Coercive control is subtle. 

Understood as psychological abuse in intimate relationships which causes fear of violence or serious alarm or distress, it manifests as a pattern of intimidation or humiliation involving psychological or emotional abuse, and has a substantial adverse impact on a woman’s day-to-day life. 

Coercive control traps women in a relationship making it impossible or dangerous to leave. It can damage a woman’s physical and emotional well-being and can result in her giving up work, changing her routines, and losing contact with family and friends.

It is not a “soft” form of abuse and coercive control and violence are inextricably linked. In the most severe cases, it can lead to fatalities.  

Coercive control is now a legal offence in Ireland since January 2019 when a new law on domestic violence came into effect which defines the legal protections available to victims. But there needs to be more training around the implementation of these new laws – and greater efforts to educate the public on these issues.   

One of the issues with coercive control is that it can be difficult to detect – both from inside and outside a relationship.  

And there is often a lack of understanding about coercive control from both women and men. People often ask “Why didn’t she just leave?”. They can’t imagine ending up in an abusive relationship themselves. However, research shows there is actually a science behind staying.

However, there are positive signs that the concept is now entering the mainstream. TV shows like ‘I am Nicola’ are helping to normalise these important issues. Women’s Aid also recently launched a powerful “Abusive Teller Machine” campaign to illustrate the terror of financial abuse, which can be an aspect of coercive control. 

More Irish victims have been reporting coercive control since Clodagh Hawe’s mother and sister gave a watershed interview on ‘Claire Byrne Live’ on RTÉ in February. Ms Coll said: “There was a control element… he had this silent presence. He could stand five foot away but you would know that he was in control.”

Unfortunately, it is still often deemed inappropriate to intervene in what are seen as private family matters – and this is something that urgently needs to change. 

Of the 225 women who have died violently in the Republic of Ireland since 1996, 61% were killed in their own homes and 56% were murdered by a current or former male intimate partner. Whilst men can also be victims, this is an issue predominantly affecting women. 

Other countries, like the UK, show a similar pattern. 

Luke Hart said his father spent most of his time “belittling his family”. He used money to control them, stopped his wife going for coffee, called his daughter stupid and said his sons were “not real men”

Then, one day, after years of abuse, Luke’s father killed his wife and daughter. 

The Hart brothers have since written Operation Lighthouse, which looks at events leading up to the murders — including the various methods of coercive control used by their father. 

They also focus on the role the media played in the aftermath. For instance, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail interviewed people who said their father was “a nice guy” who was “always caring.” Other journalists tried to “explain away” his actions by looking at his childhood. Luke says this feeds into constructs of masculinity, and endangers women and children. 

Feminist organisation Level Up recently won a campaign calling for the media to change how it reports on fatal incidents of domestic violence, and the UK’s two leading press regulators have now adopted its guidelines.  

There are similar issues with how the Irish media reports domestic violence. This needs to be tackled because the media has such a powerful conditioning role. Building public awareness – and vigilance – around these issues is essential. 

To learn more about Coercive Control please visit: https://www.womensaid.ie/help/coercive-control.html

If any of these issues affect you, you can reach the Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline on 1800 341 900.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

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