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Domestic abuse: the psychology of coercive control remains a legal battlefield

Not everyone was celebrating when Sally Challen’s murder conviction for killing her husband was quashed. The backlash on social media indicates we still have a long way to go before domestic abuse is properly understood.

Interestingly, that backlash comes from women as well as men. These are often women who claim not to be able to understand Challen’s actions as depicted in court. Why didn’t she leave, they ask, convinced they would have behaved differently in her place.

They think they would not have ended up in an abusive relationship in the first place. And even if they had, they would have found a way to end the relationship appropriately – by simply leaving, or filing for divorce, not by killing their partner.

Challen’s case has been sent for retrial so all the issues will be decided in court. It it likely to involve the use of coercive control as a partial defence to murder. However, the kind of response seen on social media displays a wider problem which will continue to limit the use of the offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour”.

The offence was introduced in England and Wales in 2015 to criminalise the non-physical aspects of domestic abuse. But there is still insufficient understanding of the individual psychology and social factors which explain why a victim can become entrapped in a relationship characterised by coercive control, and be unable to leave.

For instance, the response of the brain and nervous system to trauma, coupled with gendered expectations of behaviour, can help to explain the behaviour of those who stay with abusive partners. And the most dangerous time for an abused woman is the time when she does try to leave.

If these aspects of domestic abuse are not widely understood, those determining whether an offence has been committed may be unable to recognise the controlling and coercive nature of the behaviour, and its impact on the psyche and behaviour of the victim.

The science behind staying

Current thinking in neuroscience and attachment theory tells us that in a dangerous situation, such as when facing the prospect of rape or physical violence, we are hard-wired to preserve our attachment relationships (our connection with our primary attachment figure who, after childhood, is often a romantic partner) above all else. After a person has attempted fight, flight and freeze in the face of a physical or verbal attack, they will often surrender as a final defence mechanism.

This involves appearing compliant, as though they are making autonomous choices to behave in the way the abuser has asked them to, when in reality they are utterly subservient to the abuser’s will. When the victim survives the attack with their attachment to the abuser still intact, their brain records it as a success and automatically behaves in the same way again next time.

Without an understanding of this neuroscience, a victim may feel confused and ashamed of their compliance, believing they are responsible for what happened to them because they didn’t fight back or run away. In reality they are traumatically bonded to their abuser and complying with their demands in order to survive.

Gendered expectations then serve to further disguise the coercive nature of the abuser’s behaviour. According to the sociologist Evan Stark, it is impossible to separate coercive control from an analysis of gender and the expectations associated with feminine and masculine gender roles and identities.

The tactics of coercive control can involve the micro-regulation of everyday domestic activities typically associated with the appropriate role of a woman within a heterosexual partnership. This might include rules and demands about who she sees and where she goes, how she dresses, cooks, cleans, looks after children, and how she performs sexually.

These strategies reinforce a specific construction of feminine identity. And due to the cultural association of masculine identity with control, the male dominance and controlling behaviour typically seen in a coercive relationship may be hard to discern. It may instead be considered to fall at the extreme end of the spectrum of power relations that exist within what many people consider to be “normal” heterosexual partnerships.

This means that structural gender inequality both underpins the offence and also acts to normalise it. Without seeing the ways in which gendered expectations may serve to obscure the coercive and controlling nature of certain behaviours, it may be decided that there is insufficient evidence that the behaviour had a serious adverse effect on the victim for the purposes of proving the offence in a criminal court.

When these factors are brought together it is easier to see why many victims do not recognise they are being abused. It also demonstrates why society – and the criminal justice system – struggle to see the lack of autonomy afforded to women in coercive and controlling relationships. They then often end up holding her accountable for taking extreme action, when she could have just “walked away”.

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