Welcome to Ivy Law Group’s Podcast – The Family Five! 

In this episode, guest speaker Alison Howarth discusses what coercive control in a relationship can look like, the classic behaviours a partner may exhibit, along with the impact and ongoing trauma response this may have on the person being subjected to the abuse.  

We also discuss support services available for anyone in this situation, which we have listed below: 

1-800-RESPECT (1-800-737-732)

Transcript: Coercive control and trauma in relationships with Alison Howarth

Jessica Hamilton (JH): Hello and welcome to the Family Five Podcast with Ivy Law Group where we tackle the tough family law issues in the time it takes you to drink your coffee. I’m Jessica Hamilton, I’m the Marketing Manager for Ivy Law Group, and I’m joined by my boss, Shane Neagle, who is the director of Ivy Law Group and the family lawyer extraordinaire. In this podcast, we will take a five in five approach, five questions in five minutes. Our aim is to keep the podcast light, easy to understand, and to give you some valuable information to take away with you.


JH: Alright. We’re back with another episode.Today we are joined by a very special guest speaker, Alison Howarth. She’s a speaker, author, and trainer who’s worked in the trauma support sector for over 25 years. She has completed a Masters in vicarious trauma. She’s published two books on trauma and self-care reflection and she’s developed some very specific training and support programs to prevent and manage vicarious trauma, which has been adopted by government departments, not-for-profits and corporate organisations. Welcome Alison.

Alison Howarth (AH):
 Thank you so much.

JH: And as always, we’re joined by the lovely Shane Neagle.

Shane Neagle (SN): Thanks so much, Jessica.

JH: We’ve started to hear a lot more about the concept of coercive control lately, particularly in the context of abuse in relationships. Now, in your experience, Alison, what are some of the classic coercive type behaviors that a partner may exhibit in a relationship?

AH: Thanks, Jess. It’s really a form of psychological and emotional control in a relationship. And the way that someone can achieve control in a relationship is through fear and intimidation. And I’d just like to point out that this sort of behavior does not start out big at the beginning of a relationship. It starts out really small and it can be little things like, little humiliations or tiny little pieces of put downs that take away your sense of independence and autonomy, and really, your ability to thrive. And you know, you might start to think, oh yeah, they’re right. I shouldn’t have, you know, spent that money. And with that, the person being abused starts to apologise for the behaviour and then that enables the person who is abusing to increase their behaviour. So it’s almost like a form of collusion over time. It’s like being taken hostage and really the end goal of coercive control is things like control of behavior, control of emotion, and it’s like being drawn into a cult where the final goal is control of thought.

Some of the other tactics can be things like isolation from friends and family, deprivation of basic needs, encouraging people to take drugs. If someone is a drug taker, then withholding those drugs and only giving them when you know, the person being abused is like a “good person”. Like in quotation marks. Anything that’s humiliating or degrading. (There’s also) threats of violence, threats to harm the pets, threats to harm the person’s work, threats to harm their status in society, whatever it might be. It’s that fear of future shame and it’s fear of future harm.

SN: Something that comes up, is the subtle behaviours, and you may notice issues that come up. Is there anything you notice (regarding subtle behaviours) that comes to mind?  

AH: A really important thing to remember with coercive control is that it’s very relationship specific. So someone else on the outside looking in might not think that the behaviour being demonstrated is abusive, because it can be things like keeping track of where you are, (for example) keeping in touch throughout the day. Some people might think that’s fabulous, (but) you might think that you’re being stalked. So it’s very dependent on the dynamics of the relationship. There’s other things like controlling aspects of health and reproduction, like denying someone a child or forcing someone to have a child.

(There’s also) making unfounded things like jealous accusations, regulating the sexual relationship, denying or forcing the sex upon the other person. Other things can be controlling the person being abused’s finances, making lots of debt in their name. There’s so many little things that can be coercive control, but it’s very dependent upon the relationship. And it’s not a one-off event. You can’t point to a bruise for example, but it’s a pattern of behaviour over time that slowly escalates, that starts to remove or erode someone’s self-esteem, their sense of self-worth, and then of course they feel less likely to leave a relationship because they don’t feel worthy of a healthy relationship.

JH: So in your experience then, what impact does this coercive control have on the partner who is being subjected to that abuse?

AH: Sure, that’s a really important question. The effect of being isolated and humiliated, you know, that loss of freedom and that sense of autonomy and being subordinated, it can have real serious mental health outcomes and that’s including things like a lower self-esteem and a lower sense of self-worth. But it can even include things like, you know, anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, and even post-traumatic stress disorder where people are vigilant for danger all the time. And even though there might not be any physical violence within a coercive control relationship, there is often the threat of physical violence or the threat of someone else being harmed.

The lack of, or the reduction in, self-confidence and self-esteem will influence the way someone thinks and the way that they live their life. It reduces their sense of self and their identity. So again, they feel less able to leave the relationship because they start to feel that they are so dependent on the person using coercive control that they’ve got no one else to turn to.

SN: So one of the things we know is that people can be in these situations for years and they’re fatigued, they’re worn out. In fact, we have talked about in previous podcasts how I’ve had clients who are numb to it or didn’t even know that financial abuse or whatever was going on in their lives. When people are in that situation where they’re really completely fatigued and a loss, what would you recommend (to them) and where to go?

AH: It’s absolutely true that towards the end of a coercive control relationship, people are very fatigued and very emotionally drained and blaming themselves often, and it’s not (so much) about the fact that the relationship seems to be staggering so much.

If you have been isolated from your friends and family, then I would suggest, or if you are feeling embarrassed, which so many people do feel embarrassed about this, please don’t because it’s not your fault. But if you do, then a good service to call is 1-800-RESPECT. It’s a national number and I know that Jess will include the number in the notes of the podcast. It’s a national number and you can talk to them anonymously. You don’t have to say your name, you don’t have to say your address. You can just say, look, I’m really confused about a situation I’m in, I just need to talk to someone about it. And as you talk to an external person and let them know how you’re feeling, they can start to get a picture from you about what’s happening. And as an external person, (they) have perhaps a clearer vision of what’s happening.

If you feel unable to even reach out for help, I would suggest trying to think about your situation. But in the context of your best friend. If your best friend came to you with your story, what advice would you give? And I’m willing to bet you wouldn’t tell them to shut up and keep copping it.

JH: Thank you very much, Alison. We really appreciate you coming in and sharing your insights with us.

Thank you so much, Alison. That was awesome.

AH: My pleasure. Thank you.


JH: Thanks for tuning in and don’t forget to save this to your favourites wherever you listen to your podcast so that you don’t miss an episode. It’s important to note that the contents of this podcast are intended as a general guide to the subject matter. If you are looking for specific advice about your individual circumstances, then we would recommend getting in touch with one of our friendly family lawyers. 

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