By: Christine Louis de Canonville

WHAT IS COERCIVE CONTROL?

Coercive control is a pattern of psychological and emotional behaviours (i.e. intimidation, humiliation, threats, etc.) that enforces the perpetrator’s rules on a victim through varying levels of abuse and degrees of severity. The tactics are intended to create a state of fear and subordination (especially in the victims of domestic violence) for taking away their sense of liberty. Apart from causing psychological harm, the coercive control may also escalate into inflicting physical pain or injury to the victim, especially when the perpetrator wants to enhance the credibility of a threat.

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF COERCIVE CONTROL BEHAVIOUR?

Defining Coercive Control marks a huge step forward in tackling domestic abuse. According to the Domestic Violence Act (Ireland), the definition of Coercive Control states: –

“Coercive control is formally defined as psychological abuse in intimate relationships that causes fear of violence or serious alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse impact on a person’s day-to-day life, manifesting as a pattern of intimidation or humiliation involving psychological or emotional abuse.” (Domestic Violence Act).

IS COERCIVE CONTROL A FORM OF ABUSE?

Absolutely, coercive control is a form of abuse. It can involve a variety of criminal offences (i.e. assault, rape, damage to your property, even threats to kill, etc.). The repeated behaviours of coercive abuse are ultimately about owning and controlling the victim, with the express intent to remove their freedom. It has nothing to do with “love”, it is predatory “obsession” which means that it has everything to do with: –

  • psychological assaults,
  • passive-aggressive insults,
  • ultimatums,
  • and a general loss of “liberty” for the victim.

However, many victims (whether male or female) who are being ‘entrapped’ are highly unlikely to recognise this cunning covert aggression at the beginning of the relationship. This dynamic is specifically designed to set the victim up for disempowering them.  Gradually, over time, the perpetrator instils fear in the victim, causing them to deny their negative emotional responses, and give the control of the relationship over to them. The victim, like the proverbial frog in the simmering pot, has no idea that they are being “psychologically boiled alive”.

 

SIGNS OF COERCIVE CONTROL

Coercive control describes an ongoing and multipronged strategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, and stalking. It can also include mental, physical or sexual abuse of the victim. The perpetrator’s nefarious wicket actions are carried out in clever increasing and intensifying increments. This insidious and calculated controlled assault on the victims are often described as “death by a thousand cuts”; For example: –

  • ·Being isolated from your family and friends.
  • Being deprived of your basic needs (i.e. Food, medication and comfort).
  • Being financially deprived of your own money, and having to account for the money you do spend.
  • Losing control of your everyday life (i.e. where you go, whom you can see, what you wear, what you can buy, etc.).
  • Being threatened with violence if you do not behave in a certain way (i.e. how you clean the house, cook the meals, perform in the bedroom, etc.).
  • Controlling your reproductive choices and sexual health (i.e. forbid the use of contraception from protecting you from STD’s or unwanted pregnancy, etc.).
  • Being controlled as to where you work, and what type of work you do.
  • Being stopped from working or going to school/college/university, etc.
  • Having no authority over your accounts.
  • Controlling everything within the household (i.e. deeds of the house, telephone, utilities, passport, etc.).
  • Monitoring your activities, movements and communication (i.e. emails, social media, spyware on mobile phone & computer, etc.).
  • Threatening to publish information about you to everybody, the police and authorities.
  • Insisting you answer their phone calls within a certain number of rings.
  • Being deprived of sleep.
  • Subjected to constant criticism, humiliation, intimidation and degrading name-calling.
  • Being repeatedly put down, telling you that you are worthless.
  • Enduring mental, emotional, physical and sexual violence.
  • Having your property or household damaged.
  • Forcing you to be part of their criminal activities or child abuse.
  • Threatening to harm or kill you and your children.

These are just a few examples of coercive control tactics, but the list is endless. This subjugation of the victim occurs against a background of entitlement and inequality. Each “cut” serves to dramatically reduce the victim’s “space for action” by curtailing their freedom in different ways; for example: –

  • Freedom of Movement (i.e. Giving the illusion that victim is free to make independent choices, however, the perpetrator uses jealousy to justify and control when they can speak to anybody else, control where they go, what they read, what they wear, etc.);
  • Freedom of Association (i.e. Speaking on their victim’s behalf, interrupting their conversations, filtering whom they see or speak to, limiting their outside involvement, etc.);
  • Freedom of Finances (i.e. not allowing any financial independence, monitoring what they can spend, preventing them from working outside the home, etc.).

Once the narcissistic perpetrator manages to isolate their victim and instil in them a trance of fear, they become much easier to control. In effect, the victim’s sense of personal agency is vanishing little by little, and soon they may even begin to doubt their sanity. This form of intimate terrorism creates a feeling of tyranny and entrapment in the victim. This is the reason why it has become a criminal offence under “coercive control legislation” in intimate or familial relationships in several European countries since 2015.

WHAT KIND OF PERSON IS LIKELY TO CARRY OUT COERCIVE CONTROL IN THEIR RELATIONSHIPS?

The most likely candidate to be coercively controlling in their relationships is a person with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD is one of four recognised Cluster B personality disorders as defined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, and we all exist somewhere on the continuum. That means, as humans, we are all narcissistic to some degree, and indeed need to be for remaining healthy. A certain number of narcissistic traits (self-centred characteristics) are required for healthy living and survival, and they also contribute to our confidence, resilience and driving ambition. However, the higher up the spectrum an individual is, the more pathological their self-centeredness becomes.  They then develop deeply ingrained and pervasive patterns of behaviour that become the diagnosable mental illness referred to as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is, therefore, a mental condition in which the individual has an inflated sense of their own importance. Their inflated sense of self-esteem leads them to believe that they are more important than they are; consequently, they develop fantasies of power, wealth and omnipotence. They view themselves as superior beings. Their arrogant, haughty sense of entitlement leads them to think that they are above the normal rules of society, and therefore deserving of special treatment. To support their fragile ego, their lack of empathy for others and their sense of entitlement allows them to act out their callous behaviours and exploit their victims (their narcissistic supply). Because narcissism is a spectrum disorder (from the classical narcissist, malignant narcissist, and psychopath), the higher up the scale, the more dangerous their behaviour becomes. For example, their ego-syntonic sadism makes them predators with a tendency to destroy and dehumanize others, and their lack of conscience (often due to brain damage) can make them potential killers.

WOULD IT BE CORRECT TO SAY THAT SOME PERPETRATORS OF COERCIVE CONTROL WOULD HAVE A NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER?

The simple answer is “yes”. Many of these individuals will have a pathological narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) that will have gone undiagnosed.  The criteria for diagnosing an individual with NPD show a pattern of behaviour that can be found also in those individuals who carry out coercive control against their victims. Often narcissism, with its psychological abuse patterns (i.e. its blend of ambient abuse behaviours for instilling fear in the victim, and coercive control behaviour for getting dominance in the relationship) can be found in perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV). A lot of the time, the perpetrators means of controlling the victim can even look like affectionate expressions, for example, “I am only hard on you because I love you”.  However, the terror they incite is unintelligible to the victim, and cleverly leads to their being in a dominant-subordinate relationship.

All too often, NPD, anti-social behaviour and coercive control go hand in hand with each other. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not as rare as one may think. I would make a conservative estimate and say that it affects about 10% of the general population (psychopaths being between 1% to 2% of that population), although other researchers would say it is much more prevalent.

HOW COMMON IS COERCIVE CONTROL?

Coercive control is very common, much more than it is recognised.  According to Safe Ireland, 580,000 women in Ireland have experienced this form of abuse, however, they do not report on how many men experience coercive control in their domestic violence situations. Furthermore, we should remember that coercive control does not only happen in domestic abuse situations, but it can also literally happen in any intimate relationship (i.e. in the workplace, or friendships, etc.). As Evan Stark showed, coercive control is part of the total model of domestic violence that take away a person’s fundamental human rights of autonomy.  It is always present (to some degree) in relationships where there is domestic violence and intimate terrorism, especially when carried out by a partner (male or female) with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Research in England shows that 30 per cent of women (about five million), and 16 per cent of men (two and a half million) experience domestic abuse during their lives. According to Caitriona Gleeson of Safe Ireland, an EU Study in Ireland has shown that about one-third of Irish women have been in a psychologically abusive relationship (unfortunately she does not mention figures for male abuse). David Walsh, Chairman of Men’s Voices Ireland (2017), spoke out, saying: –

“Men assaulted by their partners are often ignored by police, see their attackers go free and have far fewer refuges to flee to than women.”

One of the most authoritative studies made in Ireland (the NCC Report of 2005) reported that when all cases of severe abuse were counted, the rates for men and women were almost equal (26% versus 29%). Domestic violence needs to be treated as a genderless phenomenon; it is not only as a female problem.  For that reason, I would say that coercive control is a much bigger issue than realised.

Indeed, femicide has been identified globally as a leading cause of premature death for women, and femicide appears to be on the increase. According to Criminologist, Monckton Smith (2017), where there is a presence of domestic abuse, coercive control or stalking, there is a strong possibility of femicide being carried out. Power-control killers get gratification by having power over their victim. We need to be aware that “Power” is the hallmark of pathological narcissistic abuse in all their relationships, domestic and otherwise.  According to the Forensic Psychologist, Howitt (2006), dominance is the motive of the stalking and the killing. He states: –

“94% of stalkers of women were men. Most significantly, 48% of the stalkers were intimates of the women in the sense of being a past husband or partner or having had a brief sexual relationship with the stalker. On average the stalking continued for 1.8 years.”

So far, the majority of research is failing (or refusing) to connect up all the dots when it comes to fully understanding coercive control. It is not enough to know and name the behaviours without linking it to the type of person (both male and female) who are most likely to act out such gaslighting behaviours that toys with a victim’s sense of reality.  What is gaslighting? Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse used by all pathological narcissistic perpetrators to instil in their victims an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgement. The goal of the perpetrator in this form of abuse is to use a blend of fear (Ambient Abuse) and domination tactics (Coercive Control) for gaining power and control over their targeted victim, and strip the victim of their self-worth and agency.

All these behaviours are “red flags” that point to a perpetrator (either diagnosed or un-diagnosed) to be an individual with pathological narcissism. The general public has a right to this information because they need to know how to identify when they are in a relationship with such an individual. It may help them to leave the relationship earlier when they realise that all the “love” in the world is not going to change their abuser.

This information may also be important in the Courtrooms when these cases are brought before a Judge. Judges could be given the power to request that an assessment for NPD be carried out on these abusers, especially where there is shared co-parenting. Unfortunately, even when the relationship seems to be over, many narcissists are likely to continue making their demands on their ex-partners, and they will continue to attack, threat, and intimidate them, to the point of sabotaging their mental health.

COERCIVE CONTROL LAW

IS COERCIVE CONTROL NOW AN ILLEGAL OFFENSE?-

Yes, coercive control is now an illegal offence in 5 countries in the world:

  • Ireland
  • England
  • Scotland
  • Wales
  • And France

I am delighted to say, that on the 2nd January 2019, legislation against coercive control in domestic violence came fully into effect in Irish law (under both civil and criminal law). Coercive control is officially a crime against liberty in Ireland. The Irish Domestic Abuse Law follows the approach of Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act 2018, whereas, the other three countries that have introduced the new Domestic Abuse Act seem to differ somewhat from each other (i.e. England, Wales and France). Before this new legislation in Ireland, domestic violence had been seen primarily as physical abuse, it did not recognise the damage done by psychological abuse.

HOW WILL THE NEW LEGISLATION IN THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ACT AFFECT VICTIMS?

I cannot speak of the effects for all countries who have introduced this new legislation to reform their Domestic Violence Bill, however, I can speak of the changes made to Ireland law.  Before this new legislation in Ireland, domestic violence had been seen primarily as physical abuse, it did not recognise the damage done by psychological abuse. Therefore, psychological abuse, where frequent low-level violence was accompanied by other coercive controlling tactics was not considered to be criminal, therefore, as a crime, it had no legal standing.

With this new Domestic Violence Act in Ireland, any victim living in an intimate relationship (i.e. including cohabitants, dating partners, spouses, civil partners, parents with a child in common, parents of an abusive adult child, and people residing with the respondent in a non-contractual relationship) can now seek the support of the Irish Courts to protect them from the abuse of coercive control. The victims will be able to apply for remedies such as safety and protection orders (i.e. Barring Orders, Interim Barring Orders and Emergency Barring Orders that can last up to 8 working days) under the Domestic Violence Act. This will apply regardless of whether they are cohabiting with their abuser or not. Furthermore, there is no longer a minimum period of cohabitation required for cohabitant applicants.

The new law will also mean that the court services will be obliged to offer the victims information on domestic violence support services, and also be able to recommend programmes for the perpetrators (i.e. addiction and counselling programmes). The law will also allow the victim to give their evidence both in civil and criminal cases by link television, and they may also appoint an expert to assist the courts to check out the children’s views where a barring order is sought on behalf of the child. This new Bill also completes a major step towards Ireland’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention.

WHAT ARE THE PROFESSIONALS ON THE FRONT-LINE OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SAYING?

Regarding these new measures, the CEO of Safe Ireland (2018), Sharon O’Halloran said: –

“This is ground-breaking and momentous because it means that we will have, for the first time, a robust legislative foundation that recognises and responds to the pernicious pattern of control, dominance, inequality and psychological abuse which is really at the heart of violence within the home.”

Director of Women’s Aid (2018), Margaret Martin, said:

“I think it’s really interesting that this sort of abuse has been recognised because the thing about domestic violence is it is very much a pattern of different behaviours and very much repeated behaviours, and most crimes are about one single incident of assault, [like] burglary etc.”

THE EFFECTS OF THE NARCISSIST’S COERCIVE MIND CONTROL TACTICS ON THE VICTIM:

Controlling and coercive behaviour tactics that are employed by the narcissist are carried out over a continuous amount of time, forcing the unsuspecting victim to adapt to a series of small “invisible” steps. The “continuous timer” is an important factor in the whole process of mind control, because the tactics must be carried out in incremental steps, it cannot be seen to be rushed. These steps need to be sufficiently pocket-sized so that the victim does not fathom out the coercive nature of the processes being used against them, or indeed, for becoming fully cognizant of the personality changes taking place within themselves.

Unfortunately, because the abuse is so insidious, most victims fail to work out these covert psychological gaslighting behaviours that are causing them so much anxiety and stress. Therefore, they fail to put up the ego defences normally reserved for adverse situations. This has a detrimental effect on their critical thinking abilities, and their free will; both of which impair their ability significantly when having to make independent decisions. In short, the psychological effects of gaslighting are such that they violate the victim’s fundamental human rights, keeping them in slave-like conditions in a jail with invisible bars where they suffer “intimate terrorism”.

We should be calling on all governments across the world to include the offence of ambient abuse and coercive control when reforming their Domestic Violence Bills. I know some people will think I am living in a fool’s paradise, but I don’t think I am. If England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France can pave the way and introduce such legislation, and then commit to funding specialist training so that police officers can spot the signs of domestic abuse more readily, then I do not see why other countries cannot follow suit.

CASE EXAMPLE OF GASLIGHTING WHERE AMBIENT ABUSE AND COERCIVE CONTROL CAN BE SEEN IN ACTION:

In one case study, Harley Smith (age 22) was one of the first men convicted in the U.K. of engaging in coercive control of his then partner Chelsea Bush (age 19). Smith isolated Chelsea from contacting her family; this gave him significant control over her. He was then further able to isolate her by monitoring her phone logs to check whom she was speaking to, and forbid her to use her phone outside their flat, eventually snapping her SIM card.

He upped the antics by restricting her access to her bank account, forcing her to quit her job, not allowing her to wear make-up, or dress her hair the way she wanted to. He instilled fear into her with his unpredictable moods, for example, if she said “no” to him, he would get into a strop and punch things. Once he had her cut off from everybody, he started physically abusing her. He controlled the very clothes she chose and dictated what she was allowed to wear. For example, he made her wear a certain type of underwear, saying that he “wanted a woman, not a girl.” Even though she did not like the clothes he selected, she complied out of fear. One day, she did not wear the underwear he wanted, and he hit her in the face, causing a black eye.

When they got into debt, Smith tried to coerce Chelsea into prostitution. Although she was forced to cook for him every day, she was not allowed to go shopping on her own, in effect; she was a prisoner within her own four walls. Thankfully, Chelsea’s grandmother called the police when she saw the level of control Smith had over her. Chelsea revealed, “I was with Harley for two years, and about three months into the relationship he started to change and started getting violent towards me.”

Unfortunately, Smith was not given a custodial sentence. He was given a 12-week prison sentence (suspended for 12 months) by the Court and forbidden to have any contact with Chelsea for two years. This was an outrageously lenient sentence that completely undermines the severity of the offence, and sent out the wrong message to all offenders, and damaging the confidence of other victims. Typically, I have found that the narcissist’s idealisation phase (the honeymoon stage of the relationship) lasts about four months before their mask slips, and their devaluing phase of psychological cruelty begins to chip away at the victim’s self-esteem.

With the new coercive control law, can offenders now go to jail for coercian?

In some cases, yes. Anybody who commits the offence of coercive control and is convicted of the crime in Ireland may be fined, or receive a term of imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both. Bye the way, Scotland have laws where offenders of coercive control (the psychological abuse in an intimate relationship that causes fear of violence, or serious alarm or distress) could get up to 14 years in prison. It seems the cultural laws do differ between the 5 countries who have reformed their domestic violence bill to include legislation against the new offence of coercive control, but I would suspect that fundamentally the laws would be the same regardless of what country the law is imposed in…. however, only time alone will tell.

 

REFERENCE:

Howitt, Dennis. (2006). Introduction to Forensic and Criminal Psychology. Pub: Pearson.

Monckton Smith, J., Szymanska, K., and Haile, S (2017). Exploring the Relationship between Stalking and Homicide. Suzy Lamplugh Trust. http://eprints.glos.ac.uk/4553/1/NSAW%20Report%2004.17%20-%20finalsmall.pdf Retrieved 29.09.2019

Christine’s Books

The 3 Faces Of Evil: Unmasking The Full Spectrum Of Narcissistic Abuse

When Shame Begets Shame

The Gaslighting Syndrome (Out Soon)

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Christine

Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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