Anni Donaldson: Understanding coercive control and domestic abuse

Amid a storyline on The Archers radio programme, writing in Common Space Anni Donaldson explains coercive control in abusive relationships and how people can seek help

THE ARCHERS’ Helen Titchener really could use an independent domestic abuse advocate (IDA) right now.

If Ambridge was in the west of Scotland she could just lift the phone and call Assist and one of their IDA’s could talk through with her what is really going on in her marriage.

For those not familiar with the excruciatingly well-written, real time entrapment of vulnerable Helen over the past couple of years by her domineering and controlling husband Rob, a quick BBC Radio iPlayer catch up or glance at any online Archers forum will fill you in pretty quickly.

Helen is living in a situation which is all too familiar to IDAs, highly dangerous for her, wee Henry and her unborn child.

Assist is well placed – every year its advocates support over 4,000 women (and a number of men) in exactly Helen’s situation and around 6,000 children all affected by domestic abuse.

Rob is a textbook domestic abuser: the gradual erosion of Helen’s freedom masked as concern and ‘love’, the ramping up of her fear of him and her confusion and anxiety are common responses to the increasingly tight emotional and physical cordon he is placing around her.

Helen is living in a situation which is all too familiar to IDAs, highly dangerous for her, wee Henry and her unborn child.

IDA’s are specialists who understand very well how abusive partners behave and they know also that the longer it goes on, the more dangerous it can get. Men like Rob start by schmoozing and charming, often sweeping women along to an early commitment or marriage, spotting their vulnerabilities and salting them away for future use.

In conversation with Helen, a domestic abuse advocate would find out that she is growing increasingly frightened of Rob.

In conversation with Helen, a domestic abuse advocate would find out that she is growing increasingly frightened of Rob. He ‘polices’ her life, isolating her from friends and family, tracking her movements by phone and text if she goes out.

He has left his job, persuaded Helen to give up working in her successful organic food company and is gradually taking over the business and finances. Helen is pregnant and advocates know that during pregnancy abuse can start or escalate.

Rob’s apparent concern for Helen’s pregnancy hides his final goal – complete control of Helen’s life to suit his needs. He puts her down, tells her what to wear, undermines her ability as a mother and is obsessively jealous of her friendships – gradually, almost imperceptibly, his evaluation of her as a woman creeps into her mind and like a cuckoo jettisons her own sense of herself, her independence of thought and action.

There are suggestions that he could be a serial abuser from the occasional appearances of previous partner Jess – whom Helen has been falsely persuaded is deranged. He has charmed his way into Helen’s family who think he is God’s gift to troubled, single parent Helen who hasn’t had much luck with men in the past.

He ‘polices’ her life, isolating her from friends and family, tracking her movements by phone and text if she goes out.

While there is not much apparent violence, there are hints at a rape. There is plenty of threatening behaviour from Rob, our compelling ultra-macho, homophobic, bad-tempered, narcissistic, arch-manipulating, riding-to-hounds anti-hero.

Hearing all that, it would be clear as day to an IDA that Rob is a danger to Helen. As long as she is frightened into complying, Helen will be fine but men like Rob are never satisfied and Helen will never, ever get it 100 per cent right. His changing moods and standards keep her on her emotional toes.

The romantic bond between Helen and Rob has now become a traumatic one – he has magically transformed her love into a fearful, anxious attachment and very soon he could have the power of life or death over her and the children.

Helen, living with that every day like a captive in a war zone is very likely to be experiencing a real and severe condition with a name: Type 2 Trauma.

Who knows where Helen’s and Rob’s story will end – that’s the power of this well written radio drama. In real life it could end in severe mental health problems, severe injury, miscarriage or death for a woman and possibly her children, too – it happens.

As long as she is frightened into complying, Helen will be fine but men like Rob are never satisfied and Helen will never, ever get it 100 per cent right. His changing moods and standards keep her on her emotional toes.

A trained advocate would sensitively reflect back to women like Helen the reality of their situation. Through careful questioning and professional judgement, advocates assess the risks women like Helen face in similar situations and offer options for safety and support if they want it.

Listeners describe Rob as an arch-villain, a baddie we love to hate. People swing from frustration to sympathy for Helen. In reality, Rob is an old fashioned abuser disguised as a regular guy, hidden in plain sight, nursing a Victorian world view that a woman is a man’s property without full citizenship rights.

Their hyper-vigilant partners trying to second guess their every move, anxiously tiptoe around them to prevent the next blow-up. Rob’s number could be up, though. The law In England and Wales might catch up with his particular form of coercive or controlling domestic abuse.

As of December 2015 this is now a crime punishable by up to five years in prison even if it stops short of physical violence. Listeners await his prosecution with interest. Similarly, The Scottish Government is currently consulting on creating a specific offence to deal with those who commit psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour.

The consultation ends on 1 April 2016. Such an offence could rely on evidence such as is gathered in the course of IDA’s work with victims. This could prove vital in documenting the reality of life within these regimes of domestic terror.

Making that first call for help can make you feel like a traitor, the end of your cherished dreams of a happy family future. Preparing to end the relationship can be dangerous: that’s why women stay put.

Making that first call for help can make you feel like a traitor, the end of your cherished dreams of a happy family future. Preparing to end the relationship can be dangerous: that’s why women stay put.

Over the last 10 years, two women a week in the UK have died at the hands of a current or former partner often at the point of leaving. Women know that losing control could push their partner over the edge and women wisely managing their own safety.

Sometimes it is better to stay put and make careful longer-term plans. That’s where a good advocate can help whether or not the police are involved. Advocates know the law and can pull in a range of other services to help someone at risk.

A national training programme for IDAs is currently under way in Scotland to make the service nationwide through Scotland’s national network of Women’s Aid Groups and other support services.

The demand is not likely to diminish anytime soon with around 60,000 domestic incidents reported to Police Scotland last year.

To find out your where your nearest IDA or domestic abuse support service is:

In Scotland call: National Domestic abuse Helpline 0800 027 1234 – open 24 hours

In England and Wales (including Ambridge) call: National Domestic Violence Helpline 08082000247 – open 24 hours

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Picture courtesy of ghetto_guera29