Coercive Control: The Abuse That Scars The Soul
Many of us associate the 14th of February with the celebration of love in all possible forms, but for Emily, that date has taken on a new meaning.
Valentine’s Day 2020 was the date she was granted a divorce from the man who emotionally, mentally, and psychologically abused her for nearly ten years. From now on, she would celebrate the occasion by paying tribute to her new self.
When I met her at a social event, I had decided to attend to keep my mind off the toxic relationship I was desperately trying to end, we connected in a matter of seconds. There was something about her that felt inexplicably familiar, although at first, I could not pinpoint what that was. Perhaps it was discovering that we had similar work schedules – indeed, we were both working from home at that point and seldom left the house. Perhaps it was due to the fact that that night, we had both chosen to make an effort to get out of our comfort zone and interact with the outside world. Perhaps it was that her sophisticated appearance and dignified demeanor resonated with me. In fact, that was the image I also liked to project when I looked at myself in the mirror. But in hindsight, I realised that our instant chemistry was not due to any of that.
What brought us closer was that sparkle in her eyes and the glow surrounding them, typical features of a woman who, through pain and tears, has found the inner strength to leave her past behind and flourish again, just like a phoenix is born again out of her ashes. A woman who had smashed all the chains that were holding her back, preventing her from reaching her full potential, and was now free again. But her hard-fought happiness was an uphill struggle.
Emily was thirty-two when she met Jack on a dating site, and in her own words, she was at a stage of her life when she felt she had it all. ‘I had lots of friends; I loved my job. I was in a really good place. I felt the most confident I had ever felt,’ she recalls.
She was working in Bristol for UK charity Women’s Aid, supporting thousands of women who had experienced domestic violence. He, on the other hand, worked for a large industrial manufacturing company in Swansea, so, after chatting for some time, they decided to meet halfway in Cardiff to find out whether their virtual friendship could turn into a romantic relationship.
Their long-awaited encounter went better than expected. Jack was good looking and charming, and Emily immediately felt swept away by his confident nature.
The First Red Flags
The conversation was flowing well, and the drinks too. But there was a red flag, which at that moment she did not pay too much attention to.
‘He was really pushing for sex,’ Emily says, pointing out that she was happy for him to sleep at her place so that he would not have to travel back home late at night, but she did not want to sleep with him. I am so into you, he told her to reassure her that that meeting would be the start of a loving, lasting relationship.
Despite feeling pressured, they ended up spending a ‘fantastic’ night together, and Emily went to work the following morning thinking that she had met the man she had always dreamt of.
Jack was right; their first date would indeed be the start of a long relationship. But little did Emily know at the time that it would also mark the beginning of a ten-year-long ordeal which would change her forever.
After that date, they embarked on a whirlwind, long-distance relationship, alternating lively nights out in Bristol with quieter, nature-filled weekends in Swansea. Until one Saturday night, a month into their relationship, Jack introduced her to his friends over a restaurant dinner.
‘I was a bit nervous. So, I started drinking wine to relax,’ Emily explains. ‘Two of his friends asked us how we met, and he took the lead. “And now we are smitten with each other, aren’t we?” I remember him saying, as he stared at me,’ she says. The evening, however, took a turn for the worse when, upon arriving at home, he started accusing her of flirting with the man sitting opposite her.
‘He was in a foul mood,’ she says. ‘He thought of himself as a big fish and did not like that I did not show how much in love I was with him in front of his friends.’ In order to punish her for having supposedly stepped out of line, he snubbed her for the rest of the weekend. ‘His was an icy, controlled anger. One minute he would be all over me, and the next minute he would be cold,’ Emily tells me. ‘He was controlling the pace of the relationship. It was all about his ego.’
‘That weekend, we were watching a film, and I asked him if he wanted to go to bed. He said that we would go to bed when he finished his drink, but he kept taking tiny sips and he would never finish. I think it was his way to show me who was in control,’ Emily says.
As she drove back to work on the Monday, she started replaying the previous couple of days in her head and wondered whether it should end that relationship then and there. Ironically, that morning, she was due to attend a training session on physical, mental, and psychological abuse. She was shocked to see how her boyfriend’s behaviour perfectly matched the patterns of abuse illustrated in the session.
‘There are a lot of red flags in your relationship,’ her colleague and friend concluded at the end of the training. She found the courage to tell her what had happened at the weekend. At first, however, Emily struggled to come to terms with her realisation. ‘Since I was advocating for women’s rights and helping other women get out of abusive relationships, it was hard for me to accept that I had become a victim of abuse myself.’ She adds: ‘I felt ashamed […] It is only in the last eighteen months that I was able to get some perspective.’
The Victim Card And Other Manipulation Stratergies
Exasperated by his mood swings, extreme jealousy, and controlling behaviour, Emily decided to end the relationship. ‘I looked at his pleading eyes and asked him to leave,’ she recalls.
But he would not take a no for an answer. ‘I was so determined, but he was not going to give up’. He kept begging her to give him one more chance, until, eventually, she capitulated. However, his unexpected reaction took her aback. I would have given it one more shot, and if you said no, I would have walked out and never looked back, he told her. Once again, he was dictating the rules of the game. ‘It was push-and-pull all the bloody time’ Emily asserts.
Things go from bad to worse when Jack decides to quit his job in Wales, after being suspended while the company investigated some bullying claims that several colleagues had filed against him.
He took the episode as an opportunity to move closer to Emily, and a year after their first meeting, they were sharing a flat together, despite Emily feeling upset about having to leave the smaller, cosier flat she was renting on her own.
‘Things just got worse and worse. I was experiencing feelings of prolonged grief, fear, anxiety, and numbness and I was losing concentration,’ she says. Jack also made her question her sanity and perception of reality through psychological manipulation such as gaslighting.
‘I would talk about something we had done or said the day before, and he would pretend it had never happened. He would even question my loyalty by saying things like “no, it wasn’t me, it must have been someone else,” with a lewd implication,’ she explains.
Girls’ nights out would also lead to arguments, as not only did he make her feel guilty for daring to enjoy herself without him through snide remarks and cold behaviour, but he would also find ways to make her late on such occasions, in an attempt at punishing her.
Some of his manipulative behaviour also included blaming her when he could not find something that belonged to him, dictating what she was supposed to write in a text to friends or to say in a call with strangers. ‘Sometimes when we went clubbing, he would ask me to go to the centre of the room and dance alone, so that he could join me later and show all the other men in the room that I belonged to him,’ she says.
Jack, who, throughout his childhood, had endured his father’s physical abuse towards his mother and himself, would strive not to be like his dad. However, his controlled anger would often turn into a more overtly aggressive behaviour when he was drunk.
‘He could be lovely, very intelligent, and funny. Then, as we watched something on TV, he would start ruminating over something I had supposedly done, and would suddenly go quiet and ice-cold, making me sit on pins for hours. Then again, he would come to me and act as nothing had happened,’ Emily says, recalling how the situation was so unbearable that she would often get up in the middle of the night to let out the tears, wash her face, and go back to sleep.
A New Year’s house party marked a critical point in their relationship. The house was packed with people having a good time, champagne was flowing. Emily, who had been invited to the party by the host, a good friend of hers, was attending the event with Jack. They had pre-booked a taxi at 2 am, so that they would not have to drive home.
She had started increasing her alcohol intake since the beginning of the relationship, as a way to numb the pain she was going through. At some point, a single guy started chatting her up, as he had done with other women there. Shortly before the taxi arrived, Jack took her to one side and accused her of flirting with the guy and publicly embarrassing him, claiming that he had seen them kissing.
Furious at him for having unfairly accused her of something she had not done and ruined the party, Emily got into the taxi and went home without him. Jack, who had no money on him and no fob to access the flat, started ringing her and left several angry voicemails, as he walked back home. Once at home, he started buzzing at her door until she eventually decided to let him in.
Without saying a word, he entered the flat and pinned her to the wall, his hands tightly grabbing her neck. ‘I was so shocked that I was not even scared,’ Emily says. ‘He pulled away, looking a bit contrite. Then he got angry and pinned me back again.’
‘I asked him to stop, or I would call the police,’ she continues. At that point, he eventually let go of her and went to bed, insisting that she slept in the same bed with him. She did, fearing that he may harm her if she did not comply, but she stayed awake all night, keeping her phone under the pillow, so that it would be easier to call the police if he dared come close to her.
The next morning, she got up early, while Jack was still sound asleep. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was her friend asking her why she had left the party alone without even saying goodbye. Once she told her what had happened, her friend urged her to get herself ready and leave the apartment immediately.
Emily complied, but as she was about to leave, Jack woke up. ‘The timing was impeccable,’ she tells me. Upon noticing that she was holding the flat keys in her hands, he apologised for his conduct the night before and tried to persuade her to stay. ‘We cannot live like this anymore, he told me,’ Emily recalls, ‘begging me for forgiveness and insisting that he loved me.’
‘I was hearing his words, but I was not listening to him. I was exhausted,’ she says. Just then, someone buzzed at the door. It was the police, alerted by her friend after she had been unable to reach Emily on her phone. Emily followed the officers downstairs. As she sat in their car, filling out a form that she herself had used many times before with her clients, the cold reality hit her: she, whose job was to help victims of abuse, had become a victim herself.
‘They tried to encourage me to press charges. But I couldn’t,’ she says, with an apologetic tone, as if a part of her was still blaming herself for that. The police however, provided her with details of a counselling service, which she attended one evening a week, telling Jack that she had to stay late at work to meet some clients. But despite Emily not feeling ready to leave him at that point, she became increasingly aware of his behaviour.
A few months after his assault, not only did she discover that her boyfriend had engaged in sexual conversations and shared explicit photos with a girl he had met online, but also that he had joined various amateur porn sites where he would share sexual performances of himself and his ex-wife, whom, it turned out, he had secretly filmed without her consent.
Furious at the discovery, Emily went around the house and threw every single one of his possessions into a bin bag, which she left on the hallway for him to pick up upon his return from work. ‘All the time I was trying to find a tangible proof to leave him. That was the proof I needed,’ she says.
But when Jack got back, he tried to play down the situation, accusing her of overreacting and claiming that if he were her, he would not have ended the relationship over such a petty episode. Eventually, he agreed to leave, but pleaded to let him sleep at home one last night, so that he could find a temporary accommodation. But once again, the next day, he succeeded in talking her around.
Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde
‘For a few weeks, I got the nicest version of him,’ Emily tells me.
But the change did not last long, and soon, Jack switched back to his cold, bitter self. ‘I would dissociate a lot[…] He was grieving since his grandma had died in Manchester and that made him even more unbearable. He would always find ways to punish me for something I had supposedly done,’ she explains. By then, Emily was fully aware that she was in an abusive relationship, but she felt that it was too late to change her fate and take back the reins of her life. She felt trapped.
‘I had limited my avenues for escape,’ she says. Jack convinced Emily, who felt a ‘nervous wreck’ at the time after being stalked for months by one of her clients, to take some time off sick. But, by the time she was due to return to work, he encouraged her to quit so that they could travel together and live the dream. Within a few weeks, she had given notice to their landlord and her employer and had married Jack at the registry office in Bath.
Following the wedding, Emily and Jack flew to the Hawaii together. His mum joined them a few weeks later. Before leaving, he gave away her collection of dresses and shoes, arguing that she could have not brought them with her anyway. ‘It felt as if he was throwing out part of my personality,’ Emily says.
Of her mother-in-law she says: ‘His mum was very kind to me. He was very careful not to act out in front of her. As an only child, he had protected her from her abusive husband. Therefore, she saw him as the person who had gone out of his way to keep her sane and safe for all those years.’
Jack convinced Emily to join him in his surfing classes, but after a while, Emily abandoned her efforts, while Jack progressed to a professional level. She was happy that her husband could focus on his hobby, which he seemed to be very passionate about so that she could finally have some time for herself. But Jack, who would only return to their apartment in the evenings, would still expect her to wait for him and prepare his dinner, continuing to be rude and nasty to her on several occasions. Until Emily could not take it any longer.
‘We are abroad. He is living the life he wanted, and he is still a brat. It is not going to get any better,’ she remembers having told herself.
The Escape Plan
She waited for Jack to fly to Europe to join some relatives on a holiday and planned for her escape. ‘I emailed my mum and told her that I was not happy, that I had made a mistake. She replied shortly afterward. She simply said: “Do not worry. Come home. Don’t put up with it any longer.”’
Emily then booked her one-way ticket back to freedom and waited for the day of Jack’s departure, trying to keep appearances with her mother-in-law, who, like her, had stayed behind. ‘The tension and anxiety were through the roof,’ she confesses.
A few weeks after her husband left for his holidays, Emily got a taxi to the airport, stuffing money she had withdrawn from their joint account in tampon boxes, fearing that border police may stop her if they had found that she carried a few thousand pounds in cash with her. ‘I was a bag of nerves,’ she recalls.
Unfortunately, that was not the very last day of her ordeal. Despite changing her phone and email address, Jack started contacting her through her mother. His own mother also tried to intercede for him, describing how miserable her son was without her.
In response to Emily’s refusal to speak to him, he started sending her flowers on a weekly basis, begging for forgiveness. Until one day, he confessed to her that he was abused as a child by a family friend. Emily was shocked to hear that, since until that point, Jack had never mentioned that traumatic experience and felt immensely guilty for having decided to leave him, as if she were somehow responsible for making him relive his past traumas and sense of abandonment. That was when they started to resume contact and eventually met up again.
‘All of a sudden, he was the person I fell in love with, and I felt a lot of guilt for the way I had left him,’ she tells me.
Despite giving him one last chance, this time Emily was determined to do things her way. She had decided to move to Newcastle to live with a friend of hers, enroll in a master’s degree course, and start afresh there.
Jack, however, followed her and tried to convince her to move back in together. The two even attended couple counselling for a few months, in a desperate attempt at healing their unhealthy relationship, but it didn’t take long for him to go back to his old ways.
‘My heart was not in it,’ Emily admits, feeling drained by the emotional rollercoaster that their turbulent relationship had caused her. ‘All I wanted was freedom,’ she says, pointing out that at that time she was still unable to completely cut contact with him, eaten up with guilt and shame.
One day, when Jack got furious at her repeated rejections as he tried to grope her and kiss her in public, she realised that he had lost his grip on her. That was it. ‘I wrote him an email and told him why I would cut contact. I blocked his number. I blocked him everywhere,’ Emily says.
In September 2016, she handed in her dissertation and went back home to her parents. ‘As soon as I walked in, my mum told me that she had stage four cancer,’ Emily tells me. She was devastated but felt blessed that she could at least enjoy their last moments together, without fearing that her estranged husband’s presence could have spoiled the atmosphere.
Seven weeks later, Emily’s mum died.
Freedom At Last
She moved to Harrogate the following year to start her Ph.D. and carried on with her life, having cut all ties with Jack, to whom she was still legally married. She had heard that he had got engaged six months after he had left Newcastle and had a whirlwind romance abroad.
She didn’t want to make contact with him and open up dialogue but was always conscious of the fact that he may one day try to get in touch with her again. That day came, just when she had started to let her guard down.
It was September 2019, and as she went through her emails, a name popped up on the screen. As if nothing had happened, Jack asked her how she and her family were, updating her on his mother and her activities but pointedly revealing nothing about his own life.
Emily was very shaken. For a moment, she thought about replying to him with details about her new life. But as she nervously typed her answer, she shook that thought from her mind, scolding herself for continuing to feel the need to give him explanations, when she owed him none.
Hi. I am fine, thank you. I think it’s time we get a divorce, was her response. He agreed, although he made her wait the full four weeks to log on the government system where he was supposed to acknowledge receipt of her divorce petition. ‘That was his last bit of control,’ Emily says with a smile, at last.
Why did Emily, and many other women like her, tolerate such an abusive relationship for so long? That’s the recurring question that people tend to ask, a question that is hard to utter without sounding judgemental. Because it seems to fail to acknowledge the intricacies of coercive control, and why, to put it in Emily’s words, ‘it is so frighteningly effective’.
‘I was determined that this was the last time, every single time. It’s only with hindsight that I realise how much he wore me down. My emotional and mental energy could only take so much of the pleading and simpering, promises to change, but almost as soon as I relented, I regretted my decision. Instead, it started another cycle of misery before I could muster the strength to try and get rid of him all over again.’
We hope that by reading Emily’s story, many more women will also find strength and claim back control of their lives.
Disclosure: Names and circumstances have been changed to protect the people’s identity and right to privacy.
If you are in an abusive relationship, please contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 847.
Image by Sydney Sims (via Unsplash)