Complete Guide about Coercive Control in Family Law

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Frances Maatouk - Family Lawyer

Frances Maatouk - Family Lawyer

If you are in immediate danger, please call 000 immediately and ask the Police about getting an ADVO

You can also call 1800respect if you are in danger of domestic violence or sexual assault.

This article provides insight into what coercive behaviour typically looks like and the red flags you should look out for. It will also provide information on how some governments around the world are responding to coercive control. It will specifically look into coercive control legislation in England, Ireland and Scotland; as well as Australia.

What is coercive control?

Generally, domestic violence relates to physical or verbal abuse in intimate relationships. There are however other forms of abuse that are just as harmful and may be a precursor to sexual assault or in the worst scenarios, homicide.

One form of serious abuse is coercive control, which is sometimes described as “intimate terrorism”. Forensic Social Worker, Professor Evan Stark described coercive control as a pattern of behaviour that includes tactics to isolate, exploit and control the victims. It leads to the victim being treated as a hostage in the relationship. The abuser can do this because the victim lives in a state of perpetual fear. 

Anyone can experience coercive control, however, it is generally entrenched in gender-based privilege. On average of 60-80% of women who experience domestic abuse say that they have also experienced coercive control.

cartoon of coercive control behaviour

A person who experiences coercive control is deprived by the abuser of their basic rights and needs. They may also lose their sense of identity and sight of what they enjoy. It can be likened to brainwashing. When someone is brainwashed, their internal narrative is replaced with the abuser’s narrative. For example, if the abuser constantly says that the victim is useless then over a period of time the victim begins to believe that.

Coercive control relies on domination and may be linked to other types of abuse such as gaslighting, or mental disorders such as narcissism. It may occur after a period when the perpetrator was attentive and kind to their victim before dramatically changing.

Coercive control creates a power imbalance in the relationship and it is almost always a precursor to homicide or other physical harm.

Where there is a pattern of controlling behaviour, the victim may find it very hard to leave the relationship, which increases the danger. Anyone experiencing coercive control may find it difficult to believe that they’re in an abusive relationship and will try and justify the behaviour. They may also have difficulty concentrating, or experience moodiness or in extreme cases, nightmares. 

What are coercive tactics?

Although it is predominantly Australian women who experience coercive control, anyone can be a victim of this type of abuse. We’ve compiled a list of the most common tactics that someone trying to exert coercive control will use, which include:

  1. They will restrict your freedom and autonomy.
  2. They will name-call and put you down
  3. They will seek to control your health and body
  4. They will reinforce traditional gender roles and you could be at risk of rape
  5. They could turn your kids against you
  6. They will monitor your daily activity and may check your devices
  7. They may make jealous accusations
  8. They will try to control your sexual relationship
  9. They will threaten your children or pets
  10. They will seek to restrict you from your support networks, leading to isolation
  11. They will limit your access to money
  12. They will gaslight you

How to recognise coercive control

The only way you can get out of a dangerous relationship is to know the signs. We go into eight of the signs of coercive control below so you can recognise them and take action if you suspect that you are in a relationship with coercive control.

Isolating you from your support system

Generally speaking, a partner who wants to exert control over you will try to isolate you from your friends and family. They will try to stop you from interacting with them. They do this so that you do not have an external support network. Common ways that they do this may include:

  • attempting to control your phone or social media accounts. They will manipulate you and claim that it will be more convenient. In reality, however, it means that every move you make is being monitored.
  • suggesting that you move away from your friends or family. If you live far away from friends or family it is easier for the abuser to exert power over you in the relationship.
  • lying about you to others so that you end up even more isolated through the breakdown of relationships.
  • checking up on your phone calls. They may check your phone account or limit contact with anyone who offers an opinion that contradicts the abuser’s.
  • making you believe that your friends and family hate you so that you feel alone and as if you have nobody else you can rely on.

Monitoring every move you make throughout the day

An abuser will use a range of techniques to exert their control over you. This may include monitoring every move you make with the use of cameras or other recording devices. 

These devices may be in your bedroom or even the bathroom. They will violate your personal space and will check up on you throughout the day at an unhealthy frequency. 

You may feel humiliated and as though you’ve lost control of your personal space.

Swearing and putting you down

Coercive control is linked to bullying and you may be subjected to name-calling and criticism. The bullying is designed to make you feel as if you’re not important and as though you are lacking. As you feel less important, the abuser can gain control and dominance over you.

cartoon of an example of coercive control

Threatening you, your pets or your children

More often than not, an abuser will make threats of physical harm. Someone who wants to control you may threaten your children or even your pets. It is very important that you take threats seriously because in some situations they can lead to actual physical harm.

This was the case for Australian mother, Hannah Clarke and her three children. They were murdered by her ex-husband, Rowan Baxter in February of 2020. Hannah had previously reported instances of domestic violence to the Queensland Police. Since her murder, her parents have called for coercive control to be made a new criminal offence in the state

Gaslighting

An abuser wants power and control and they will do anything to get it. This could mean manipulating, lying and gaslighting. The idea is to make you think that you are wrong so that you feel worthless without the gaslighting partner. 

An example is that you made plans to go to the movies with your partner and you booked the tickets, but when they come home they say they wanted to see a different movie and they rip up the tickets. They may also call you names, so that you doubt yourself, apologise and then rebook the movie tickets.

Controlling your sexual relationship

When we think of rape, we imagine a scenario where the rapist is physically violent. Rape doesn’t always occur that way. Sometimes it or other forms of sexual abuse can occur through coercion.

An abuser may manipulate you into having sex against your will or will control the number of times you have sex each week. They may also force you to allow them to take pictures or videos, or refuse to wear a condom.

If you are being threatened with sexual assault, call 1800respect or the police immediately.

Making jealous accusations

Just like narcissists, someone trying to exert coercive control over you will also make accusations about how much time you spend with your friends and family. They do this so you feel guilty and subsequently reduce the amount of time that you spend with people outside of the relationship.

Limiting your access to money

Psychology Today reports that many people who have been in abusive relationships remain because of the financial constraints and difficulties leaving the relationship. If you’re in a relationship with coercive control then your abusive partner may take action to limit your financial freedom. 

This may include hiding money from you, forcing you to have a shared bank account or limiting your access, reducing the amount of money you have by placing you on a strict budget and tracking the amount of money that you spend.

How to get out

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse that creates a power imbalance in a relationship. The perpetrator gains power over their victim, which makes it hard for them to leave. In some cases, it can escalate to physical abuse. 

Although coercive control hasn’t yet been criminalised in NSW, there are steps you can take to get out of a harmful relationship. The following organisations can help you devise a strategy to get out of a dangerous relationship or provide you with financial support, counselling and emotional support:

If you have an intimate partner who is monitoring your online activity, then you should switch your browser to private mode so that your history will not be detected. If possible you could purchase a new sim card, additional mobile phone, or access help using a work computer or phone; or go to a friend’s place so that you can access the help you need before it escalates into physical violence.

AVOs and coercive control

If you have been threatened by a partner then call the police as soon as you can. The police can help you with an AVO. An AVO is a Protection Order that protects you from harm. An AVO can be granted in circumstances where you have experienced physical violence, or threats of violence, stalking, intimidation, harassment or damage to your property.

Where there is an immediate danger you may be able to get an Interim AVO which will offer you immediate protection. Our blog on AVOs has more information.

Coercive control around the world

Due to the prevalence of coercive control, many jurisdictions around the world have enacted legislation to deal with the issue.

England and Wales became the first countries in the world to create a coercive control offence in 2015. The effect of this is that coercive control in relationships is now a criminal offence that will be dealt with by the justice system and may lead to a prison sentence of up to five years. 

One police task force conducted a study that revealed that 95% of those who experience coercive control are women, with 74% of the perpetrators being men. 

Ireland and Scotland followed England and Wales, with the introduction of their coercive control legislation in 2019.In 1994, the United States government introduced the Violence Against Women Act. This criminalises felony or misdemeanour crimes of violence in domestic settings. 

Domestic violence advocates say that the legislation makes it easier to hold the perpetrators accountable because they are now dealt with by the criminal justice system. There is a tangible outcome when victim-survivors come forward and report instances of coercive control. The legislation makes it harder for the justice system to ignore this type of abuse and easier for the police to start a prosecution.

Coercive control to be criminalised in NSW

The NSW Government is also looking into creating a new offence of coercive control. 

A Select Committee on Coercive Control found that coercive control shouldn’t be ignored and that it should be criminalised in New South Wales. The committee found that current legislation does not sufficiently deal with coercive or controlling behaviour. 

Many stakeholders, including Greens MP Abigail Boyd, sat on the committee and later said in a statement that changes to existing legislation shouldn’t be delayed. She said that frontline workers, experts and victim-survivors all agreed that coercive control can be very dangerous in domestic settings. 

This was supported by the Domestic Violence Death Review Team which found that 111 out of 112 cases of intimate partner homicides between 2008 and 2016 in NSW had been preceded by coercive control behaviour in the relationship.

Labour MP Anna Watson introduced a private members bill that would make coercive control in a domestic relationship an offence under the Crimes Act 1900 NSW.

Experts hope that if the new laws are enacted in New South Wales it will lead to prosecutions and save lives like in the UK. In 2019, Sydney dentist, Preethi Reddy was killed by her partner and her sister firmly believes that this legislation will save lives.

Currently, Tasmania is the only Australian state where coercive control is a criminal offence. Section 9 of the Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas) created the offence of emotional abuse or intimidation.

How Unified Lawyers can help

Unified Lawyers are one of Sydney’s top family law firms. Our family lawyers are experienced in helping people get out of harmful relationships. We are available via telephone, email and video conference, and any discussions you have with us will remain confidential.

We can be contacted seven days a week on 1300 661 467.

Frances Maatouk - Family Lawyer
Frances Maatouk - Family Lawyer

Frances is an experienced family lawyer with a strong passion for family law.

Since her admission as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW, Frances has always focussed in the field of family and divorce law.
Frances has worked in both suburban and city firms and she is able to connect with a range of client’s and adapt to their needs based on their varying situations.