My Story: I had no idea it was coercive control

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I was in my early 20s when I fell in love with a charming, sporty man. The relationship swallowed me whole, and after it ended disastrously, I spent years after referring to it as the ‘four-year fiasco’. I parked the relationship away in the recesses of my mind.  I tried to forget it, preferring to think of it as just one of those dramatic mistakes people typically make in their twenties.

It is only now, in my 40s, that I have the understanding, vocabulary and readiness to come to grips with what I actually went through.  I was in an emotionally abusive relationship which left me mentally isolated and disorientated, and unable to speak about it honestly for years after.  I finally left him when it had escalated into verbal abuse and was about to turn into physical abuse -he thumped me on the head during our last explosive fight. Something changed within me after that, and it was finally over.

I am only writing this now because I have learned things. And I feel strongly that there should be more awareness of the harmful and soul-destroying process of coercive control, and how it relates to abuse.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a kind of domestic abuse, but it doesn’t necessarily include physical abuse.  Women’s Aid explains coercive control as a controlling behaviour that is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Professor Evan Stark compares it to being taken hostage: “The victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.” 

Some countries are taking coercive control extremely seriously.  In 2015, England and Wales became the first nations in the world to criminalise such controlling behaviour within relationships, making coercive control punishable by up to five years in jail.  According to a study by one UK police force, women make up 95 per cent of those who experience coercive control and 74 per cent of perpetrators are men.

Getting to grips with the past

I got out extremely lightly.  To be clear, I do not feel like a victim, although I know I suffered emotional abuse. Perhaps I do not want to remember myself as a victim.  I know now that I had experienced elements of coercive control, because of the confusion and helplessness I felt, and how I had been unable to leave.

I only recently started to seriously consider what I went through, because of what I had been reading and writing about domestic abuse.  It was a topic that has been in global news thanks to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trials.  In Malaysia, the Sugu-Pavithra domestic abuse case and the murder of Dr Maizatulnisa Othman by her husband was covered with plenty of initial outrage but very little post-analysis.

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp attending court in London. Photo credit BBC News.

For want of a better word,  I think I was triggered by some elements of these cases that were being discussed – especially when the term coercive control came into the picture. Flashes of horror and discomfort would wash over me, and I couldn’t really express what I was feeling.

When people comment about these cases of abuse, I found there were always similar threads and themes.  That somehow the victims had done something to provoke or upset the men.  Or that some men couldn’t be abusive because they were good to former partners, or that they were nice and kind to others.  That the women would have left if it was ‘seriously’ abusive – why would they stay? Being aware of coercive control and the myths of abuse allows us to understand these nuances better and truly grasp how to help people who may be in abusive relationships.

A Slow Descent Into Losing Control

I should have realised the warning signs early on when he called me names for going out to catch up with a male friend.  Arguments ensued, but somehow he managed to sow seeds of doubt in me.  He pointed out my friendly and tactile nature and my close group of male friends. Was it my fault for having too many good guy friends? Perhaps this was what a normal, serious relationship entails, and perhaps I had been a bit too free and unthinking? Did I need to adjust my ways and be more considerate, so he felt more secure and respected? He loved me so much, I thought. Therefore I needed to understand, support and be better for him. He was a troubled man but full of potential, I felt, and so I had to help him succeed.

He loved me so much, I thought.

As time went by, this just descended into a kind of social hell. I was still able to be with my friends, but I would mentally check how close I was physically sitting with them, or standing near them and other men in public spaces. My interactions with them would mostly be in groups, with him around.

He would accuse me endlessly about affairs, that I was cheating on him with almost all of my male friends, and even many of his.  Every other week was another major fight about how I must be doing something wrong or disloyal.  Once he even lost it when he found out I had sent a birthday or Raya greeting to his best friend.  It took me hours to figure out what he was actually furious about – this was the standard ritual of how he would accuse me of things – and it would be incomprehensible questioning and accusatory behaviour that could range from him coldly ignoring me to him wildly denigrating my character.  He would always paint it as my fault that he was feeling so angry and upset.

It was much later on in my life that I realise that mental and emotional abuse includes sarcasm, dismissiveness, character assassination and constantly pushing one’s buttons. The behaviour stems from an abuser’s insecurities, and them wanting to create a hierarchy in which they are in the right and at the top, and you are at the bottom.

Doing Well Outside, Crumbling Inside

Other things just became insidiously entrenched in my life. I was doing well as a reporter in a newspaper, but my work-personal life was very demarcated. It felt like if I wasn’t working, I was with him.  I remember leaving outings with colleagues and friends early.  A frequent joke I used was that ‘I needed a CCTV installed on my head for his benefit’, so he could see I was not having dalliances with them.  I think some colleagues and friends must have thought this was some form of humble-bragging – see how crazily in love this man is with me. How intense and romantic.

Sometimes when I said I was tired and had to go home, he would be frustrated and insinuate that I actually wanted to go out and do other things. He once waited in his car on the next road so he could see my room’s lights (my room was at the back of the house). When my lights did not turn off, he was enraged and called me. He said I was lying about being tired and wanting to sleep. It was mentally exhausting dealing with these interactions almost every week. Even though he was the one who was financially dependent on his family and has various elements of instability and failures in his life, he had successfully convinced me that it was I who had to change to make us happier. That our issues were my fault.

I guess I was a frog

It was near the end of our relationship that I saw things taking a turn for the worse.  When my work chose me to join the Prime Minister’s press corp to an overseas assignment – a really prestigious opportunity for a young reporter like me – he was furious and asked why I did not ask him for permission first before agreeing to it.

I was just dumbfounded and in shock, but once again, I felt really confused. Was this normal? Perhaps people do ask their boyfriends for permission for these things. I second-guessed myself all the time. By this time, things were escalating. I was starting to unravel, and I also became verbally abusive towards him. I was starting to throw things around. He was caught trying to cheat himself,  though he presented it as a half-hearted attempt to get back at me and my untrustworthy behaviour. He had a drug problem, and had been keeping his addiction a secret from me. It was an upside-down world – he was lying to me, but I was the one who was constantly accused of being a liar.

The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realises what’s happening to it…

Now I know what he did was gaslight me – gradually making me question my reality, confusing me and weakening me through me having to constantly defend myself.  Gaslighters often do this to distract from their own behaviour. In the ‘11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting‘,  psychologist Stephanie A. Sarkis says ‘Even the brightest, most self-aware people can be sucked into gaslighting—it is that effective. It’s the ‘frog in the frying pan’ analogy: The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realises what’s happening to it.”

By the time he admitted to somehow gaining access and going through my emails, things had reached a boiling point. Instead of saying sorry, he proceeded (as per usual) to accuse me of an affair with a close friend.  I had enough. Heated arguments started taking place in public. I finally tried to get some of my friends to help me. But because I had not told them the truth all the while, they were confused and thought this was just a very intense lovers’ spat. Some of them even took his side. They tried to advise him about his ‘fiery girlfriend’ and thought we could get back together, not realising what had actually happened.  I don’t blame them.

Covering former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in Paris, France in an international biodiversity conference in Jan 2005.

Being Isolated

Why did I stay? I guess the short answer is that I thought this was love. There were definitely good times. He could also be so charming, and he put me on a pedestal too, telling me he was often jealous because I ‘was so good and wonderful’.

The long answer is more complicated, and I think part of the reason was that I had been successfully isolated from my friends, at least mentally and emotionally. My family knew nothing. He was from a different religion and my parents did not support this, and somehow I decided they were the enemy.  Our relationship was the unspoken thing at home. My brothers knew about him but thought everything was fine.

And so I suffered in silence.

During those four years, nobody knew what I went through, because he had convinced me that whatever happened between us, stayed between us. That it is our private matter, and I should respect that. Somehow, even though I dismissed that in the beginning, I would slowly internalise this to an extreme conclusion. I never told the people closest to me how bad things were, or how isolated I felt. On a basic level, I also thought I would end up with him. I wanted everyone I cared about to love him.  And so I suffered in silence. The strongest and most painful memories I have are of me crying in my room often, feeling truly alone, sometimes with self-harming thoughts. He would later show me that he was the one who could love me and shower me with affection again.

And now I know that these are the signs of coercive control. Reading Criminal Behaviour Analyst Laura Richards work and the Signs of Coercive Control was an eye-opener, and she talks about how creating drama and monopolising of a victim’s time serves to isolate a person further.

Worryingly, this can spell disastrous things for people who cannot get out. She said the abuser creates an unreal world of contradiction, confusion and fear, and things typically escalate.  “Moreover 51% of victims do not even know that they are being abused, manipulated and controlled. Coercive control correlates significantly to serious harm and homicide.”

Swept Under the Carpet

Cuba, 2005. After I got out of the relationship, I travelled extensively, sometimes on my own. I felt light and free.

To be clear, I do not want or need any sympathy, resolution, action or follow-up with my story. I am lucky. I left, and I was young. I’m now in a blissfully happy marriage with the most incredible husband. I am sure that everything that has happened to me has led me through the lessons I needed to learn.  But I realised that if it took me two decades and a very deep and hesitant breath to actually articulate what happened to me, I can only imagine what other women – young, vulnerable or trapped – may be going through in their own journeys.

In Malaysia and many other countries,  discussions on abuse tend to focus on the physical and dramatic, with everything else swept under the carpet and wrapped around generalities. Without an understanding of coercive control and the nuances of abuse, we risk more victims falling into the cycles of abuse, with potentially dangerous and fatal outcomes.

A reframing is needed

Experts say that we need to reframe the ‘violence framework’ into a ‘coercive control framework’. The latter recognises that victims may fear ‘staying’ in the relationship but feel unable to leave due to the entrapment they experience, even when they report no physical violence.

We can then shift the conversation away from questioning why victims stay or focusing on the personalities or characters of the abusers or victims. What is most important?  Long-term strategies that protect victims by limiting abusers’ access to them and create programmes that emphasise meeting the full range of victim’s needs, writes Abigail Hazlett from the Coercive Control Collective. This includes “empowering victims, restoring their sense of ‘freedom,  autonomy, dignity and equality’ and helping them to build support networks so that they can leave.”

I did not have the knowledge, vocabulary or readiness to explain what I went through.  I do now.  This is not Agony Aunt, celebrity drama or psychological mumbo-jumbo. This is real, it happens, and we need to make sure we arm everyone with these mental and emotional tools.  It may save someone’s sanity, someone’s youth, or someone’s life.

Turning 40 two years ago with good friends. Photos taken by the writer’s husband.

Do you suspect you’re being coercively controlled?

Here are some links on coercive control and abuse:

On laws regarding abuse and domestic violence, as well as links for help:

Laych Koh is the editor-in-chief of makchic.