What It Feels Like To Date Someone Who Only Wants To Control You

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
'Domestic abuse' is a scary term. It is something that happens in news stories and books, films and soap operas. It is angry men raising fists at defenceless women. It is hidden bruises; it is excuses to cancel plans. Domestic abuse is not something that happens to intelligent, successful women. It is not something that happens to charismatic, kind men. It is not something that happens to you. It is not something that happens to me.
Except that it is.
The sort of domestic abuse that I encountered, that I lived through and survived for over a decade, did not leave me with a broken bone, nor a single bruise to hide. But the emotional scars are so deep that they may never heal. The post-trauma anxiety that has taken hold of me will likely affect me for the rest of my life. It will seep into future relationships. It will require me to approach my self-care routine with a respect and regularity akin to the treatment of a life-threatening illness. The daily mantras that keep me sane and focused are my medication. My love for myself, so hard fought for, is my life raft.
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The daily mantras that keep me sane and focused are my medication. My love for myself, so hard fought for, is my life raft.

Coercive control is an insidious, regimented, predictable pattern of behaviour that I hope you never have need to be familiar with. But arming yourself with the knowledge of these behaviours is like ensuring you have your life jacket before casting off. It is self-preservation.
This is how it works. The abuser hits you with a 'love bomb' at the start of your relationship. They are kind, affectionate, complimentary. They make you feel special and unique, they tell you they never usually feel like this so quickly, they make you feel like you’re all that matters in the world. They frequently make you feel as if you’re rescuing them in some way, or vice versa. But they also display anger or 'punish' you when they don’t get their way or receive the correct reaction. These two behaviours hang in the balance and gradually the 'loving' behaviour decreases as the anger and discontent increases. The aim is to ensure you are acting, reacting and behaving in the way your abuser desires. If you do what they want, you will be rewarded with the positive behaviours. Any deviation from their expectation and you receive the anger, or other punishment. Violence is not necessarily present, but the threat of it usually is. Displays of physical aggression, such as punching walls, or smashing household items, are effective ways of causing intimidation through the indication of potential violence.

The end goal is to break your will, so that your abuser has complete control over your life.

The effects of this coercive control can include isolating you from your friends and family, deprivation of money, food or other basic needs, controlling what you wear, where you go, who you see, even what media you consume and who you talk to. Constantly putting you down to make you feel worthless is very common, as is humiliating, degrading behaviour, intimidation and threats. The end goal is to break your will, so that your abuser has complete control over your life.
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If you start to recognise these behaviours in your partner, and make the decision to confront them, they will likely use their tools of coercion as their defence. They will belittle your claims. They will gaslight you. They will make you doubt yourself. They will use examples of how much worse you could have it. They will make you feel lucky that they never actually hit you, never raped you, never killed you. And you will believe them. You will feel grateful.
My son saved me from my abuser. Seeing my husband’s behaviour through his innocent eyes was the wake-up call I needed to take action. The need, greater than any need on this earth, to protect my child, galvanised me into action. My friends, my family, my abuser’s family, stood around me as I found the strength to break free. But breaking free was a singular act of bravery that I remind myself of when I’m clouded by doubts.
The final thing to know is that abusers are often victims themselves. Part of their process of coercion is to tell you about the abuse they suffered. They show their vulnerability and you repay them with yours. They believe themselves to be victims of their circumstances. Their knowledge of their experience absolves them of their personal responsibility. It absolves them of guilt. But don’t you make this mistake. You have lived with their abuse for weeks, months, years, decades. You will not go on to abuse. You are not a victim of your circumstance. You are a survivor. And so am I.
Coercive and controlling behaviour was made a criminal offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015. You can read more about coercive control on the Women’s Aid website. You can also find help and support at Refuge. The author chose to donate her fee from this feature to Refuge.
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