• Coercive Control

    There seems to be no let-up in the reports coming in from around the world of shocking violence against women. Sadly, the tragic events in Dunedin seem to add a further New Zealand instance to that shameful catalogue.

    Most cases of domestic violence involve physical or sexual abuse; but increasingly, that abuse is preceded or accompanied by psychological abuse as well.

    New Zealand was among the more enlightened countries when Parliament in 1995 added psychological abuse, as well as the more familiar physical and sexual abuse, to the definition of domestic violence. As the current advertising campaign against domestic violence “It’s Not Okay” makes clear, psychological abuse can be just as damaging as other forms of domestic violence.

    Sadly, though, Parliament’s 1995 intentions have come almost to nought. Counsellors and psychologists, lawyers and judges, have almost uniformly chosen to remain ignorant of, and therefore to ignore, allegations of psychological abuse. One example; whereas the Family Court and its officers would never, in a case of physical or sexual abuse, send the parties to mediation, that is often their first resort in cases which might involve psychological abuse.

    The current orthodoxy is that the parties to a relationship break-down should be encouraged to behave as much as possible like a “normal” family, especially where children are involved. Shared parenting is the order of the day. But this is clearly not possible in cases of physical and sexual abuse – and it is no more appropriate in cases where the reason for the break-down was the psychological abuse of one party by the other.

    The courts do of course have great difficulty with psychological abuse (or “coercive control” as it is now often called in the literature). It is hard to establish good evidence, because psychological abuse “does not leave bruises”. And, unlike physical or sexual abuse, it does not occur in the form of single and recognisably traumatic events but usually comprises, over many years, an endless succession of small incidents, usually constituting a deliberate and cumulative pattern of behaviour which can do great damage to the victim and other family members.

    There is a growing body of research about what constitutes psychological abuse, much of it in the US and some of the best produced by psychologists who actually work with the perpetrators of the abuse. The essence of the abuse is the determination of the abuser to control, bully and dominate the victim – and in the end to destroy her identity as a person in her own right.

    Typically, an abuser will seek to isolate the victim. He will forbid her to leave the house except for purposes he approves. He will antagonise her friends so that they no longer visit. He will limit her outside interests and insist that her role is in the home.

    He will attack her self-esteem by constantly telling her she is “useless” or “brainless”. He will denigrate her in front of the children. He will treat her as a drudge or minion. He will make unreasonable and constantly changing demands. He will keep her short of money (while spending freely himself); he may insist on being shown detailed receipts for every item of expenditure, including food and other groceries. He will withhold love and affection, except when sex is required.

    The victim will begin to feel worthless, and will believe what she is constantly told – that “it is all your fault”. She will feel powerless to change the situation, doubting her own ability to decide and act for herself, and convinced that her partner cannot be challenged.

    None of this need involve physical violence, though it might do. The perpetrator is usually able to present a reasonable exterior to his own friends in the outside world. He reserves his abuse for the domestic context. The abuse does not stop with the victim, but will usually affect the children of the relationship as well.

    The research shows that if the victim is finally able to summon up the courage to break away, the abuser will often use the post-separation process – exploiting issues like financial support or contact with the children – as an opportunity to try to re-assert control and to punish the victim for seeking to escape. The use of the courts over a prolonged period is a typical weapon to this end. The abuse does not end when the relationship ends.

    The Family Court’s preference for sending cases to mediation is meat and drink to the abuser. It is a chance to dominate the victim all over again, to re-create in her that sense that she cannot stand up for herself and that her abuser will always win. The legal process that should be protecting her from the abuser she has escaped from seems intent on thrusting her (and often her children) back into his control.

    The only way that the law can be made to work as intended is if those appointed as mediators in such cases are properly trained to recognise and act on psychological abuse. Without it, the law is a dead letter, and we might well ask – why did the legislators bother?

    Bryan Gould

    16 January 2014.

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 24 January.