Coercive control is when an abuser consistently or repeatedly uses a pattern of behaviours to insert themselves into, and control, the abused partner’s life. It is a pattern originally identified by Evan Stark in 2007, which aims to strip the victim of independence and self-confidence. Coercive control is associated with long-term harm and can pose significant risk from the abuser even after the relationship is over. Given the role that coercive control plays in understanding and responding to intimate partner violence, below are 4 things everyone should know about what it is and how it functions.
1. What does coercive control in romantic relationships look like?
Coercive control involves abusers attempting to dictate every aspect of their partner’s lives, and does not necessarily require physical violence. Some examples of non-physical, abusive behaviours are:
2. The impact on health and well-being.
The gradual loss of independence that comes with coercive control, and the consistent experience of stress and tension, can have a lasting negative impact on the health and well-being of victims. The road to recovery from non-physical elements of coercive control and the destruction of self-esteem, are often reported as a challenge as great as recovery from physical violence. For victims, a considerable struggle after leaving their abusive partner is regaining confidence and faith in themselves.
3. The risk of retaliation.
Even after leaving a relationship with coercive control there is a risk of retaliation from the abuser. Risk of retaliation is associated with the amount of coercive control an abuser has over their victim, rather than the physical or non-physical nature of the previous abuse. The risks are clearly illustrated by the cases of Claire Hart in the UK, and Tara Costigan in Australia. Although neither Claire nor Tara experienced physical abuse from their partners during the course of their relationships, both were tragically murdered after taking steps to leave their controlling abusers. In less extreme but still very damaging cases, victims experience continued abuse from their former partners such as harassment or stalking. In cases with children in particular, abuse can continue through court proceedings.
4. Coercive control and the law.
It can be particularly difficult to prosecute coercive control involving non-physical abuse in a legal system that presses criminal charges based on single instances of criminal behaviour. The UK recently implemented a coercive control offence in an attempt to remedy this problem. Unfortunately, the results of this law do not appear to be as positive as might have been expected.
As we progress in our understanding of intimate partner violence it is important to develop a deeper understanding of coercive control. We need to further our awareness of the warning signs, the harms it causes, the risks it poses, and the complexities of this issue. It is clear from what we now know that a lack of physical violence doesn’t necessarily reduce the harm or risk of retaliation for those who have experienced abuse. We need to move away from a black and white understanding of abuse that discounts the severity of non-physical abuse to come to grips with the true nature and scale of the problem.
- Kiara Minto
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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