Not all domestic violence is physical, and sometimes it takes years to recognize it for what it is.
I was 7 when my father decided I was someone to destroy. He was caring for me and my brother while my mother was teaching late. He preferred to be on the phone than to help my 5-year-old brother with his kindergarten homework or make dinner for us. Always my mother’s daughter, I knew I could help my brother and make us grilled cheese. When my father decided he wanted to be with us I said, ever precocious, “We don’t need you. I made dinner.” He looked right through me and walked out of the room. At 7, my father could no longer control me, and I had to be destroyed.
My father never once hit me, my brother, or my mother. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I called him abusive and it wasn’t until this year that I found the language to actually describe the abuse my father inflicted on our family: coercive control. According to Dr. Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and world renowned expert on coercive control, this term describes a course of oppressive behavior grounded in gender-based privilege. “Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism that invades all arenas of women’s activity … few elements of coercive control are currently considered criminal, or are only crimes when committed against strangers, which further complicates this issue within the context of domestic violence.”
My father fits all criteria of domestic abusers except for the fact that he’s never hit us. This meant that I downplayed his abuse my entire life. “My father and I just have a bad relationship.” “My parents just fight a lot.” But what do you call someone who locks you in a car to start a fight and refuses to let you out? What about someone who purposely goes into debt and steals money to drain your college fund? What about a father who lies to your boyfriends and tries to manipulate them to dislike you? How about a person who breaks things, punches walls, and screams in your face as a young child? Not all violence is physical.
I learned about coercive control when Marie,* a woman with an abusive ex trying to get coercive control added to domestic violence law in New York State, contacted me for help in bringing attention to this issue. She had no idea I had my own experience with it, she only knew that I did a lot of online political advocacy and spoke publicly about issues concerning domestic violence. Since I had no language for the kind of abuse I had endured, I didn’t speak publicly about my experiences. I didn’t even include myself in the community I was speaking about. The farthest I had gotten was considering calling my father emotionally abusive, I never thought to include him in the group of domestic abusers.
My parents got together when they were 36 after three divorces between them for the sole purpose that my mother wanted children. Initially my mother refused to get married again and wanted my parents to raise me together but unmarried. When my mother wanted a second child my father refused unless they got married. Their relationship started with manipulation. I was at my parents wedding and I grew up knowing theirs was not a love match. Though I can’t complain about the pictures of me and my mother at her wedding (my brother was technically there too as my mother was a few months pregnant with him).
My mother also wondered if my father wanted to get married and have children with her because she had a good job and owned her own home. My father has always worked but he has controlled the family’s finances through debt and refusing to make enough money to support our family. If my mother gave my father her credit card to buy something he would always steal a bit for himself. When I was 16, my father threatened to kill my mother in their car and almost ran them off the road if my mother didn’t refinance the mortgage to give him money for his business. Debt collectors calling or coming to the house was a normal occurrence. For my mother who hated debt this was a particular kind of torture. Presently, my father manipulates my mother into supporting him because he would likely be homeless if she didn’t. If my mother dies before my father, I will control a trust for his portion of the estate to ensure he has a place to live. I will spend the rest of my life caring financially for my abuser because I know my father ending up homeless would be incredibly painful for my family. This is how his manipulative abuse works.
My parents are still married for a lot of reasons. The financial abuse is a big one. It’s a lot harder to get divorced when a marriage has financial problems. My mother also has a number of health problems which have increased due to her having to work so hard to support us. Possibly the only thing we can count on my father for is taking my mom to doctors appointments and getting her medication in the middle of the night. Too often people assume that abuse is black and white, that if a woman stays with an abuser she deserves what she gets. The story is so much more complicated especially when the abuse isn’t physical.
When I was younger, before the full breadth of my father’s abuse was clear, he used to try to turn my mother against me. If he and I had a fight and I didn’t run right to my mother, he would tell her his version, and she would think I had overreacted or was simply being a petulant child. It wasn’t my mother’s fault, she was supposed to believe the other adult. My mother and I have always been incredibly close so my father turning her against me, even for a moment, was particularly painful. I didn’t know what gaslighting was. I didn’t know what emotional abuse was. All I knew was that my father was lying about me and turning my mother against me.
The last time my father did this successfully I was 16. I was dating an older boy, 19, who had come and stayed at our house for the weekend (on the couch). My father told my mother that my boyfriend and I had had sex in his bed (my parents didn’t sleep in the same room). My boyfriend and I had been dating about a month and had done nothing more than make out. So my father stood in the room as my mother asked me why I had sex in his bed. He was staring at me as my cheeks burned hot out of confusion and embarrassment. It took a lot of crying but I finally was able to convince my mother I didn’t and would never do this. This was so extreme that my mother realized I was the more reliable one. Without the ability to turn my mother against me anymore, my father turned to trying to put me down to my boyfriends. My father has insulted me and tried to turn every boyfriend I’ve ever had against me. He’s buddied up to them and acted like I was a crazy hysterical girl so that I would have nowhere to turn where I was safe from him. So my boyfriends would think I was overreacting when I got mad at my father.
In 2015, the United Kingdom added a new domestic abuse offense of “coercive and controlling behavior” to their laws. It targets non-violent methods of abuse and provides victims legal redress. The New York Office For the Prevention of Domestic Violence recognizes coercive control as a problem affecting 60 to 80 percent of abused women but the law doesn’t provide legal standing to bring a case of non-violent abuse. Domestic violence laws focus on responding to individual incidents of physical harm, so victims of coercive control have very few resources to help them. This is particularly problematic since like other types of domestic abuse, the violence can escalate when a woman chooses to leave.
Marie* is part of the New York Campaign to End Coercive Control in the hopes that the Coercive Control and Rape Family Court Act Bill will be introduced in the New York Senate this session. This law should provide resources and legal redress to victims of coercive control who don’t have physical bruises to show a court of law.
I hope this law will help families like mine earlier in the abuse. My father has now manipulated my family in such a way that I doubt we will ever be free of him. My mother must continue working to make up for his financial missteps which compounds stress and health problems. She therefore is dependent on my father. We need him, and we don’t want to see him homeless if my mother threw him out finally. And so the cycle continues.
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