Last edited: 31st August 2019
Trigger warning: this post discusses coercive control in relationships, emotional abuse and gaslighting.
There is a difference between someone who just likes to get their own way all of the time, i.e. a selfish f**cker, and someone who is coercively controlling. Many relationships have one partner who tends to take the lead but sometimes their need for control can go too far. This blog post discusses warning signs that your partner may be too controlling, and may indeed be coercively controlling. Coercive control within relationships refers to a spectrum of behaviours that puts one person in a position of dominance and control over their partner. When thinking about coercive control, you may have an image of a man who controls finances within the relationship, won’t let his partner spend money without his consent, won’t let his partner go out without him, who dictates everything his partner does, makes all the major decisions in the relationship, who verbally and/or physically abuses his partner. That’s not necessarily the case although many such men – Romantic Dictators – unfortunately do exist. According to Evan Stark, 2007, Coercive Control. How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. New York: Oxford University Press, ‘Not only is coercive control the most common context in which women are abused, it is also the most dangerous.’ A spectrum of behaviours constitute coercive control. Coercive control is a form of emotional abuse and it can have a serious detrimental impact on your mental health, your wellbeing, and your whole life. That was certainly my own experience.
My last two relationships have been with men who liked to be in control and get their own way. In the first relationship, with a man I have referred to in other blog posts as Mr Control (How To Date An Arsehole, The Cat’s Whiskers), the last few months of this two-year relationship made it clear that I had dodged a bullet when he ended the relationship (as he wanted to be single). Only with hindsight did I recognise just how controlling he had been, and how much I had compromised myself within the relationship to keep the peace. Though I felt the usual sadness experienced after a break up, I was able to quickly pick myself up and get myself back out there… walking straight into a relationship with another controlling man, who I will refer to as The Boss, as he was indeed my boss at work. The difference is The Boss was coercively controlling and getting involved with him was the biggest mistake of my life. As I had had a relationship with a controlling man before, why was I not able to see the signs sooner to avoid getting involved with yet another man who likes to control? The answer is the charm offensive. Defined as ‘a campaign of flattery, friendliness, and cajolement designed to achieve the support or agreement of others,’ I was charmed into the relationship, and my love blinkers prevented me from discerning his true nature and just how catastrophic this relationship would prove to be. Coincidently, Mr Control and The Boss shared the same birthday but they also shared other traits too. I obviously have a type – handsome, highly intelligent, ambitious, witty, charismatic men. Both men were emotionally intelligent, able to engage in thoughtful discussions, and could be supportive and considerate when they wanted to be. As happy as I was at times within each relationship, neither relationship could ultimately go the distance once I realised the different ways they tried to control me. I’m an independent strong-minded woman and although I will make compromises for the sake of a healthy, happy relationship, I will always naturally rebel against efforts to control me unnecessarily. I want to be in a relationship with an equal, a loving partner, not a dictator who expects to always get their own way and punishes when you don’t toe the line.
My relationship with The Boss is a long and complicated story that I have blogged about extensively since I left him in April 2018. You can read about it on my About Me page and the blog posts How To Date An Arsehole, Get Lit (Not Gaslighted…), Invisible Scars, Gaslighting Survival Guide and It’s Not Me, It’s You. Our relationship took place in Dubai, a hypocritical Middle-Eastern city where everything is skewed in favour of men and the rights of women are a joke. As such, he got away with professional misconduct and emotionally abusive behaviour. Controlling and coercive behaviour is an offence in the UK. The law recognises the harm that the cumulative impact of controlling and coercive behaviour can have. It is an offence if the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim, i.e. causes serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities. Two years in to the relationship, there was an incident in which The Boss did something that he knew would hurt me to punish me for chatting to a male colleague at a staff party. I was so devastated, I instructed him to leave me alone, and to go through my line managers if there was a work issue to be dealt with. The Boss ignored my request, summoned me to a meeting in work to tell me there had been a silly complaint about me. He pretended he had done nothing wrong, that I had not requested to be left alone, and tried to manipulate me into compliance by telling me he had my back, implying I should be grateful for his support. This is a textbook example of gaslighting and was not the first time he had caused conflict with his unacceptable behaviour and then tried to manipulate me back in to submission. Unfortunately two years of dealing with this kind of behaviour had taken its toll, I had a breakdown and left Dubai for a week during term time to try to get my head together. I did go back for the kids I taught but I was broken. I managed a couple more months but he pushed me too far and eventually I spoke up to put an end to the situation. This relationship negatively impacted my mental health, my physical wellbeing, my relationships with others and my career. Far too many things happened in the relationship and post-break-up for me to discuss in this post; I’ve only ever shared as much as I felt I needed to to be believed, and to help others who may be in similar abusive situations. The point of this post is not to ‘dish dirt’ but instead to highlight what coercive control is.
Some warning signs of a controlling partner to watch out for:
- being love-bombed at the beginning of the relationship – over the top gestures, excessive compliments. This is the charm offensive used to sucker you in. Both Mr Control and The Boss did this with me.
- wanting to be with you all of the time. You feel flattered that they want you by their side all the time but it’s just their way of taking you over. Ensure you have time for yourself and your friends. Mr Control ended up isolating me from my friends because we spent so much time together and he didn’t like my friends.
- messaging constantly – you may like the fact they want to chat so much but they may be checking up on you, monitoring your activities and who you are with.
- telling you what to wear, how your hair should be and what your weight should be. Not OK.
- critical comments made with the intention of making you feel stupid, that make you feel not good enough, that make you feel as though you are in the wrong even when you’ve done nothing wrong. I remember being sent this classic when I joked I only got a smile emoji back in response to a long WhatsApp comment. The Boss replied, ‘A smile is a good thing and something you used to appreciate.’ Ouch. That told me.
- encouraging dependency – when they imply that only they understand you, only they ‘get you’, so you get used to going to them for support. I once turned to The Boss for support in a professional matter, only to find out later that he had been the one who had caused the issue and had thrown me under the bus despite telling me he had supported me. It is not uncommon for victims to become overly-dependent on their abusers – it’s akin to Stockholm-Syndrome.
- mind games – telling blatant lies or going hot and cold to play with your perceptions/emotions.
- lack of respect for boundaries – they may not respect boundaries you set and will instead just do what they want regardless. For example, not giving you space when you ask for it. If you end the relationship, they may ignore your requests to be left alone. They may prevent you from leaving the relationship if you express a desire to end it and manipulate you into staying.
- jealousy and possessiveness – they monitor who you chat to or spend time with. They may monitor your social media, to see what you post and who likes or posts comments. They may monitor phone calls, WhatsApps, emails etc, or even track your whereabouts using apps. They may insist that you share your passwords with them. They regard you as theirs, a possession.
- Sulking and punishment – they go cold on you when upset with you and may do something to retaliate, to punish or let you know they are displeased with you. This is where fear comes into play – fear of letting them down, or fear of losing your job for example. I felt I always had to please The Boss to ensure my career was not impacted; in the end I lost my job when I spoke up about his behaviour. This was, however, a blessing in disguise.
All of the above can appear to be ‘low-level’ behaviours but they are used to control and assert dominance; over a period of time, they can have serious consequences for victims. Controlling men do not like it when you do not do as you are told, if you fail to comply with their wishes and demands, or if you stand up for yourself, and they will find ways to regain power and control. As confident as these men can appear to be, the need to control often stems from their own deep-rooted insecurities. They may fear that you will leave them so they chip away at you, to make you feel that no one else will want you, or may even tell you that no one else will love you as much as they do. Some men treat women like trophies to make themselves appear more desirable or successful. You may have to look and behave a certain way in order to be ‘good enough’ to be with them. Coercive control has absolutely no place within a healthy relationship. Unchain yourself from anyone who tries to control you, who stops you from being yourself, who makes you unhappy, and does not enhance your life.
Now fully back in control of my life, I am passionately committed to educating others about coercive control. Victims deserve to be heard and believed and I have spoken up on behalf of so many women who may not recognise that they are experiencing coercive control, or feel too afraid to speak up themselves. I didn’t know what coercive control was until I had counselling and I’m glad I can use my blog, and Instagram, to share my experiences to highlight the issue and encourage others to set themselves free.