Domestic abuse: Need for legislation on coercive control has never been clearer says justice minister

Domestic abuse doesn't have to be physical, as the disturbing story of a Co Tyrone woman manipulated by her former partner illustrates

'He was always rewriting the narrative then messing with my head by telling me I was wrong'
'He was always rewriting the narrative then messing with my head by telling me I was wrong' 'He was always rewriting the narrative then messing with my head by telling me I was wrong'

WHEN a memory of a day trip was reimagined by her former partner, Mary began to wonder if she was losing her mind. The Co Tyrone woman was constantly being told by her ex that she was too sensitive, didn't understand his little 'jokes' and was forever interpreting his words the wrong way.

She wasn't familiar with the phrase 'gaslighting', while caught up in the highly charged, emotionally abusive relationship. She is now.

It took a therapist to help her see she wasn't going mad. But at the time, she was too exhausted and brow beaten to stand up for herself.

“I was walking on eggshells around him all the time,” says Mary. “I didn't know what was going to happen next. He was always rewriting the narrative then messing with my head by telling me I was wrong.

“I remember going for a drive with him one day. He started talking about a memory that hadn't happened. He was saying 'Remember that time we came here and I bought you something and we had such a gorgeous day'.

“When I pointed out that no, I didn't remember that, he started fighting with me; calling me a b**ch and accusing me of having ruined the day.

“He used to tell me to trust him, then he would take his phone into another room any time he got a text. He would say 'Look, here's my phone, you can read my messages', but I didn't want to do that.

“I felt on uneven ground all the time with him; like he was trying to make me paranoid. He was planting little seeds. Then when I did ask him anything, he'd say, 'See, you're so jealous and controlling'. He manipulated everything and I just felt so worn down.”

It wasn't just his besotted girlfriend whom he manipulated though. Her ex contacted her friends and family and informed them that he was concerned about her mental health. Any time she visited her loved ones, he would insist on coming too. Mary started to feel suffocated, cut off and completely under his control.

“He would message my friends or call them up. He took ownership of them as well,” she says. “I have to go places with my work and sometimes he would turn up unexpectedly. Other people thought it so romantic that he had travelled so far to see me. But the truth is, I needed some head space. He wouldn't leave me alone.”

Gaslighting, manipulation and mind games are all elements of an emotionally abusive relationship and fall under a pattern of abusive acts known as coercive control. Just last week, a long-running storyline in ITV soap Coronation Street, involving coercive control within an intimate relationship, came to a dramatic conclusion when the abuser, Geoff Metcalfe, fell to his death from a roof.

Earlier in the week, viewers saw his long-suffering ex-wife, Yasmeen Nazir, cleared of his attempted murder. The storyline gripped the audience for almost a year, as Geoff's behaviour became increasingly controlling and sinister.

The cast of Coronation Street worked closely with Women's Aid, with the charity praising the soap for shining a spotlight on coercive control, particularly during lockdown.

Closer to home, a local film-maker and lecturer in film studies at Queen's University, Lucy Baxter, is using her skill set to raise awareness about emotional, psychological and verbal abuse. Her charity, Mental Abuse Matters, wants to encourage greater understanding and empathy for victims of mental abuse, within the legal, medical and caring professions, as well as society as a whole.

Through life experiences, Lucy has seen the impact of coercive control on its victims – depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide ideation. As part of an awareness campaign, Mental Abuse Matters has put together an animated film in collaboration with Belfast company Enter Yes and is working on a pioneering live action virtual reality (VR) project with partners Queen's University, Future Screens NI, Retinize and Darkley Film.

The VR tool for victims – and perpetrators – of mental abuse, will provide first-hand experience of what it is like to go through it. The project will be rolled out next spring and Lucy hopes it will be used as a training tool for medical, therapy and care staff to improve trauma diagnosis and care and that it will encourage dialogue in schools about healthy relationships.

“The first-person narrative is just over 10 minutes long and when you put on the headphones, you become the victim,” Lucy explains. "For purposes of this one, it's an intimate-partner, male-to-female abuse, but there are future plans to cover parent/child abuse and parental alienation.

“The setting is a dinner party with friends and the aim is to make it as visceral as possible so you feel in your own body the emotions that the victim will be feeling.

“There will be immersive sounds, replicating feelings of anxiety, panic and dread, such as base sounds in the chest, fast breathing, building up to a panic attack. But the user will be given the chance to get out of it, if triggered, and go into a safe space.

“It's all about replicating the emotions associated with mental abuse and to see what it feels like to be isolated in a social situation.”

Mary recalls the physical effects of the emotional abuse and social isolation as her ex stepped up his campaign of control. She lost weight, aged visibly and felt removed from the person she'd been before.

“When people were talking to me, it was like they were talking to a version of me. I felt disconnected,” she says. “He would pay me a compliment then get digs at me by saying I wasn't as good looking as my sister. He dressed like me, talked like me. He even took on my hobbies. I know now he was mirroring me, a classic red flag.

“It's hard for people to understand, but he was so charming, handsome and funny and I was completely under his spell. He told me all his ex partners had been abusive to him and I believed him.

“But as the relationship went on, I started to hate myself. I believed him when he said that I was the controller. I suggested couple counselling but he said he didn't need it, so I went for therapy, to work on myself. It was the best thing I ever did. I'm free from him now and I feel good in myself.”

A long-awaited landmark bill to strengthen the north's domestic abuse legislation is edging closer to becoming law, with Royal Assent anticipated next spring. The Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill, which was discussed again at Stormont this week, means coercive control will be an offence in the north for the first time.

Convictions for the most serious offences will carry a penalty of up to 14 years in jail.

Justice Minister Naomi Long says: “When home is no longer a safe place, the effect on day-to-day life can be devastating, both emotionally and physically.

“We are all aware of the ‘walking on eggshells’ analogy. The sad truth is that thousands of people across Northern Ireland wake every morning feeling frightened, controlled, isolated, degraded, humiliated or ashamed, in their own homes.

“They are always on their guard, waiting for the next attack, whether that be physical or psychological. Tragically, their abuser is someone they should be able to trust: a partner, a close family member, the person that sits across from them at the dinner table.

“The need for this legislation has never been more clear.”

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