- Three women describe in painful detail their experiences of coercive control
- Unlike physical domestic abuse, it does not leave any visible scars on the victim
- But it still breaks their spirits and robs them of their sense of identity
The alarm bells should have started ringing the day my new boyfriend insisted we go through my wardrobe so he could tell me which clothes to throw out.
‘We’ll have a fashion show,’ said Franc. ‘You try everything on and I’ll tell you what to keep.’ He said it would be fun, but also necessary because I had no sense of style.
Coming from a handsome and immaculately dressed Frenchman, I decided this made sense. Later, he took me shopping to replace the bohemian-style clothes I’d worn all my life with chic pieces he felt were more fitting for his girlfriend.
We had been together for just a few weeks, introduced by a mutual friend, but I’d already convinced myself it was love.
We quickly moved in together. When he said my habit of walking around barefoot disgusted him I was mortified. ‘Always wear slippers,’ he insisted. So I did.
Just as I followed the exercise regime Franc devised for me after he made me measure my thighs, hips and waist and decided they needed whittling down.
When he kept insisting I cancel on my friends because he didn’t like me going out without him, it seemed easier to stop making plans with them at all.
Of course, logic should have told me how very wrong and controlling Franc’s behaviour was. But I wasn’t thinking logically: I loved him and thought this was his way of loving me back. You probably picture me as a weak-willed and naïve girl; someone lacking worldly experience, perhaps living a lonely life that made me vulnerable to a man who wanted to govern me.
In fact, I was an intelligent 45-year-old divorcee — a slim and attractive woman with striking red hair. I was well educated, had a good job as a hospital administrator, lots of friends and a busy social life.
In other words, the last person fitting the stereotype of easy prey for an abusive man. Yet, that’s what I was. And if it could happen to me, it could happen to any of us.
That’s the problem with coercive control: a type of domestic abuse that had no name until three years ago, when the Serious Crimes Act 2015 made it a criminal offence.
When a woman is being bounced off the furniture three times a week the violence she suffers leaves bruises
But the scars victims of domestic coercion receive aren’t visible, even though it breaks your spirit and robs you of your sense of identity all the same.
And that makes it incredibly difficult to walk away. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2016 that I realised I was a victim of it myself. It was listening to the now infamous storyline of a mentally abused woman unfold slowly on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers; hearing my own experiences reflected back at me provoked a shocking epiphany.
Could anyone close have helped me while I was still in the relationship? Honestly, no, because I simply wouldn’t have listened.
My love for Franc trapped me. I was too ashamed to admit my mistake. Denial somehow felt less humiliating.
I think it was loneliness that landed me in this position in the first place. My first marriage had broken down in terrible acrimony, and apart from one other relationship, I’d spent eight years on my own. I missed the intimacy of being in a loving relationship.
I thought that was what Franc was giving me. He was beyond charming at first — full of affection and constant flattery that from the beginning blinded me to how controlling he was.
I felt adored rather than suffocated and the drip, drip, drip of control was slow and subtle.
Out for dinner, he insisted a beautiful woman should allow her man to order from the menu for her — falling for that piece of flattery cost me the right to choose what I ate from there onwards.
At home, he dictated only protein and salads would do if I wanted to look my best — and I did, for him.
Just as I stopped talking to other men unless it was absolutely necessary after he said it was agony for him to even imagine it. I excused that as passion. It didn’t take long for this to become normal — just a few weeks.
I soon malleably agreed to a long list of diktats: never leave the room when he was angry; always answer the phone by the fourth ring; go to the gym at least three times a week for 90 minutes a visit, following the exercise schedule he prescribed; never drink more than one glass of wine (always white); don’t spend time with other people when I could be with him.
I did all this willingly to keep him happy, blinded by the way Franc dressed up control and coercion as adoration. He tricked me into stepping inside a world where, by the time I began to understand what was happening, I had no idea how to get out.
I’d become a statistic — joining the ranks of the 1.2million women who were controlled, assaulted and degraded by their partners in the last year alone.
Women like you and me, our mothers, sisters and daughters.
And like school receptionist Eleanor Michaels (we have changed names throughout this article) who never imagined she could become a victim of domestic violence herself.
Eleanor, 40, from Cambridge, says: ‘I always prided myself on the fact that I was a strong person and would never stay within a physically abusive relationship. And yet I stayed with a man who constantly chipped away at my confidence, allowing me no independence. ‘He would even shout at me if I tried to cross a road on my own, grabbing my hand and pulling me back.’
Eleanor’s now ex-husband would go into a rage if she ever challenged him, especially when it came to wanting to spend time with her friends. ‘Whenever I disagreed with him, even over the slightest thing, he’d rant about what kind of a person I was to do this to him, sometimes for hours. He’d say I was making him ill, giving him headaches, sending his blood pressure soaring.
‘It was frightening, so I’d go very quiet in the hope he’d stop. But because he never physically hit me, it didn’t register as abuse.
‘He’d be furious if I made the slightest mistake — like the time I clipped his car on the kerb.
‘One day our dog ran off when I took it for a walk. I was petrified of telling him, scared to go home in case things got really nasty.
And yet I was, inexplicably, reluc-tant to leave him.’ It was only when Eleanor confided in a group of girlfriends that their horror forced her to see his behaviour through their eyes and she finally left him, filing for divorce after seven years together. She adds: ‘I’d spent most of my 20s convinced I was a bad person and that his behaviour was my fault. This had become my normal.’
A nasty comment here, some controlling behaviour there — coercive control happens in such an insidious way. Perhaps the best metaphor for describing how it takes hold is that of the boiling frog, used to describe tolerance of dangerous situations. If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to jump out.
But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will sit there placidly.
Gradually, you turn the heat up, but the frog doesn’t notice, eventually allowing itself to be boiled to death. That’s what it’s like when you fall in love with a man who wants to control you.
And it’s so easily facilitated. After all, don’t most of us, in the first flush of love, cheerfully ditch our family and friends so that we can invest endless time and energy in an exciting new relationship?
The texts, emails and phone calls asking ‘where are you?’ seem sweet when a man can’t get enough of you, or you of him. Chucking out a dress they don’t like, accepting their tips on keeping in shape — what’s to worry about in that?
But there’s a line, and with men like Franc it gets crossed with even the savviest women not realising they were meant to be keeping an eye on it in the first place.
Look at me. I blithely placed myself in the hands of someone mercurial and possessive, whom I barely knew — and all because he made me feel wanted.
Inevitably, what started with adoration turned all too quickly into contempt.
Once I was in his thrall, Franc told me I was hopeless and chaotic; that my track record of relationships was terrible; I didn’t understand money; I was a rotten cook and a shambolic housekeeper.
I’d never have the right kind of body, I was old and past it, and so who’d want me if he didn’t?
Just as I’d believed him when he told me I was perfect, I also came to accept this ugly version of me.
My mother was dead, my father had moved away, I hadn’t spoken to my two brothers for years and now I’d lost touch with my friends. There wasn’t anyone to set me right.
I lost my job at the hospital because I was so distracted I kept making mistakes, further compounding my need for his approval.
For some women, being controlled is a pattern of behaviour they became used to in childhood.
Take Georgia, 47, a teacher who lives alone in Bristol. She says: ‘My dad was a control freak so I grew up used to being shouted at and told what to do all the time. For example, he’d complain bitterly throughout supper if anything was out of place on the dining table.’
Georgia says she didn’t ask friends home because of him. And, ironically, it was her attempt to get away from his controlling behaviour that put her in a relationship with the same kind of man.
‘He was a guy I’d met at university. I moved in with him to get away from my parents, first as housemates then as a couple.
‘He was kind at first, but soon started complaining if I wanted to leave the house without him, not wanting me to go to college or work placements.
‘He’d sit up into the early hours, demanding we have long talks, even though I was exhausted. It affected my studies and stopped me getting enough sleep.
‘One time I refused to wear a skirt he’d bought me. It was hideous, but he went on about how I should wear it for so long that in the end I did as he said.
‘I remember loathing myself for giving in. Whenever I tried to walk out on him, he’d run after me.
‘Sometimes he would have no shoes on in the street, having just got out of bed. He made for such a pitiful sight. And even though I knew I’d done nothing wrong, I felt guilty, just like I had when I made my dad angry.’
Georgia left three times, but always returned when he promised things would be different. In the end, she escaped after he had an affair. Today she doesn’t trust herself to get involved with any man in case she is similarly abused.
I feel the same way. I also wish I could say that in the end I saw the light and told Franc to leave.
But I escaped him more by chance than design. His work took him back to Paris, forcing us to spend long periods of time apart.
Experiencing the normality of life away from Franc’s physical and overbearing presence gave me the opportunity to think for myself.
I wanted a career again — to enjoy a social life and do everyday things, like going to the gym because I wanted to, not because it was a rule.
This space meant that when, after two months apart, a visit to see Franc ended with him becoming violent because I’d irritated him, I snapped out of my denial.
Coercive control doesn’t necessarily lead to physical outbursts, though in my case it did.
Even so, there was no obvious end to the relationship. I returned home and started applying for jobs, before securing a position that meant I could move to London. There I rebuilt my life as an independent woman.
Franc still tried to control me remotely, via emails demanding to know my every move, but I stopped playing along. In the end his obsession with me began to wane; unsurprisingly, once I was no longer under his spell he didn’t want me any more either.
All this happened more than a decade ago; I’ve been happily single ever since.
Today I have minimal contact with Franc via social media. We don’t actually speak, but it means I always know where he is — still in France and far away from me.
I don’t doubt that Franc has treated other women just as he did me, and I feel angry with myself — guilty even — that I wasn’t able to stop him so they wouldn’t have suffered as I did.
I wish he’d been punished then the way the law is able to now.
Coercive control is like cancer: everybody knows somebody who’s been affected.
It’s only when you start to speak openly about it, without shame, that it prompts others to start to take a closer and more honest look at their own experiences.
There are plenty of women out there who might never experience being hit by their partner, yet they’re emotionally battered time and again by men who control their every move.
That makes them as much the victims of domestic violence as someone who’s beaten black and blue every other weekend.
When you grasp that, you get a true understanding of how this kind of thing is happening, all the time, to women like me and to women like you. We just don’t always see it for what it is.