In 2020, Hannah Clark and her three children were murdered by Hannah’s ex-husband in Queensland Australia. The husband doused Hannah and the car in which their children were sitting in gas and set them ablaze, eventually killing all three children and Hannah. The husband also killed himself that day.
Since then, the husband’s behavior prior to the murders has been analyzed – while he had not previously been violent, he did engage in coercive control over Hannah. As happened in Hannah’s case, such behavior can be a warning sign for future domestic violence.
What is Coercive Control?
Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and manipulation, usually to instill fear. In intimate relationships, particularly when partners live together, this can create a hostage-like situation. As such, this can constitute a form of domestic abuse. The abuser will isolate, degrade, and exploit in an effort to control the partner.
Here are some examples of behaviors that may constitute coercive control:
- Isolating a person from others
- Intimidating a person in various ways
- Monitoring a person’s activity
- Denying a person their freedom and autonomy
- Continually criticizing a person
- Making a person feel guilty all of the time
- Limiting access to money
- Parental or child alienation
- Making jealous accusations
- Blackmail or other threats, including threats of harm
Gaslighting is also a common controlling behavior in abusive relationships. Specifically, gaslighting is when a person creates a false reality to confuse the person they are manipulating. For instance, let’s say the abuser tells his partner that he wants to eat at a restaurant when he gets home that night. When he gets home later, he gets angry that a home-cooked meal isn’t ready. When his partner claims he told her that morning he wanted to go to a restaurant, he denies that conversation happened and then blames her for not having dinner ready. This makes the partner question her memory and her actions, thus constituting a form of manipulation.
Is Coercive Control Illegal?
In New York, the short answer is maybe. Sometimes, the controlling behavior can constitute an action already criminalized under the state’s Penal Law. For example, if a person is not allowed to leave their home by their abuser, that could be unlawful imprisonment which is a crime. However, many of the behaviors are not criminal, and advocates state that this type of abuse by intimate partners is not adequately accounted for in current law.
In the United Kingdom in 2015, there is a law criminalizing such controlling and coercive behaviors in domestic relationships. Additionally, Canada has recently considered such legislation. More recently, parts of Australia will soon have laws criminalizing coercive control. In these countries, it is believed these efforts may protect the lives of victims and their children.
What makes coercive control tricky is that it often starts gradually, and it becomes more oppressive as time goes on. Moreover, the control can start out as supposed expressions of concern. For example, if an abuser always wants to know where their partner is, the abuser may claim this is just because they want to keep the partner safe. According to research, between 60 and 80 percent of women seeking assistance for domestic abuse have experienced coercive control. There may also be a link between this type of behavior and later physical violence.
What to Do in a Controlling Relationship
An important step all persons in relationships should take is to maintain communication with their support systems. Whether in a healthy relationship or an abusive one, a person should always have someone they can speak with and check-in with on a regular basis.
If a person is being subjected to such controlling behavior, maintaining a support system becomes even more important. Additionally, it may be appropriate to speak with a professional or to keep a record of incidents. Many people in abusive relationships develop plans for how to leave safely and to have a place to go if they need to leave.
If you’ve experienced domestic violence, there are several resources where you can get help.
- In an emergency, call 911
- Call your local police department or district attorney’s office
- Reach out to the NYS Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at 800-942-6906, text 844-997-2121, or visit https://opdv.ny.gov/survivors-victims
- Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233), text “START” to 88788, or visit http://www.thehotline.org
- Editorial Board, “Abuse takes many forms, and domestic violence laws should reflect them,” Boston Globe (May 2, 2023). Available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/05/02/opinion/domestic-violence-restraining-order-violence-abuse-law/ (last accessed May 16, 2023).
- Amanda Gearing, “What is coercive control? These are the concerning behaviours,” The Guardian (May 13, 2023). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/may/14/what-is-coercive-control-these-are-the-concerning-behaviours (last accessed May 16, 2023).
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