This article has been adapted by QLS Policy Solicitor Natalie De Campo from the book ‘See What You Made Me Do’ by Jess Hill.
Coercive control is not just violence. It’s worse. It is a unique phenomenon, in which the perpetrator takes advantage of their partner’s love and trust and uses that person’s most intimate details – their deepest desires, shames and secrets – as a blueprint for their abuse.
Coercive controllers don’t just abuse their partners to hurt, humiliate or punish them. They don’t just use violence to seize power in the moment or gain an advantage in a fight. Instead, they use particular techniques to strip the victim of their liberty and take away their sense of self. The aim of coercive control is ‘total domination, rather than simply to win compliance on a particular issue.’ 1
This kind of controlling violence is deeply rooted in a historical imbalance of power, which is why, in heterosexual couples, it is almost exclusively perpetrated by men.2 It is common to hear male politicians and leaders say things like ‘real men don’t hit women’. But this misunderstands the root of domestic abuse. Men don’t abuse women because society tells them it’s okay. Men abuse women because society tells them they are entitled to be in control.
Explaining abusive behaviour is not an exact science. Perpetrators exist on a spectrum: from family men3 who don’t even realise they’re being abusive, to master manipulators who terrorise their partners. The intensity of abuse and reasons behind abusing also vary wildly. While each victim’s story is individual, the overarching narratives are uncannily alike. Whether domination is the aim or simply the result of their abuse, all coercive controllers use similar methods, but to varying degrees.
The Blueprint for Establishing Power sets out common techniques, each of which fortifies the bonds of coercive control. It is the cumulative effect of these techniques that is devastating for victims, not just the isolated incidents. The longer a victim stays, the harder and more dangerous it becomes to leave.
The Blueprint for Establishing Power:
- Establish love and trust
A victim of domestic abuse is taken prisoner gradually, by courtship. It is love that first binds the victim to her abuser, and love that makes her forgive and make excuses for him. Like all men, abusers can be loving, kind, charming and warm and they struggle with personal pain and uncertainty. This is who the victim falls in love with.
To become the most powerful person in a victim’s life, the abuser must eliminate her external sources of support and silence voices that would question his behaviour. A perpetrator may isolate his partner geographically, moving her away from family and friends, to somewhere he can monitor and restrict her movements. Or he may isolate her in more subtle ways, by driving friends and family away. He might make it difficult for her to see them, convince her they’re no good for her or behave so badly around them that they simply stop visiting.
- Monopolise perception
The abuser’s most skilful trick is to make his abuse invisible. As the victim becomes more isolated, alternative viewpoints from friends and family that may alert her to the danger she’s in slowly disappear. Gradually, the abuser draws his victim further away from the real world and into his version of reality.
Perpetrators redirect a victim’s attention away from his abuse to her faults: if she wasn’t so this, he wouldn’t be so that. Maybe he needs her to help him become a better man. He is wounded and lost, and she is the only person who can help him.
As the abuse escalates, the victim starts searching for clues to explain, and excuse, his behaviour. He’s jealous because an ex-girlfriend betrayed him. He doesn’t like her going out because he’s overprotective. He’s got a temper, but everyone’s got demons – he just needs a good woman to help him overcome them.
The longer she takes responsibility for his abuse, and the longer she tries to fix him, the further she becomes trapped.
- Induce debility and exhaustion
Abusers will knowingly deny, fabricate and manipulate situations to make his partner doubt her own memory and perception. This is known as gaslighting. As a victim becomes more confused and anxious, she starts to believe that the perpetrator’s interpretation of events may be more reliable than her own.
Mind games are common: an abuser may, for example, send his partner a loving text message, then chastise her for replying with the exact same sentiments. Alternatively, he may go completely silent for long periods at a time, leaving her feeling intimidated and wondering what she had done to deserve such treatment. These unpredictable responses lead a victim to ‘walk on eggshells’, endlessly hyper-vigilant, alert to the need to adapt her behaviour to prevent further abuse. The victim is left exhausted by constantly having to monitor her abuser’s emotional state.
- Enforce trivial demands
To develop the habit of compliance, the abuser starts to enforce trivial demands. These may adhere to a theme, such as forbidding particular clothing, or be arbitrary and spontaneous, and enforced without warning. The victim’s behaviours are measured against these every-changing and often contradictory rules. To avoid punishment, she must know them by heart. This puts the victim in a hyper-alert state, her attention trained on how to anticipate and comply with the demands her abuser is likely to make.
To do this, she must align her perception with his. Only her compliance can prevent him from hurting her or her friends, family or pets. The incredible mental effort this requires draws her further away from her own needs and wants, and deeper into the web of abuse.
- Demonstrate omnipotence
Omnipotence makes the victim feel that, no matter what she does, escape is impossible. In many controlling relationships, the victim is subjected to relentless surveillance. If she has places she feels safe – work, church or even the supermarket – he colonises them, calling and texting her constantly, for example, and punishing her if she doesn’t answer.
Aside from physical surveillance, an abuser may demonstrate omnipotence by showing that he can control whether she lives or dies. Nothing proves this kind of power like strangulation. From the moment he has his hands around her throat, the abuser controls his victim entirely. He can prolong the assault by loosening the grip and allowing her to catch her breath before tightening it again, or he can choke her until she blacks out altogether.
- Alternate punishments with rewards
Aside from extreme situations, in which the abuse is unrelenting, the perpetrator will at times profess their love, offer gifts, show kindness and express remorse. The kindness expressed may feel genuine to the abuser, but this reward phase – like every other part of the cycle of violence – is still about maintaining control.
Periods of kindness, no matter how brief, bond the victim to her abuser. Even a small act of mercy delivered directly after an attack can elicit a deep sense of gratitude.
The victim is persuaded that if she changes her behaviour and creates the perfect environment, his abuse will cease. She resumes her search for what it is that set him off and doubles down on trying to comply with his demands.
As the abuse becomes more degrading and intrusive, the abuser uses threats to cultivate anxiety and despair and to prevent his victim from leaving or seeking help. Threats are what render a woman captive and communicate to her that even if she wants to leave, she will never be safe.
Abusers may make grand threats, but many are also finely attuned to the limits of their power. Harming friends or family would risk police involvement; it’s less risky, for example, to kill the family pet.
Others exploit their victim’s loyalty and empathy by threatening to harm or kill themselves. No matter the abuser’s method, the victim is left feeling that there is no safe place in or out of the relationship.
Degradation is targeted: a domestic abuser has intimate knowledge of his victim’s fears, secrets and insecurities, and uses this to hone his taunts and insults. The psychological impact of degrading comments is often extreme.
Abusers commonly tell their partners they’re worthless, stupid and unlovable and, after a while, the woman may start to believe it.
By the time a victim realises the threat she is facing, she may have no choice but to stay, because leaving either feels impossible or has become too dangerous. Understanding the techniques coercive controllers employ is abusing their victims is critical in resisting the trap of coercive control. As it stands, the best protection a victim has against coercive control is knowing what it looks like.
Jess Hill is an investigative journalist who has been writing and researching about domestic abuse since 2014. Previously, Jess was a producer for ABC Radio, a Middle East correspondent for The Global Mail, and an investigative journalist for Background Briefing. Jess was listed in Foreign Policy’s top 100 women to follow on Twitter, and also as one of the 30 most influential people under 30 by Cosmopolitan magazine (two publications rarely listed in the same sentence). Jess has won two Walkley awards, an Amnesty International award and three Our Watch awards for her reporting.
During Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month, See What You Made Me Do author and investigative journalist Jess Hill hosts a landmark three-part series ‘See What You Made Me Do’ which confronts our domestic abuse crisis. It premieres on SBS, NITV and SBS On Demand on Wednesday 5 May.
If this information is distressing for you or if you need support in regard to sexual assault, domestic or family violence, you can call DV Connect 1800 811 811 for 24/7 phone and online services. If you, a child, or another person is in immediate danger, call 000.
1 Interview with Evan Stark, ‘A domestic-violence expert on Eric Schneiderman and “coercive control”’, The Cut (online), 8 May 2018 as quoted in Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do, 2019, 21.
2 Coercive control is also perpetrated in same-sex relationships by men and women.
3 While men also experience domestic abuse, there are distinct gendered patterns in the perpetration and impact of domestic abuse. The overwhelming majority of domestic abuse is perpetrated by men against women. The article uses gendered language to reflect this.
Natalie De Campo is a Senior Policy Solicitor at Queensland Law Society. You can read more of her work here.