Signs you’re in an abusive relationship and what to do about it
The physical signs of abuse are easy to spot, but what about emotional abuse? Find out more about coercive control and how to access support in our region if you're worried about a partner's behaviour...
By Helen Bowman
The physical signs of abuse are easy to spot. Downcast eyes, bruised body, subsiding personality.But what about emotional abuse? Coercive control is one of the most common forms of an abusive relationship in today’s society. It’s strategic, ongoing and subtle. It can be easily missed, even by the person suffering the abuse.
What is coercive control?
Coercive control can happen to anyone. The abuser will subtly control elements of life such as finances, social media usage, communication with friends and family. It’s a strategic use of control to instil fear in a partner or loved one.
Gaslighting is one of the key tactics used in coercive control. The controller must always be right and will manipulate his or her partner into thinking they’re losing their mind. Perhaps they’ll ask for one thing then, when presented with that, they lose control and claim they asked for another item, accusing the other person of being too stupid to follow simple instructions. The abused partner then starts doubting their memory, apologising and working to repair the damage done.
Some of the crucial other warning signs of coercive control are:
- Systematically isolating you from your friends and family so you become solely reliant on them.
- Monitoring your activity throughout the day – whether by location tracking apps on your mobile phones or cameras set up in the home.
- Controlling freedom – not allowing you to go out to work, leaving you without transportation or changing all of your passwords on your accounts.
- Limiting access to money – keeping tight controls over the household budget and hiding financial resources such as bank cards and credit cards.
- Name-calling – vicious put-downs, humiliation and constant negativity towards you are all forms of bullying.
- Controlling what you eat, drink, and how much you sleep – they may also control what medication you take and how much you should exercise.
- Controlling your sexual relationship – telling you how many times a week you should have sex and precisely what you should do each time.
- Threatening your children or pets – abusers will go to any lengths to get you to do what they want.
What to do if you’re in a controlling relationship
Getting out of a coercive control relationship can be complicated, especially if there are children involved. You can feel trapped in a hostage-like situation. The critical thing to remember is that you don’t deserve this treatment. No matter what the history with the abuser, they should not treat anyone in a controlling manner.
Here are a few steps that could help you escape from a controlling relationship, safely:
- Keep in contact with your friends and family whenever possible. Your abuser might try and stop you from having contact with anyone outside the relationship, but you must maintain contact. Ask your support network to check in on you regularly too.
- Call a domestic violence hotline regularly. Talk to professionals about your situation on a regular basis – this will help you maintain perspective and talk through whether your situation is normal or dangerous.
- Plan an escape route and practice it over and over. If you have kids, teach them to identify a safe place, where they can go for help. Practice your escape plan regularly until you’re confident it’s going to work when you need it.
- Have a place to go. It’s vital to have a safe place to go when you leave. The initial period after leaving a relationship is always the most difficult and dangerous. Ensure you have somewhere safe to stay and contact the necessary authorities as soon as you can.
Domestic abuse isn’t just physical abuse or violent assaults. People can be subject to assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation, used to punish or frighten them; this is coercive control.”
My Sister’s Place, based in Middlesbrough, is an organisation that helps people who are in or have recently left, abusive or controlling relationships. Lisa McGovern is one of the team leaders within the organisation.
She explained: “Examples of coercive control include: isolating a person from their friends or family, depriving them of basic needs, medical support or other support services, monitoring their time, checking their phone and or social media and taking control over different aspects of their everyday life such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep. It can also include putting a person down, such as telling them they are worthless, enforcing rules or degrading them. It can involve forcing a person to take part in criminal activity and include blackmail and threats to hurt the person or their loved ones.
“If you are concerned about your partner’s behaviour, there are various forums and services which can support you, and we would encourage anyone concerned about their partner’s behaviour to seek support and talk to specialist services.”
Where can you get help?
My Sister’s Place helps women over 16 years old in and around the Middlesbrough area. They encourage women who are worried about their partners’ behaviour to contact the Women’s Aid Helpline on 0808 2000 247, who will then be able to signpost callers to regional services.
The helpline also provides several resources that might help find out whether you’re in an abusive relationship and can provide online support too – visit https://www.womensaid.org.uk/ to find out more.