Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Coercive control isn't about passion, it's all about power... he does not want a partner, he wants a hostage

The psychological terror abusers inflict on their victims will soon be outlawed in NI. But the breakthrough has come too late for 'Jane'. Fionola Meredith reports

Coercive controllers mess with their victims’ heads, persuading them no one will believe them
Coercive controllers mess with their victims’ heads, persuading them no one will believe them
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

If there's one thing coercive control isn't about, it's love. It might initially masquerade as care and concern for the victim, but that's a sick joke. In reality, it's as vicious and potentially deadly as cancer. Being psychologically controlled by a person with whom you are in an intimate relationship sucks the very life force out of you.

Victims say that it leaves you paralysed by fear, utterly isolated, unsure who you are anymore. There may not be any visible scars, but the damage is often as great as in physical forms of domestic violence.

That's why Westminster's decision to finally extend powers to Northern Ireland making coercive control a criminal offence is absolutely vital. It is long overdue.

Now the business of rescuing women - and some men - from these particularly pernicious relationships will have the full force of the law behind it, just as in England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. We have a lot of lost ground to make up.

Coercive control hides in plain sight. This is the reason it's so dangerous. At the start, it can look like blind adoration. Say your new man likes to call you up 20 or 30 times a day. So flattering, right? He just wants to hear your voice, he clearly can't get enough of you.

But then he starts getting angry if you don't pick up. Maybe he demands to know what you're doing at any given minute of the day and who you're with.

Perhaps, at this point, you're still telling yourself that he's acting like this out of overwhelming passion: he just wants you all for himself.

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But this isn't about passion. It's about power.

And it's about to get a hell of a lot worse.

Before long, he'll be dictating where you go, who you see and what you wear. He'll have you not knowing whether you're coming or going, chipping constantly away at your sense of self-worth and trust in your own perceptions and instincts.

He'll have you trembling with fear and confusion. He'll have you isolated from your friends and family. And he might do it all without even laying a finger on you.

The Stasi, the East German secret police, used to exercise mind control over their targets by covertly going into their houses and removing, or moving, items so that they thought they were going mad.

Coercive controllers mess with their victims' heads in similar ways, persuading them that they are the crazy one, whom nobody will believe if they go looking for help.

Men like this don't want a partner, they want a hostage. They want a repository, a rubbish bin for all their own rage, bitterness and misogyny.

'Jane' (not her real name) knows exactly what it's like to be on the receiving end of such soul-destroying abuse. She says that the coercive control was there from the beginning, but she didn't recognise it, because she didn't have a name for what was happening to her.

She recalls photographing the contents of her purse to try to prove to herself - and to him - that she hadn't spent the money her abuser had accused her of wasting. He had reduced Jane to a state where she couldn't even trust the evidence of her own eyes.

"I was wiped out as an individual," she tells me. "I thought I was going to die. Near the end, I thought the only way out is when he kills me."

By this stage, the abuse had become physical - he dragged Jane about and kicked things at her. But the real power of this evil man came from the abject fear he had instilled in her own mind.

"I was locked into rooms with my children, with him banging on the door, shouting that he was going to kill me. I had my mobile phone with me. I could have called 999. But the coercion prohibited me. I thought I had to have evidence - broken bones, black eyes. In my head, I thought you needed that for people to believe you."

Even after Jane escaped from her abuser, the immobilising force of the trauma she'd been through stayed with her. She describes going into a deli with her mum and being asked what she wanted for her lunch. Jane found herself unable to decide if she wanted to eat a sausage roll or not.

She'd been so thoroughly ground down that even that simple decision was beyond her. "Whenever I was given the option to choose, I just didn't have the ability."

This is what people need to understand about coercive control: it does not automatically end when the victim escapes. The trauma is lodged in the person's mind and body, even if the abuse is over.

As Jane describes, even the most innocuous everyday items can trigger a flashback that leaves the victim feeling as if they are right back in the thick of the abuse. The horror and fear they experience in that moment are just as vivid and gut-wrenching.

"I've been triggered by seeing nail polish, because he kicked a bottle of nail polish at the baby. It has such a profound, long-term effect on your life. It's so hard to trust others; you're constantly vigilant, constantly on the lookout for threats, even when you're just shopping in Tesco."

When Jane saw her abuser in court, fight or flight instinct took over. "My body went and hid behind a vending machine. My body said, 'Run.'"

Despite having put Jane and her children through this horrific ordeal, her ex-partner was not jailed for domestic abuse. There was no law against coercive control at the time. Now there will be, and it is Jane's fervent hope that the justice system, the PPS and the police in Northern Ireland are professionally trained to be aware of the signs, so that perpetrators can be caught and brought to justice, held to account for the terrible damage they wreak on innocent lives.

The existing statistics on domestic violence are an obscenity in themselves. The PSNI dealt with 31,000 cases last year.

Factor in the suffering caused by psychological abuse, and the plight of victims becomes overwhelming.

Belfast & Lisburn Women's Aid 028 9066 6049 (9am-5pm), Freephone 0808 802 1414 (24-hour domestic and sexual violence helpline) or belfastwomensaid.org.uk

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