domestic control and abuse

Recognising Domestic Control and Abuse

In this latest of a series of Guest Posts our contributor, Irena Trnka De Benedictis writes about coercive control and domestic violence and gives tips on how to spot the signals. Sometimes these remain obscured until it is too late. How can a psychotherapist help? What role can a Family Lawyer play?

What is Coercive Control?

John has received a letter from his GP asking him to come for a prostate check. He has a problem urinating. His wife, Mary, is the first to open the letter, tears it up and insists that John uses herbal medication instead. John is unhappy but complies. Otherwise there will be an argument.

John has returned from a golfing weekend. Mary asks for his credit card and cuts it up. She says that she does not want him spending money on golf. John is unhappy but complies. Otherwise Mary will throw the scissors at him.

John would like to visit his son from his first marriage. Mary is the first to listen to his son’s messages and erases them. She tells John to cancel the visit. She does not like his son. John is unhappy but complies. He knows Mary will sulk. John has not seen his son for six months.

Mary asks John for the password to his mobile phone. She already has the password to his laptop. She wants to check his messages. John is unhappy but complies. Otherwise Mary will confiscate his devices.

Mary tells John that she has a new co-worker that she finds sexy. She wants to go for drinks with him. On her own. When John asks why, Mary tells him that she would be quite happy if John had an affair. John is unhappy, but he’s not sure he’ll comply. This is when John decides to talk to a counsellor that a friend recommended.

These are all examples of Coercive Control, as recently defined by the criminal law. John needs help.

What is Domestic Violence?

Ramesh cannot lose weight. He hides in the lavatory eating snacks. He is afraid that otherwise his partner, Safia, will call him ‘A Fat Pig’ in front of the children.

Safia has asked Ramesh to fix a cupboard door. He keeps putting it off. He is afraid he will not be able to fix it and Safia will call him ‘physically retarded’. She has said this many times before.

Ramesh is cooking dinner. Safia tells him he is cutting up the meat wrong. When Ramesh disagrees, Safia throws a soup tin at him. It hits the wall right next to his head. Ramesh worries what she may throw next. The mark on the wall stays there for a year. Safia refuses Ramesh’s offers to redecorate the kitchen.

Ramesh arranges to have dinner with his mother and sister. Safia phones them and cancels the dinner. Most of Ramesh’s friends and some of his relatives have given up trying to see Ramesh.

Safia wants to go for a walk in the park with Ramesh. He cannot find his second shoe. Safia throws a chair at Ramesh. One of the chair legs damages his arm. Ramesh has to keep his arm in a sling for ten days. This is when Ramesh decides to talk to a psychotherapist, whose name was given to him by his GP.

These are all examples of Domestic Violence, which comprises not only physical violence, but also emotional abuse. The police can take a variety of steps based on current criminal law. Ramesh needs help.

Way Out

In both examples, there is a way forward. John and Ramesh experience an incident that allows them to realise that they need help. This is not usually the case.

John and Ramesh are men. Men as well as women can be victims of coercive control and domestic violence. Sometimes men find it harder than women to seek help. Being a victim of abuse robs them of their identity as a male. Both sexes battle with the shame and stigma associated with asking for help.

The police can invoke the criminal law and this should be the first resort for victims of actual or threatened physical violence. ‘Waiting till the next time’ may turn out to be too late and fatal for the victim.

In cases of coercive control and emotional abuse, however, seeing a psychotherapist can be a more discreet first step towards finding appropriate help.

Why stay?

It is difficult for John or Ramesh to start to recognise that their relationship may include elements of coercive control or abuse. And that they are the ‘victim’ here.

This is usually because the key characteristic enabling such control or abuse, which is low self-esteem on the part of the ‘victim’, acts simultaneously to persuade them that ‘it’s not worth’ having psychotherapy for such a ‘trivial problem’. Low self-esteem leads them to feel worthless: ‘I don’t want to waste anybody’s time.’

Sometimes the ‘victim’ recognises only with professional help that the way their partner treats them is controlling or abusive. Family and friends try to intervene, but lack of self-esteem and shame prevents the ‘victim’ from hearing them.


‘Maybe it’s all in my head…it’s not their fault …they say they love me.’ Controllers and abusers are often effective manipulators. ‘Gaslighting’ is a buzz word, but it does apply to John and Ramesh, who are either manipulated or frightened into believing that they themselves are ‘going mad’.

In psychotherapy generally, the first step is for the person to realise that they need help and to search for it themselves. There is one exception. Those in the shoes of John or Ramesh need to be actively encouraged to seek help, as their ability to make independent decisions has been eroded by the impact of their ongoing relationship.

What others would see as abuse or control, they are told by their partners is love and concern. Including the soup tin thrown at Ramesh’s head:

‘I threw it NEXT to your head intentionally, so that I wouldn’t hurt you. But you needed a wake-up call. And so we won’t redecorate, as you need to be reminded what you’ve done.’ says Safia.

This kind of manipulative rationalisation occurs especially if the abuse is verbal, emotional or financial. It can, however, be surprising and notable that even where there is physical abuse, a victim may not identify it as such. This can include acts of physical violence or sexual mistreatment.

It is unlikely that the ‘victim’ will have enough independent judgment left, after what can be years of ‘brainwashing’, to ask for help. Those around them, including professional advisers, can, however, gently and persistently nudge them to do so.

How is this relevant to Family Law?

There are two immediate points of relevance: first, if there are minor children, an elderly person or other vulnerable dependents in the family household, issues of safeguarding come up and need to be acted on by any professional involved, including the family GP (who can act as a useful starting point).

Secondly, despite the fact that we are fast progressing to ‘no fault’ divorce, identifying such abuse or coercive control may be relevant to the separation and settlement process. Your Family Law solicitor will be able to advise you on their impact and also on other emergency remedies, such as ex parte injunctions to protect you.

The purpose of this post is to alert you to the fact that you or someone close to you may be coercively controlled or domestically abused. Only once you realise this, can you take steps to protect yourself from further damage. Only then can you feel and continue to feel personally safe.

The perpetrator of the abuse can also receive help from their GP or an appropriately trained professional.

Red Flags

Lastly, some words for those emerging from a harmful relationship through separation or divorce. Next time round it may help to focus on the ‘red flags’. Most control or abuse victims say that they ignored them in their new partner, realising only later that these were indicators of an abusive personality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Irena Trnka De Benedictis is an Existential Psychotherapist in private practice. For further information please visit or email Irena at [email protected]


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