No long-term relationship is without its hiccups, but when hiccups turn into a continuous infliction of physical and mental harassment, you know it's time to make serious changes. Often, domestic abuse can manifest itself in forms less apparent or spoken of. Small actions and behaviours can build up over time to cause big damage. Coercion is one such tactic.
According to psychologist Dr. Shreya Chakravarty of Apollo Health City, Hyderabad, "coercive control is a repetitive act of abuse which could be assault, threat, an act of physical or psychological controlling, humiliation, intimidation, manipulation or gaslighting. It is done to exploit, regulate and isolate a person and limit freedom". Although it is not legally recognised as abuse in most countries, a new offense was created under Section 76 of the United Kingdom’s Serious Crime Act in 2015 regarding controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.
A coercive partner may try to take over every aspect of your life, including what you eat or wear, whom you talk to or get support from. "It is almost like shackling into chains thus depriving the person of basic needs—emotional as well as financial," adds Dr. Chakravarty. The following are some of the most obvious traits of a coercive partner.
Signs of a coercive and abusive partner
- Isolating: An abusive partner may try to psychologically isolate you from your friends and family members, basically your support system, says Dr. Chakravarty. By separating you from your safe spaces, they try to cut down your chances of escape and rescue.
- Spying: Caring is healthy and so is a little jealousy, but over-possessiveness is not. If your partner resorts to espionage—looking through your phone, your computer, keeping tabs on wherever you go or whoever you interact with—it is an invasion of privacy and an attempt to control.
- Denying freedom: In these cases, your partner may try to make you completely dependent on them. They start dictating each and every aspect of your life. They police what you wear or eat, where you go, who you meet. Moreover, they can also make you financially dependent on them, which a 2018 review in the journal Trauma, Violence and Abuse,; calls an invisible and often overlooked form of abuse.
- Criticising: "A coercive partner will morally, psychologically and emotionally criticise you," says Dr. Chakravarty. This kind of verbal abuse can, over time, break down your self-esteem and wreak havoc on your mental well-being.
- Threatening: No one should have to blackmail or intimidate you to stay in a relationship or in love with them. They can threaten to hurt you, or those you care about. They can threaten to reveal personal (maybe even false) information about you. All of this is coercive behaviour.
- Sexually coercing: No matter how long-term or committed your relationship may be, mutual, verbal and voluntary consent is always required. Coerced, forced or tricked consent is not consent, it is assault.
- Endangering children or pets: Recent studies reveal high chances of violence or maltreatment towards children and pets by an abusive partner, says a paper published in The Colorado Lawyer. Often, the abuser may try to attack or take away who they know you love and are vulnerable about. They may also try to turn the children against you, thus isolating you further.
A psychologist's advice against coercive control
- No matter what they show in the movies, escaping an abusive relationship can be extremely difficult and often dangerous, if not well thought out. "Prepare yourself, have a proper and functional plan," suggests Dr. Chakravarty.
- It can be nerve-wracking to stand up to a coercive partner, as they can continually convince you that you are the one in the wrong. Therefore, you must prepare yourself mentally, even when they try to provoke you.
- The most important step in escaping the shackles of a toxic partner is to find a community. Talk to a friend, confide in your family. If you can, get in touch with a support group or forum—some helplines include Women in Distress Helpline (1091), Helpline for Domestic Abuse (181) or organisations like Shakti Shalini.Though coercive control is still not a punishable offense in India, if your partner is continuously physically and/or mentally abusive, you can reach out to a counselor and seek proper legal action.
- According to a 2010 study published in the journal Violence Against Women, it was revealed that "psychological abuse and stalking contribute uniquely to the prediction of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression symptoms, even after controlling for the effects of physical violence, injuries, and sexual coercion". So, therapy is crucial in the process of healing.
Related story: Green Flags: Signs of a Healthy Relationship