The crime of Coercive Control – the overdue recognition of psychological abuse in intimate relationships – Anna Dunphy

‘Stick and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ is an old rhyme told to children to stop them from engaging in name calling. This saying is not always true; violence is not always physical or sexual. Coercive control is the financial, emotional and/or psychological manipulation of an intimate partner, although traditionally a less acknowledged feature of domestic abuse, it is to become a new criminal offence under the Domestic Violence Act, 2018.

Emotional and physical abuse is more than name calling; it can manifest as the exercising control over a person’s life. Perpetrators may try to isolate the victim, compel them to become dependent, play mind games, monitor and micro manage them by controlling what they eat, how they dress and deciding when and with whom they socialise, enforcing a set of rules that oversees the victim’s existence.

Punishments, verbal abuse and the threat of physical violence to the person or their property can result if non compliant. Victims can feel humiliated, degraded, fearful, confused, withdrawn, subservient, paranoid, depressed, and can adapt their behaviour to suit the abuser. Both physical and psychological abuse often increase in intensity over time, indeed coercive control can pre-empt physical abuse.

The words domestic violence traditionally invoke a presumption of physically aggressive behaviour but psychological exploitation can be just as damaging and even more so for some people as they are unaware of the true potential of the long term harm it can cause, and the difficulty in recognising and escaping it. Additionally, most people understand that physical violence is wrong, whereas psychological abuse can be subtle. Victims may know that the behaviour is wrong but may not be able to explain exactly what is wrong or what to do about it. Seeking help can also prove very challenging. It is hoped that criminalising coercive control will be easier following the commencement of the Act.

Physical violence can only be committed when the abuser is present but coercive control can be carried out even when the perpetrator is absent. Technology increases opportunities for abuse through monitoring of the individual whilst tracking devices can be linked to cars and phones to trace a person’s daily movements and activities, cameras and listening devices can be placed in the house or on computers. If you are concerned for yourself or for a person you know go to the website for a checklist of some possible warning signs.

The new law will be a start but structures will also have to be put in place to respond to the offence. Professionals will have to be educated and trained, particularly the Gardai and judicial personnel as this will be a criminal offence. They will have to be able to identify, understand, believe and have conviction when dealing with coercive control. Early intervention and awareness of the issues will have to be addressed and custodial sentences will have to be imposed. Forthcoming punishment can include up to five years imprisonment.

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