How to spot the dangers of coercion and control in your relationship

"It was my dad who shot me," were Charlotte Hart's last words.

It was the English summer of 2017, just over two years ago to the day. Charlotte, 19, and her mother, Claire, had been for an early morning swim at the leisure centre of the quiet market town of Spalding, 140km from London.

At around 9.00am, they crossed the carpark to their Toyota. Claire's husband, Charlotte's father, Lance, was hiding under the car.

He crawled out, with a shotgun.

He shot Claire three times, reloaded, then turned the gun on his screaming daughter. Then he shot himself in the head. He died before Claire and Charlotte, who were treated at the scene but couldn't be revived.

A chance at freedom

Just days before, Charlotte's brothers, Luke and Ryan, both Lance's sons, had helped them move out from the house they shared with Lance. Now, Ryan was in Holland and Luke was in Aberdeen. They heard the news. Lance was a controlling, emotionally abusive bastard, but … surely not.

They called their sister and mother. Nothing.

Once the news hit, "I felt like my life was a video game … nothing was real," Luke said later.

The brothers, vegan engineers who look like the love children of The Proclaimers and Jake Gyllenhaal, suddenly found themselves without a mother, sister and father, all at their father's own hands.

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Local media speculated the impending divorce drove "nice guy" and "DIY nut" Lance to uxoricide, filicide and suicide.

The aftermath

Following the tragedy, Luke wrote a heartbreaking Facebook post to his brother on his birthday, thanking him for all he's done to support him after the tragedy.

"I hope our story can encourage others to stand up and speak out about the many forms of domestic abuse. I hope it empowers those who are suffering its consequences to take action."

Two years later, grief, rage and despair has turned them into fierce campaigners.

Their website, cocoawareness.co.uk, work with local police, media and WhiteRibbonUK, and a self-published book, Operation Lighthouse, which has become an instant bestseller, are all to raise awareness of coercion and control – coco – as a recognised form of abuse.

Coercive control might not involve any physical violence, but it's certainly part of the spectrum of domestic abuse. It can involve unreasonable demands, name-calling, degradation, or "putting down", intimidation and threats, control of money and time, removal of phone and car, deprivation of food and destruction of possessions.

It's happening in relationships everywhere and women are as terrified to leave a coercive control situation as they are abuse involving violence.

Hearing the message

The rub with the powerful message of Luke and Ryan is thinking about how it applies to our own lives. As the nature of masculinity has quickly become an international discussion point in a digital #metoo world, pretty much the only thing men can do to create some change is talk to other men.

It's all very well to be the guy at the barbecue who says "not funny, Mate". As we should.

But what about how we act at home? My partner has a powerful personality. She's a ferociously intelligent communicator. The fact there's a 20-year age-gap between us is genuinely meaningless – she wouldn't stand for any power imbalance.

But lately, I have to admit, she has, more than once, expressed annoyance that it's my way or the highway and that I see myself as "the boss".

The grey area

Now, I have to admit I am someone who finds it more than a little frustrating when people around me don't do things correctly – the way I would do it. My beloved sweetheart, too, believes she knows exactly how things should be done, at what speed, and when.

So where is the line in a relationship between not being squashed by a perfumed steamroller and standing up for myself, and risking being a bossy, coercive bastard?

The x-factor of our personalities come into every situation, so every time it's grey. We have to judge the line ourselves.

A nice act

It's a long way from a shooting in a pool carpark, but men, all of us who think we're nice guys, might have a think about how we act in our relationships.

Sure, stand up to her. Women can be bullies too. But in the natural power struggle of a relationship make sure you're not using words and actions like fists. It's just as bad.

We need to see it in ourselves.

Now, I need to talk to my partner about her aggressive coercive behaviour.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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