OPINION

Coercive control is dangerous and ugly, regardless of gender

Photo: Getty Images

Yes, men are still much more likely to be perpetrators, says Sali Hughes – but Jordan Worth’s case shows that abuse is indiscriminate

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By Sali Hughes on

Jordan Worth, a 22-year-old graduate from Hertfordshire, this week became the first woman convicted under updated domestic-abuse laws, after pleading guilty to controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate relationship, wounding with intent and causing grievous bodily harm to her male partner. As well as scalding (and hospitalising) her long-term boyfriend, Alex Skeel, with boiling water, striking him with blunt objects and causing injury with a knife, Worth had also isolated her partner from his friends and family, exercising control over many aspects of his life. She dictated what he wore, where he slept (he was banned for several months from the couple’s bed) and with whom he communicated, by taking over his Facebook account. In interviews following the court case, Skeel said he had been "10 days away from death" before he was helped by police and medics. 

Worth has been sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years in prison and is subject to a restraining order prohibiting her indefinitely from making contact with her ex. The psychological sentence of her former partner whose life, it was said in court, “had been made a misery” will likely be longer. 

But now this despicable behaviour has been described in ugly detail and the criminal responsible sentenced, it should be of some comfort to the larger population that the law is finally cracking down on the least visible of serious crimes. We should be glad that the rock of coercive or controlling behaviour has again so publicly been lifted, so that we can examine where similar behaviours occur in our own lives and relationships, in those of our loved ones, and see that coercive control, if not quite an equal-opportunities form of abuse (men are still much more likely to be the perpetrators), is by no means exclusive to one gender or one sexuality. I’ve had three loved ones (two women, one man) escape coercive relationships or marriages and the victim’s journey to its identification is a long, fraught and heartbreaking one.

Loved ones, with their liberty and clarity of distance, will likely see it much sooner. It starts with tiny, almost insignificant anxieties. There’s fretting over photos of a lunch out being posted on social media, in case her partner sees her enjoying herself and accuses her of something. There’s a request that friends not “say much” in texts, because the controlling wife reads them all, when there’s nothing remotely incriminating to say. There are the sudden cancellations because your friend “needs to spend time with” her husband, the abrupt and inappropriate exits following hushed phonecalls. The constant, ostensibly cheerful photo spamming of their children all night, the relentless questions relating to their care (“What are the kids supposed to eat?”), all sent to cause guilt for having abandoned their post. The rare nights out as a couple, for which outfits and make-up have been vetted, and during which he invariably storms out early as a test to see if she’ll do the right thing and follow him. There are financial commitments made on behalf of the victim (“You’ve got a better credit rating than me – you’ll get a better deal on the loan/a better phone on your contract”). There are vital everyday functions ring-fenced by the abuser, from the hugely inconvenient – only she knows the wi-fi password or can switch on the heating – to the debilitating – only he’s insured to drive the car or can access the bank account.

We should be glad that the rock of coercive or controlling behaviour has again so publicly been lifted, so that we can examine where similar behaviours occur in our own lives and relationships, in those of our loved ones

Then, in time, comes a deeper, more insidious dynamic, where the abuser perhaps senses detection by loved ones and begins to describe them one by one as disingenuous, dishonest, lacking in morality and true concern. A victim can only truly rely on their partner, only s/he knows what’s best for them, it’s “just you and me against the world, babe”. Work, too, doesn’t deserve the victim’s time and commitment, and may need the push. Their salary is fine for the both of you. There are the double standards, where a partner engages with impunity in exactly the behaviours he suspects, despises and punishes in his wife.

Then, at some point, unless the tumour is lanced in time, comes the gaslighting, where all of the above is dismissed as mere fiction, when the victim is accused of having imagined things, misunderstood even the most straightforward situation, caused trouble, provoked a reaction, misinterpreted the meanest, most blatantly cruel words or acts. The victim’s head is now a mess of paranoia, fear and guilt, where fact and fiction are one shifting fog, where all trust is lost in the victim’s own thought process, and when all their statements and actions become so risky that it’s just easier to shrink to fit, to say nothing, to do little except stay at home and attempt to balance precariously on the abuser’s right side.

There may also be violence, as there was in Jordan Worth’s case. There may be alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse or threats of suicide, custody battles or grave harm to loved ones. But we need also to understand that there may be no tangible, external influence or threat; that coercive abuse takes hold gradually, almost imperceptibly, until it feels as much a part of the victim as the birthmark on her cheek. The challenge of starting again, with shame, less money, no self-belief and shattered self-esteem, seems insurmountable. To deny children of a parent they may adore, even an abusive one, seems cruel and selfish, even impossible. Assurances from friends that the children are learning dysfunctional abuse patterns that will influence negatively the rest of their lives are dismissed – they’re fine, too young to notice, they’ll only blame the parent with the audacity to break up their family.

Then, one day, if the victim is lucky, something, perhaps another row, another put-down, another let-down, occurs. A tiny crack forms and a shard of reality shines through. The friends and family who refused to give up, trepidatiously chip away at it, trying to shatter the whole facade, worried that they too are manipulating and bullying the victim in doing so, but spurred on that these have become the only languages their loved one now responds to. They remind the victim of the abnormality of what life has become, of how quickly they themselves would identify the abuse of other people, “more important” people, human beings that matter. Friends and family form a human crash mat and stand metaphorically under the window for what seems like an eternity, guiltily hoping for the situation to escalate to a point of no return, waiting for their loved one to jump from it, preparing to dress the resulting injuries, to dab ointment on the bruises, hoping they can be mended.

Gradually, the freed victim’s brain fog clears. They can’t believe what took place, are continually astonished to see men and women being nice to one another, affording one another everyday freedoms and respect. They wonder aloud, over and over, how it happened to them, an intelligent, discerning person, and why it took so long to leave. They ask, “Why them?” and battle with the default feeling of guilt instilled in them over years of abuse. They are often mistrustful of new dates and relationships, while also struggling to reconcile how someone could have done this to another human, to the person who loved them. Was their bullying husband or wife insecure? Were they abuse victims themselves, hurting inside, scared of being alone? Almost certainly. But, mainly, the abusive partner did it because they liked it. Coercive control over another worked for them, gave them what they wanted, allowed them to experience the complex, messy, unfair world entirely on their own terms. They liked it until it was taken away from them, until their victim took back the control over their own lives. Let them, and Jordan Worth, ponder the devastation, isolation and fear they caused, as they experience it for themselves in a jail cell.

@salihughes

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Tagged in:
Sexual abuse
Emotional abuse
Financial abuse
domestic violence

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