, little lies here and there to throw us off guard…until before we know it, we are months, years, or decades into the relationship and are completely down-trodden, unable to think clearly, with no self esteem, struggling financially and isolated from everyone who may have been a source of support. And we are left baffled as to how it got to this point. This is particularly true when coercive control is at play and the abuser may never have to raise a hand to control a victim — a simple glare, word, or tone of voice will say all that needs to be said for us to concede. Tactics can often be very covert and subtle, so we don’t recognize it when we are being manipulated or lied to. The physical stuff, in many cases, only starts when all other tactics are failing, or we may have begun to confront them over their behaviour. And even then, survivors don’t always see it as “abuse”. Abuse is such a dirty word. Particularly if we have grown up in an environment where physical or verbal aggression or violence was considered normal, religious views were staunch when it came to sexual dominance, or manipulation and passive-aggressive behaviours were common. It’s difficult to see the pattern when you’re in the thick of it and some of the behaviours seem relatively normal, or at least might seem more “mean”, “selfish”, “inconsiderate”, or “uncaring”, when viewed in isolation : Quietly undermining us, shouting at us, roaring or spitting in our faces, moving things around to cause confusion, calling us names and demeaning us, blocking exits, threatening to break down doors if we don’t unlock them, forcing sex whether we want it or not, having affairs behind our backs while withholding sex so we feel unloved or unworthy, passive-aggressive or sarcastic comments, not showing up to collect children from school, sexist or lewd “jokes” at our expense, controlling money, so we are limited in our choices, refusing to take care of their own children at the last minute, knowing we have an important arrangement made, creating messes around the home and expecting us to clean it up, making emotional or physical threats when we don’t do something to their liking, all mixed with or without physical and/or sexual violence…it’s all very confusing and hard to see the bigger picture and define the collective behaviours as “abusive”. Until it starts to become more obvious as the aggression begins to worsen over time. Plus, some of the bad behaviours are also accepted to a large degree by society, particularly when viewed as isolated incidents (e.g. women are expected to take on a larger proportion of the housework or childcare, or it’s assumed when voices are raised, that it’s just a row…we all have “rows” with our “other half”, nobody’s perfect, right?). If a stranger punched us on the street, roared or spat into our faces, grabbed our handbag, or verbally or physically attacked us in front of others, we would instantly recognize this as wrong and see the criminal side to the behaviour. There’s no emotional connection. It’s an isolated incident. But when it’s someone you love, it’s not always easy to call out the behaviour, or see it for what it is. Which brings me to my next point.
We minimize the behaviour to protect our abusers — This is not some stranger in the street, this is someone we love and care about and have an intimate connection with, or may even have children with. We may try to confide in family or friends that something is wrong, but it’s difficult to explain what’s happening when you still have loyalties to your abuser. We are caught between the balance of explaining how bad things are, while at the same time not wanting to get this person into trouble, or cause any more difficulties if they find out you have “betrayed” them by disclosing intimate details of your relationship to someone else. We don’t want other people to hate the person we love.
We believe we cannot cope alone and often find ourselves dependent on our abusers for emotional and financial support — This is especially true if we are in a situation whereby a) we have no family or friends for support (abusers love isolating us from anyone close to us, who may point out that our situation is very wrong or abnormal), b) we are not in a position to work, so are financially dependent on our abusers (maybe still raising children, or have a disability, low self-esteem, or suffer with anxiety/depression as a result of the abuse. Any attempts to become financially independent may also be sabotaged by our abusers), or c) our abusers have some legitimate power/hold over us (e.g. house or tenancy in their sole name).
We are in fear of the repercussions of leaving — Aside from the financial fears as mentioned above, there may be other implied or actual threats made, should we ever choose to leave. There may be emotional threats to disclose information, or share embarrassing/sexual images, or, if children are involved, threats to take them (or have them taken) away, anything that the abuser knows will embarrass, hurt, or destroy us in some way, should we disclose the abuse to anyone. There may also be very real threats to cause physical harm to us or our children. My abuser told me through a friend that he would “say or do whatever it takes” to “destroy” me and went on to list the various ways he planned on doing this, mentioning he would take the children, our home, destroy my character as a mother and as a person, my business…anything that was of value to me. This was because I took out a protection order against him from the courts because of his escalating abusive behaviour. Such was my naivety back then, that I hoped he might stop after he realised how destructive his behaviour actually was and the harm he was causing us. It was also indicated to me throughout our relationship that he had friends in low places. One seemingly offered on a previous occasion to cut off an ex-boyfriend’s fingers (I only found this out much later on in our relationship). Another shady acquaintance he liked to name-drop is a large-scale criminal currently on trial for murder, while already incarcerated for multiple other offences. Whether or not any of this is true, the fear it instils is very real.
We fear we won’t be believed if we report the abuse— particularly if we seem intelligent (how could someone of high intelligence be sucked in like that?), not appearing to be struggling financially, and in public would seem to have a “close” relationship with our abusers. The fact we have made excuses and minimised their behaviour for years, means people are sometimes shocked when we begin to disclose even parts of what’s been happening in the relationship. We find it hard enough to accept that what we are experiencing is abuse, until it gets so bad, it’s no longer deniable — why should we expect others to believe it so easily?
Most people don’t want to see themselves as victims — The stigma is too great and society can be very cruel if survivors don’t appear to be the “perfect” victim. We see it all the time where victims do find the courage to come forward and are treated with disdain or contempt, as people suddenly step in to protect the “good name” or reputation of the perpetrator and tear the victim apart in the process. People assume because the accused is likeable and charming, or else never abused them personally, that they are incapable of abusing someone else.
Experience sometimes teaches us that phoning the guards for help can make things worse. Lack of training, or personal biases, can often result in victims not only being disregarded when disclosing abuse to the authorities, but it can also cause the abuse to escalate, as perpetrators attempt to regain power and control by punishing their victims even more severely for attempting to “expose” them (even though the victim’s purpose is self-protection).
Abusers play on our kind/forgiving nature — As victims and survivors are fully aware, an abuser is not abusive all of the time. There are intermittent times where they appear to be kind and loving towards us. After each abusive episode, I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve heard promises of change, suggestions of counselling, declarations of love (note: actions and words should match — I missed that while in the thick of it!), followed by moments, even days or weeks of what might be viewed as kindness or tenderness. These all serve to suck us back into the cycle of abuse all over again. We think they may mean it this time. We want to believe that they are capable of going back to being the person they were at the beginning of the relationship, the person we fell in love with, when we see little reminders of their “good” side every now and then. We make excuses for their behaviour, or accept the excuses they offer us — they had too much to drink, they had a difficult childhood, they were off their medication, or were stressed over work or money…the list of excuses is endless. Until their “good” side becomes visible less and less, and the abuse becomes more frequent and severe. It’s only when we finally reach a point where the fear overtakes the willingness to forgive, that we realise it’s time to get out, or we may not live to tell the tale.
We have invested so much time and energy into the relationship — If we are married, or have children with our abusers then it’s even harder to leave… “for better or worse”, right? Coming from a Catholic/religious background, this weighed even heavier. We convince ourselves that we should stay for the greater good of the family unit. I was “reminded” on several occasions that if I left, I would be responsible for breaking up our family. That’s a lot of guilt to shoulder — which I now realise wasn’t my guilt in the first place!
We don’t believe we deserve better, nor can we see a way out — When we are constantly criticised, belittled and made feel “less-than”, our self-esteem takes a hammering. We experience a sense of despair. We don’t feel worthy of more, such is our guilt and shame for “allowing” ourselves to end up in an abusive situation. We feel hopeless and cannot see beyond coping day to day. I remember comparing it to being on a hamster wheel, running around and around, but not actually getting anywhere. No matter what we do, it’s never enough. Abusers keep changing the goalposts, so we find ourselves living in a constant state of anxiety and high alert, trying to do the “right” thing, which may suddenly on another day be “wrong”. We are constantly walking on eggshells. Our entire focus is survival — trying not to “upset” our abusers, or else we, or our children, suffer the consequences. I stayed too long because I thought I was doing right by my children, yet I ended up escaping because of my children. The only way to end the cycle is to jump off that wheel and never look back!