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14th February, 2022 by Justine Flack
In the final of a series of articles, Head of Family Law at Howes Percival, Justine Flack discusses the issue of coercive control in a marriage and the steps you can take to seek help.
You may recognise this as part of the traditional woman's marriage vows of the Anglican Church. Many (including myself) exclude 'obey' when exchanging vows. The inference for many of this word is that it suggested the woman is subordinate to the man whereas marriage should be a partnership of equals, where joint decisions should be made.
There are however other interpretations and reasons why some people choose to include 'obey' in their vows. It can be seen as a declaration of trust and commitment to unconditional support of your spouse. What could be said to be the foundation of a marriage.
Whilst it was said by the woman, the implication was that the husband would act out of pure intentions, only standing firm on issues that really mattered and after taking his wife's views and feelings into full consideration. Decisions would be made for the well-being of the couple or family as a whole.
In theory this all has to be right and describes a healthy approach to a relationship. However, it is dependent upon the intentions of the parties and there are times where 'obey' is used in its strictest interpretation resulting in an unhealthy and potentially dangerous relationship.
Deep down we would all like to get what we want but most of us realise that life is about compromise and also, sometimes our decisions may be flawed. But some don't and it's 'their way or the highway'. There can be obvious methods employed to get their own way such as violence; a slap, a shove, a kick or worse. This is often followed by a qualified apology, 'if you hadn't argued with me, I wouldn't have…’. They can then become (at least for now) the loving person you always thought they were. This scenario may be repeated and soon the threat of violence - raising a hand, the tone of voice or 'that look' can be enough for them to get what they want.
Physical violence is obvious domestic abuse but there are other, insidious forms which can creep up without the victim being fully aware of what is happening. This is coercive control and it can have the same effect as physical violence but without the black eye, bruised ribs or broken wrist. However, it is violence - of the mind and it symbolises an abusive relationship.
It is used by the perpetrator to get their own way, to make the other person dependent on them by depriving them of independence of thought and actions and isolating them from family and friends. The government definition is that it is actions 'designed to make a person subordinate'. It is abuse and it has been a criminal offence for the past 6 years.
There are many tell-tale signs of coercive control - giving you the silent treatment for extended periods when you've disagreed with (or disobeyed) your partner. Wanting to know where you are going, who you are with and when you will be back or telling you when you will be back. Checking to see that you are where you say you are or constant messages or calls to you whilst you are out. Making it clear that they don't like you seeing family or friends and taking steps to stop you seeing them. Limiting your access to money. Checking your phone or social media, constantly criticising you, humiliating you and putting you down in front of others or just at home. Encouraging your children to disobey you.
All of this can soon result in a situation where one person takes the line of least resistance and simply does what they are asked for a quiet life. It is debilitating and saps your energy, let alone your enjoyment of life and the relationship itself.
Thankfully coercive control is now recognised as the domestic abuse that it is. It does take courage to speak out and act but there is help out there from organisations such as Women's Aid and the Mankind Initiative, to the police (because it is a criminal offence) and family lawyers.
Do talk to someone and get help; court orders can be obtained to protect you and your children and you can be supported with wider issues such as divorce and financial separation. Consider the impact on your children, not just of having to live in this atmosphere but the lessons they are learning about acceptable behaviour.
Whilst the majority of victims of domestic abuse are women, men also suffer and are probably less likely to speak out - they're just henpecked or under the thumb aren't they? 'She wears the trousers in that relationship'! But the law is there for all and no one should feel diminished for speaking out and seeking help.
So whether 'obey' was or was not part of your marriage vows, it is actually all about human behaviour and respect in a relationship. Everyone has choices about how they behave and treat others; abuse is the choice of the abuser, not your fault as the victim. It seems to me that if you love and cherish someone it is inconsistent to expect them to do what you want all of the time.
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