The Archers: the lasting effects of non-physical domestic abuse

Radio 4 listeners have been gripped by the Helen and Rob storyline. BBC/Pete Dadds

I have to admit that I don’t normally listen to The Archers and people don’t normally talk to me about its storylines. That all changed when BBC Radio 4’s long-running radio drama series began a story over 18 months ago which looked at the issue of domestic violence and coercive control. It has come to a dramatic head, with Helen stabbing her husband Rob.

One of the most difficult things that victims and survivors of abuse tell researchers, and have consistently told us since the first women’s refuges in the 1970s, is that it is the non-physical abuse they experience which is the most difficult to deal with.

The bruises and other injuries victims suffer from physical abuse are visible. They are evidence to other people but also to oneself. There it is in black and blue. What is more difficult to prove and believe, is that someone who purports to love and care for you would bully, undermine and manipulate you.

The women I spoke too after the fact would either say: “How could someone treat me like that?” or more often than not: “How could I let someone treat me like that?” – still blaming themselves.

Intimate terrorism

As The Archers storyline shows, this type of abuse is characteristic of a pattern of “low-level” abusive behaviours rather than the explosive incidents people tend to think about when they consider “a domestic”. It involves small, everyday things which result in people staying away, isolating victims from their family, friends and networks of support.

Recent research from Bristol has documented the massive impact of such abuse on friends and family, as well as the evidence we know about the impact on victims, their children, and the perpetrators themselves. Doctors, the police, courts and social services, all tend to think of interventions in terms of those single incidents which means that the ongoing manipulation of victims goes unnoticed.

Some call this type of abuse coercive control, others intimate terrorism, but for many victims it is this type of abuse which has the greatest impact on their liberty and personhood.

Work that colleagues and I have conducted at the University of Bristol has shown the long-term health and emotional impacts of this type of abuse on victims.

In 2015, the British government introduced a new criminal law on domestic violence which explicitly identified coercive control as a pattern of abusive behaviours. It is this concept which forms the basis of the current Archers storyline and which the script writers have slowly and meticulously explored.

Difficult to escape

Working with national charities, including Women’s Aid, the scriptwriters have demonstrated the impact of this type of ongoing abuse and, by taking their time, have also shown how such a manipulative partner operates. After 18 months of the Rob and Helen storyline, it is harder for the listener to simply blame the victim and ask why she doesn’t leave. Hopefully, listeners will begin to understand how the gradual nature of the abuse undermines someone’s sense of self, their personhood and, ultimately, their liberty and human rights.

I hope that there is enough evidence that Rob gets his comeuppance – yet we know from sad reality that, for many in this situation, escaping the abuse is easier said than done. Even when victims physically leave an abusive relationship they are not “free”. Many women are blamed when they retaliate, or killed during the process of leaving, when the abusers’ control is being challenged the most. For those with children, their contact with the abuser might be ongoing through child contact proceedings.

I hope that, whatever happens with the current story, the audience leaves with a greater understanding of the ways in which domestic violence operates and how it impacts on those involved. We hope listeners will understand how hard perpetrators make it to leave.

If anyone has been affected by the storyline, and wants to talk to someone in confidence, then the national domestic violence helpline is an excellent resource. 24 hours, 7 days a week. 0808 2000 247.

This article was co-published with the blog of the School of Policy Studies at Bristol.