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  • Michaela Patel


Updated: May 1

angry man's face
anger and contempt

Few years ago, I would have not understood such question. And even if I would have heard about the term I would have assumed it isn't concerning me anyway. I knew my family was strict and abusive. Superficially, I understood the reason for leaving them and my country behind was the same for me eventually leaving my partner of many years. What I didn't know is just how much were my perceptions misshapen and my views of myself manipulated by someone I deemed to be my protector. In fact, till fairly recently I still felt a strange sense of loyalty to someone who repeatedly and knowingly betrayed me. Unbeknownst to me, my beloved has not only cheated on me from the first year together. To prop himself up throughout our relationship he has regularly put me down in various ways and took the courtesy of deciding on important aspects of OUR future, to then punish me for a decade post separation for daring to leave him.

According to UK statistics one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Studies also show that majority of victims experience non-physical violence. My story doesn't sit on the extreme end of the domestic violence scale, unlike my childhood, which in some ways made it much harder for me to uncover.

On the surface our relationship looked like an ordinary one. We seemed to live a promising personal and professional life filled with regular social events and frequent holidays. Excited to work towards our goals, we made plans for the future. As time went on, however, my excitement started to wane. I was overstretched and tired, being given control over responsibilities he didn't want to burden himself with like the vast majority of household, family, and work chores. Mostly delegated by him, dictated by his unpredictable moods, I was in charge of the mundane stuff - the things that weren't contributing to feeding his sense of self-importance. He was in charge of deciding on our household finances, where will we live, the size of our wedding party, the place and length of our honeymoon, how many children would we have, when will I return to work after maternity, or who will receive a child benefit. I thought it was as a good leadership to make our relationship a success. Due to my own patriarchal family dynamics I was happy to be led by a man. I felt like I was equally contributing to important discussions, but in crucial moments I contributed to manifesting my partners dreams. I believed I was in control of making him happy and our relationship work. I was eager to please and hopeful for the, so often promised, wonderful future together.

What is the essence of a coercively controlling relationship?

In coercively controlling relationship the life of its victim is stolen piece by piece, claimed by the abusers preferences and exercised through imposed choices regarding important decisions.

Convinced by the abuser the victim thinks her choices are made by free will and in good faith to help their relationship thrive. The abuser typically exercises the ‘if you aren’t with me you are against me' mantra, making the victim feel bad for having other ideas. Punished by anger and contempt, silent treatment and emotional withdrawal of ‘look how you are hurting me’, are his techniques for ensuring she feels the pressure of her shame and guilt to eventually cave in. The destructive cycle, designed to make her feel bad, only further reinforces her pleasing him, which is quickly rewarded by attention, affection, and other gifts. This POST TRAUMATIC HIGH releases addictive hormones in her brain to bind her deeper into the dysfunctional dynamic of pain-pleasure. Through intermittent reinforcing of ‘what I want you to do and for which you will get rewarded’ with ‘what I don’t want you to do for which you will be punished’ the victim learns to avoid having their own preferences altogether. Being controlled to her means he cares, has her back, and would protect her if it came to it. Her perception of herself is that she needs such protection and perhaps even couldn't survive on her own. Her co-dependency leads to her believing in her inadequacy and total reliance on (and compliance with) the abuser.

At the start my stolen choices were quite small and seemingly insignificant, like changing my schedule to accommodate his convenience, or staying up late to help him with work even if I had to work the next day and he did not. But within months it extended onto the clothes I wore and the stuff I paid for from my pay check. It wasn't till after moving country I felt trapped by circumstances and choices that, although made together, weren’t decided equally with my will expressed freely. But what wouldn't I do for the one I love?! After all, we both wanted the same - a happy family, a well paid job, and a successful life.

The longer you share the purposefully warped space with a coercive controller, and their support system, the faster is your own belief system hijacked, distorting the truth about reality.

After 2 years of showing my unwavering support, I was finally granted the privilege to become a part of his family and culture which only further restricted my already limited freedom and intensified my imposter syndrome. Everyone was on board with my abuser’s ideals and his ways of treating me in their presence, even if it meant I was being ridiculed or asked to show compliance as a proof of my love and devotion. Having achieved the feat of being finally accepted into his large community I didn't find it weird that we were often discussing their customs but seldomly mine. Money was a never ending topic of my partner's family discussions, and so was our part in contributing to their enterprise.

It wasn't until becoming a parent I felt the full weight of my freedom being stollen from me. As a mother I was living under someone else's roof whilst my abuser was afforded the luxury of full time studying, racking up more debts. He enjoyed his student life with frequent socialising whilst I was looking after our child, pets, and large house with another family living there.

Some people just have it their way whilst others are made to pick up the shit...

I wasn't complaining much, besides to my GP who diagnosed me with depression. Some experiences, although seemingly ordinary, carry the propensity for diverting the course of life in ways one couldn't have imagined in their wildest dreams. For me it was the choice I have made for myself after leaving my GP's room with a prescription for medication in one hand, and a leaflet for counselling services in the other. For the first time, in a long time, I was asked to make a life choice for myself. Though somewhat disempowering experience (realising I am not coping well with a cushty life in a tiny room of a dusty loft) it empowered me to push back on baby plans for our next child.

From then on my confidence in taking back my power grew with the number of counselling sessions. It wasn't until long post separation (and on and off therapy) I have fully understood how dangerous my situation really was due to the distorted reality I was living in since childhood. Although the level of control (and abuse) was significantly less serious in my adult relationships, it was nevertheless damaging. Mainly in the obscure presentation for so long, having perceived someone who manipulated and controlled me to his advantage as someone who has my back. It had delayed my healing and added the pain of a thousand paper cuts.

coercive control quote
sacrifice for coercively controlling partner

From my observation and personal experience the shared characteristics of a coercively controlling partner are:

  1. Money focused

  2. Jealous

  3. Pedantic and petty

  4. Highly critical [to devalue you]

  5. Poor anger management behind closed doors [to intimidate you]

  6. Compliance seeking

  7. Offering support and unsolicited advice [to entrap you]

  8. Convincing and charming [to disarm you]

  9. Intense [to overwhelm and preoccupy you]

The reason why a controlling partner wants you so close, why they are so much involved in your life besides monitoring your moves, is to be so much in your face that you cannot see things clearly. Because when you lose oversight, they can continue to do things that defy all reason and logic. They can be as hypocritical and contradicting themselves as they please and you just won't see it. Also, when you are used to them filling your days as soon as they aren’t by your side you feel strangely empty. This false sense of loneliness then triggers withdrawal and you start missing them. Knowing this, the controlling partner creates conditions that allow for prolonged exposure with high intensity emotions, like amazing trips away, expensive shopping sprees, fabulous dinner dates. Any out of the ordinary moments (and girl they have a knack for sourcing them!) create an artificial excitement you get easily addicted to finding healthy, stable and predictable, nurturing relationships dull in comparison. The unpredictable mood fluctuations of the abuser (which are taken out on you just because they can) together with the artificial highs to remedy the resulting relationship lows constitute the up and down fluctuations so typical for a coercively controlling relationship. Instability, unpredictability, confusion and conflict are its hallmarks.

All couples argue, I thought. But witnessing daily conflicts in my home growing up, I desired peace. Somehow I believed that my partner must feel the same. Who wouldn't prefer kindness, love, and harmony in their relationship? Why would someone relish in creating conflicts?

I am hyper focused on minor mood fluctuations of those I know well and any changes in the tone of their voice make me very alert. A repercussion of my childhood traumas is me being overly tuned to my environment, particularly concerning humans in it. The slightest undertone of anger or resentment makes me feel literally nauseous. With my partner, I couldn't understand why our relationship was always so tumultuous and why we argued so much. I was made to believe that I am difficult to get along and just an angry person. Throughout our relationship it never occurred to me to keep a log of how our arguments started and what actually happened, which was easy to see post separation when we communicated only in writing. The proof was clear in the sheer amount of emails which started as an attack, angrily as some kind of a higher order, or with a blaming question. His communication was (and still is) always demanding me to drop everything and attend to his concerns. For years post separation it felt like he was still in charge of my happiness. His demanding attitude clearly indicated I owed him to attend to every query of his in a timely manner. He had the ability to make me feel like a misbehaving child who should be ashamed and deserved to be punished. His ability to make me feel inadequate was uncanny, but his undermining has hit new highs whenever he felt he is losing his grip on me. Saying what I really wanted always triggered my fear of facing his wrath in a form of an avalanche of projected blame and shame, verbal abuse, and false accusations. No one could make me feel so bad about myself the way he could in a single sentence. He knew just the buttons to push with the precision of a surgeon. Skilled in creating problems in places where there were none he always made it looked like I was the cause of his displeasure. Whenever he needed to let his anger out, out of nowhere I was subjected to criticism and sarcasm. And if I 'haven't behaved' he had pilled up the pressure with intimidation. I am coming to terms that the repeated bullying, particularly post separation, combined with the feeling of being trapped (if for example one is having to co-parent or isn’t able to cut contact all together) were the perfect recipe for developing c-PTSD from years of emotional and verbal abuse. Somewhat it put what I endured during our relationship into a new perspective, and left me wondering if things were really that bad prior to my exit…

The mind does weird things to you when you are constantly undermined and brainwashed into thinking that you are the problem and there is something wrong with you.

It took time and distance to reach a new level of understanding reality in which I wasn't the villain. Today, I can see things as they are. I no longer perceive him as someone who is good with money but as someone who impulsively splashes out on fancy stuff, with the tendency to overspend to prove his self-worth, knowing his parents will always bail him out. His neediness and jealousy isn't a sign of love and commitment but an immaturity which puts the healthy, emotional development of our child in jeopardy. I don't view him being judgemental as someone with high standards, or as someone who is better than me. I see the put downs of the many others as a desperate attempt to avoid the pain of his relentless inner critic. To strip the chains of control I had to become very secure in who I am, but particularly in who I am not. The new meaning of his demands and threats scream 'I feel powerless!' rather than 'I will show you!'. On my worst day I get preoccupied with what was said but fairly quickly detach myself from feelings triggered by his unsolicited, personal opinions of me. At best I laugh at all the hypocritical, contradicting nonsense packed into one paragraph and feel sorry for him. I am no longer confused and scared by his righteous ranting or overwhelmed by the barrage of false accusations. And even though I know he will forever be a part of my past, only I control how much and where is he going to be part of my future.

All relational control starts insidiously as a covert manipulation of a partner who is clearly disadvantaged - vulnerable. Once the victim's defences are sufficiently broken down it accelerates into the territory of overt abuse and violence. Early childhood traumatic experiences like childhood emotional neglect, living and witnessing domestic violence, or enduring abuse of any kind, set our filters through which we view reality to either noticing disrespect, unfairness, and cruelty OR believing that everything is as it should be. Being brought up by emotionally unhealthy adults who either dominate or are absent from our lives we may find a dangerous bully desirable. My personal bias has landed me in a foreign country rife with cultural and family biases in which I had lost myself entirely. I had sold my freedom for the vision of the better days which sadly never came. They couldn't have. Because the one I had sold it to had agendas of his own and I, truly, never mattered...

Thank you for reading. If my article contributed to understanding yourself, please be generous and share it with others.

Copyright © 2024 Michaela Patel


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