Coercive control: how could this happen to us?

I was talking to my husband this morning, about an old boyfriend. The memories were happy, funny, and from a very long time ago. It brought me back to a time when I could not easily do that – share such memories, such thoughts – with a previous partner, without being accused of … mental unfaithfulness, I suppose you could call it.

I am feeling brave today. There have been times I have thought about writing a blog post such as this, and have shied away through fear. The last time I mentioned this man, not naming him or identifying him in any way, I was contacted by his present wife, threatening ‘libel, defamation of character’. She tried to comment on my post (comments are moderated by me) and sent me a Facebook private message. It mentioned that she had also read my Tweets. I have changed my surname since I knew him, and it has been more than 10 years since our short relationship ended, and yet he was following my blog.

The brief details are, and it helps to write this in the third person, a lonely woman, a single parent, goes on a dating website. She is about to remove her profile, fed up of the cattle market aspect of it all. Just before she does so, a message arrives from a man. They exchange messages for an evening, until she says she is off to bed. The next morning, the man has left several more messages, and wants to know where she went to, why she didn’t stay up to talk online with him. He wants to meet quickly. She doesn’t want to just yet, but agrees to it. They exchange emails, talk on the phone, and text constantly, until they meet for the first time.

She goes away on a pre-arranged holiday, to stay with a friend. He calls her on the friend’s landline, texts her all the time, and he persuades her to cut her holiday short. He drives to collect her from the friend’s house. His attention is constant. She likes the attention, at first.

Within a few weeks, they plan for him to move in to her house, and he does so, a couple of months after meeting. On the very first night, there is an argument because she makes a remark about how different the house looks. He has persuaded her to get rid of a lot of her furniture, so that he can move his in. Some of this happens when his ‘man and van’ arrives, and he has brought his sofa and says that she can get rid of hers, that the van will take it away.

He gets angry when she does not reply quickly to his texts. Gets angry quite a lot, in fact. She is confused by the loving, then the anger. His anger is not physical; he just talks and talks in a slightly raised voice. He is a good arguer, and she is left feeling that she has indeed done something wrong. That he is right. Like the time that she goes out, for two or three hours, with a couple of female friends, and is met by anger about her being late (it is 9.30 p.m. when she gets home). He throws questions at her, like, ‘How many lovers do you have?’ He accuses her of having a sexual relationship with a male friend.

She is in love; her friends have all noticed how happy she is, how different. She thinks she is in love. She has not had time or space to think for herself since this man came into her life.

A few months later, having planned a wedding to this man, she says that she wants to put the date back. There are good reasons for this, and what is the rush, in any case? He is furious, says he is leaving, that he has been brought there under false pretences. Look at all the things he has given up for her.

She is confused. She begs him to stay. He withdraws his love and attention, his constant contact with her, and she can think for herself again. She then realises that she wants him to leave. In a few weeks, he does so, taking his furniture, his washing machine, his TV. She hides in the bedroom as the van loads, emptying the house. He leaves his key. He leaves without saying goodbye. He refuses to tell her where he is moving to. He asks her to forward his mail to his place of work.

A few weeks later, she emails him about a big bill that has arrived, covering the time he was living with her. He refuses to pay anything towards it. He writes, ‘You are the most selfish woman I have ever met.’

He crops up again, some two years later. He sends her a letter, apologising. He says that he realised that they would not make good marriage partners, early on, and should have said so. He also says sorry for leaving her in a bad financial situation when he left, and that he could have made this right. He is writing this letter to ‘make amends’, as a recovering alcoholic. There is no return address, no contact details of any kind. She is thrown into a panic by this letter. She does not know what to do with it. She sets it in the sink, lights a match, and burns it.

This woman has friends and family who have been through similar experiences. Some with physical violence. One family member describes it as, ‘Like leaving a cult,’ when she left her abusive marriage. Another friend uses a pseudonym on social media, as her ex-boyfriend is monitoring her online presence.

We don’t always talk about it, those of us who have experienced what is now termed as Coercive Control, what is now recognised as a crime. There is a chance we will not be believed. We often appear to be in happy and loving relationships. We are intelligent people, known for standing up for ourselves. How could this happen to us?