Coercive control can be a life or death issue in relationships. But few people even know how to recognize it
More• Common questions answered • Need help? Here’s who to call • Behind the story • Elizabeth Renzetti speaks on The Decibel
Jacqueline Suchite Rivas thought she knew what abuse looked like. When her ex-husband hit her, that was abuse. Early in their relationship, when, she says, he pointed a gun at her and threatened her life, that was abuse.
But the rest of it? The name-calling, the jealousy, the isolation? That was just life.
When Ms. Suchite Rivas was growing up, her mother was regularly beaten by her father. Violence was normalized. Her grandmother had been murdered in her home country, El Salvador.
Ms. Suchite Rivas met her future husband when she was 14, after the family moved to Grande Prairie, Alta. At 15, he was the class clown, an intelligent boy who struggled with dyslexia and did poorly at school. He also came from a rough and abusive background.
The pattern for their relationship was set early. Her boyfriend, prone to jealousy, would call her names such as “slut” and “whore,” and accuse her of sleeping around. He isolated her from her friends, telling her she only needed him. After they married, he ran up their credit without telling her. He taunted her, and when she complained about his cruelty, he would tell her to lighten up.
One day, when Ms. Suchite Rivas was 21 and had a colicky new baby, her mother suggested she volunteer at a local women’s shelter as a way to get out of the house. During her training, Ms. Suchite Rivas sat down to watch a video with the other new volunteers. It was meant to show the many different faces of intimate partner abuse. On screen, a man was jokingly pretending to throw his girlfriend off a bridge. When the girlfriend protested, the man became sulky, and said something Ms. Suchite Rivas had heard so many times before: “Can’t you take a joke?”
“I just sat there in this training room with four other people, and I was staring at them thinking, ‘Why am I the only one shocked by this? Is this abuse?’” Ms. Suchite Rivas, now 36, said in an interview from her Calgary home, which she shares with her three children and her new partner.
“I thought abuse looked like, you come home and you’re beat every day. That’s literally what I thought.”
There is a term for this form of abuse – coercive control – and it can be an early indicator of relationships that will escalate into physical violence, and even homicide, according to a growing body of research. But because many people don’t recognize it as abuse, it’s often overlooked.
“It’s power games ... it’s gaslighting, lies, blaming, cruelty, intimidation – all those things that we don’t necessarily recognize as a form of violence [under] the Criminal Code of Canada,” says Carmen Gill, a professor at the University of New Brunswick. It’s isolation from friends and family. Restricted access to money or food or medicine. Damaging property, or hurting pets. Degrading comments. Barrages of text messages. Monitoring social media.
What are the warning signs of coercive control? Watch to learn how to spot manipulative behaviour.
The Globe and Mail
Though coercive control is one of the least understood forms of violence, the psychological consequences of this kind of controlling behaviour can be long-lasting.
These behaviours also heighten the risk of lethality.In Australia, a study published in 2020 by the Domestic Violence Death Review Team in the state of New South Wales found all but one of the 112 cases of intimate-partner homicides analyzed were preceded by instances of coercive and controlling behaviour. In Canada, researchers who looked at femicides from 2015 to 2019 found behaviours such as stalking, intimidation, isolation and threats were frequent.
But those patterns are too often recognized only in hindsight, after violence turns lethal. On average, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada. Zoom out to include attempted murders and that stat becomes one almost every other day.
Across Canada, there were approximately 110,460 victims of police-reported intimate partner violence in 2020 alone, according to Statistics Canada. It’s a staggering number, and nearly 80 per cent are female victims. But it’s also an undercount, given that an estimated eight in 10 women who experience spousal violence do not report it to the police. And this statistic also does not capture the scope of victims experiencing coercive control – because it’s not technically illegal.
Some researchers say that criminalization is the way to crack down on this psychological violence, and one MP is leading the charge to make that happen in Canada with proposed legislation that would make this pattern of behaviour an offence under the Criminal Code.But others are leery about looking for solutions in an inherently discriminatory criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes Indigenous and other racialized people. What both sides agree on is that this form of violence needs to be much better understood; not just by the health care, education and justice systems, but also by the general public.
It’s a life or death issue, says Myrna Dawson, a professor with the University of Guelph and the executive director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. “There are very few cases of intimate partner femicide ... that do not involve some variation of coercive controlling behaviours prior to their death.”
It was clear from the early days of the pandemic, as lockdown orders took effect across the world, that women in abusive relationships were in even greater danger.
Pandemic measures created conditions that, noted one Australian study last year, “sync perfectly with many of the defining behaviours for coercive control.” Economic and social stresses, forced and prolonged isolation from family and friends, limited mobility – all have been common experiences during the pandemic, even in the healthiest of relationships.
As the months wore on, front-line workers saw not only an increase in the number of complaints, but in the intensity of the violence: more broken bones, more choking.
By the fall of 2020, the federal government had pledged an initial $100-million in emergency funding to assist women’s shelters and sexual assault centres as they scrambled to move their services online.
The number of calls fielded by the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, an Ontario-based hotline, nearly doubled over the previous year, rising to a record93,444 calls between April, 2020, and April, 2021. This year, the volume is still high, and on track to match last year’s totals.
The United Nations called it a “shadow pandemic,” a characterization that experts – who’ve been fighting this crisis for decades – bristled at, saying domestic violence was its own pandemic before COVID-19 ever began.
Against the background of this crisis, The Globe and Mail set out to analyze this violence and the gaps in the system that have enabled it. Using government statistics, court records and local news articles to build upon annual reports by the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, The Globe looked for common patterns and the red flags that were missed – both by the authorities, but also by the victims’ friends and families. The process revealed how difficult it is to capture the full picture of intimate partner violence in Canada. Relationships are often fuzzy, police often refuse to comment on these cases and, as a result, many get missed.
Interviews with dozens of people – survivors, family members of homicide victims, perpetrators themselves, front-line workers and researchers – revealed one thread that ran through almost all of those conversations was coercive control. They repeatedly cited behaviours such as intimidation, isolation and social-media surveillance.
It can be an insidious pattern that builds slowly – especially imperceptible to those who come from abusive family backgrounds or those who become accustomed to controlling behaviour over time, in volatile long-term relationships.
In Swift Current, Sask., staffers at the town’s emergency women’s shelter hear horror stories almost constantly, about women being thrown down the stairs or having their heads smashed into sinks. But equally troubling, shelter manager Kim Kyllo says, are the stories about non-physical incidents that many of their clients don’t even recognize as violence.
“Sometimes they are unaware because they’ve lived in it so long, it’s become their normal. It’s been minimized,” she says. “And until you can start talking with them and going through things, you can see the light bulbs coming on, and they’re nodding, and they’re going, ‘Oh yeah. I forgot about this. And then this happened – and what about this?’ And all of a sudden the light bulbs just turn into a string of Christmas lights … and they finally realize that the things they’ve normalized are not normal.”
Prof. Dawson adds that the burden of recognizing coercive control as abuse should not fall squarely on the individual. This is a community and societal problem, she says, and therefore needs a societal understanding. “Otherwise 100 years from now, we’ll still be hearing the question – ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ Or, ‘Was he depressed?’ It’s bigger than this – she has tried to leave, and most depressed men do not kill women. It’s our communities and our societal attitudes that facilitate this violence.”
Social-media users have developed a hand gesture to help abuse victims silently ask for help. Elizabeth Renzetti examined how it works in her weekly column and on the Decibel podcast.
Julie Racette’s family thought she was settling when she married her husband, Wayne Melnychuk. But they’d never felt reason to fear him.
The couple met when they were both working at a Winnipeg McDonald’s. Ms. Racette was a teenager, nine years younger than Mr. Melnychuk, and within a year of dating, she was pregnant and had a son. Two years later, they had a second baby, before breaking up. But Mr. Melnychuk was always around, always pushing her to reconcile.
On a camping trip with the kids in 2015, he asked her to marry him. And in June, 2016, she did.
“I asked her so many times, ‘please don’t marry him. Please don’t marry him,’” recalled Ms. Racette’s mother, Diana Madore. She worried that it was a marriage of convenience – more of a “Sure, why not” than an “Absolutely, of course.”
They had a third child, another son, in 2017. But by 2020, says Ms. Racette’s sister, Chasity Almas, there were signs that their relationship was on the rocks. They were working opposite shifts and sleeping in separate beds. In fact, Ms. Racette had confided in a friend that she was going to end things soon and seek a divorce.
But on April 11, 2020, Mr. Melnychuk killed her in the family home, while their children slept. She was 34.
Mr. Melnychuk was not immediately arrested. He maintained that Ms. Racette had fallen and hit her head – a story her family did not believe, given visible marks on her neck. By the time police issued a warrant, he’d disappeared. His silver Dodge Charger was later found abandoned by the Redwood Bridge in downtown Winnipeg. His body surfaced in the river months later. Police said he likely entered the Red River “on his own accord” sometime on or around April 12.
Ms. Almas is now raising her sister’s three boys. For the past two years, she has been reading about intimate partner violence and coercive control, and the warning signs that experts have identified as indicators of potential lethality. She now knows that, according to experts, the moment a woman decides to leave is the most dangerous point in an abusive relationship. And looking back, she can see that so many of the red flags were present.
He would critique her sister’s new, tight-fitting clothes and send barrages of needy text messages when she was out with friends. He texted her friends and family, too. “He kept sending messages,” Ms. Almas says. “Saying, you know, ‘Julie doesn’t bother with me anymore.’ And he was calling her other friends as well, telling them, ‘I think Julie’s gonna leave me.’
“He was losing his grasp.”
When NDP MP Randall Garrison first brought forward a private member’s bill in October, 2020, to criminalize coercive control in Canada, he spoke of the alarming spike in domestic violence cases that was occurring across the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Garrison, who is the MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke in British Columbia, believes that identifying and recognizing coercive control is key to reducing intimate partner violence rates.Adding coercive control to the Criminal Code, he says, would put a name – and a criminal charge – to the behaviour and incidents that make so many feel uncomfortable or unsafe, but don’t meet the current threshold for a crime.
Addressing the justice committee, Mr. Garrison cited the shootings in Portapique, N.S., in April, 2020 – an unthinkable series of events that began with a vicious domestic assault and ultimately left 22 people dead, in Canada’s worst mass killing.
News reports after the attack included reflections from friends and neighbours who’d witnessed troubling and controlling behaviour by the shooter, Gabriel Wortman, over the years. One recalled a time he took the wheels off his girlfriend’s car, so she couldn’t leave after a fight. Another described the control he had over her finances, after convincing her to quit her job.
“Clearly there’s a pattern of behaviour there designed to isolate and control the partner,” Mr. Garrison said in a phone interview. “So I’m not saying you could have prevented the Portapique shooting, but there’s the possibility in those kinds of cases that an earlier intervention by the police [could prevent] physical violence, and homicides. What I learned is that the death of intimate partners is almost always preceded by coercive controlling behaviours.”
During his remarks to the committee, Mr. Garrison was also thinking of the emotional and psychological abuse his own mother had endured.
“I grew up in a family where coercive controlling behaviour was the norm,” he told The Globe. “I don’t usually talk about this in public, but my mom left my dad several times.”
Mr. Garrison recalls his late father cutting off his mother from her family – her main source of support – for long stretches of time. Friends she’d make would also inevitably be deemed unacceptable, and he’d make clear they were unwelcome at the house. “That’s one thing that, even as a kid, not knowing what was going on, I still knew that was odd and very hurtful to my mom.”
Though she tried several times to leave, his mother – a traditional Catholic who believed you “marry forever under the sight of God” – would always end up reconciling with her husband. And each time, Mr. Garrison remembers, she was “increasingly under his thumb.”
Mr. Garrison’s hope is that by making coercive control a criminal offence, it will help others recognize their situations. He also believes that it could, crucially, provide police with an earlier opportunity to intervene. “It’s not clear that society says this is not acceptable,” he says. “Bruises are unacceptable. We say that clearly. But the emotional violence – we don’t clearly identify that as unacceptable.”
The bill passed the first reading, and the justice committee agreed to study the issue. A months-long consultation process resulted in an April, 2021, report, “The Shadow Pandemic: Stopping Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in Intimate Relationships.” Its recommendations included recognizing that these harms aren’t currently captured in criminal law; that a task force examine whether coercive control should be added to the Criminal Code;that funding be boosted to support victims; and that the federal government launch a public awareness campaign.
But the bill – and that work – died with the election last fall.
His best hope now, he says, is to try to resuscitate the report through the justice committee, which could retable the report and formally press the government for a written response. He is also trying for a meeting with the Minister for Women and Gender Equality, Marci Ien, whose mandate includes developing a national strategy to reduce violence against women.
“I don’t care if it’s my bill, as long as we address the principle in the bill,” he says. “We still get calls every week, both in my constituency office and nationally, from women who say this would really help. Usually they have children, and usually they lack economic resources. They need some way to get outside intervention before there’s physical violence, and there isn’t any way to do that right now.”
In the meantime, other countries are taking action. England and Wales were the first to introduce legislation on coercive control in 2015, and related laws have been passed in places such as France, Ireland, Hawaii and California. Australian states are also adopting new legislation (or are currently considering doing so).
Legislation passed in 2018 in Scotland is regarded by some experts as the gold standard for its kind. The Domestic Abuse Act created a single offence which criminalizes coercive and controlling behaviours, recognizing that it’s a patternof behaviours including psychological, financial or sexual abuse toward a partner or ex-partner. Importantly, it acknowledges the impact that domestic abuse has on children,with harsher penalties that can be imposed if a child is also living in an abusive environment.
One case in particular led to these changes. In 2013, Bill Walker, a member of the Scottish Parliament, was found guilty of 23 charges of domestic abuse, with a pattern of behaviour in intimate relationships, including systemic physical and emotional abuse, that spanned 28 years and targeted three former wives and a stepdaughter. The abuse ranged from recording phone calls to brandishing an air rifle and punching victims in the face. Politicians and women’s groups were outraged when he was sentenced to just 12 months in jail.
Abused women had been telling advocates for decades that the worst element of their experience was not the physical assault, but the coercive behaviour that controlled them. The Walker case focused public attention on the issue and helped spark a review of the laws.
Survivors and front-line workers were involved in shaping the new laws from start to finish, says Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, which works to prevent domestic violence and helped craft the legislation. For example, survivors noted that a common threat was to kill the family dog if they didn’t comply; the resulting law included pets in three pieces of the legislation. “It gave people language to talk about it,” Dr. Scott says. “It didn’t change their experiences and how harmful or unwelcome they were, but it gave them language to describe it.”
She stresses that though the Scottish legislation has helped pushthe status quo, it didn’t solve the whole problem of domestic abuse.
“The best law in the world, implemented perfectly, is not going to drive down domestic abuse until we do something serious about the pay gap, about the missing women in local government, about women’s disproportionate poverty – all of the things that I call the feeder system for domestic abuse,” she says.
Prof. Gill of UNB, who has been studying this issue for years, says coercive control legislation is similarly crucial to help stop escalations of violence in Canada. Having such a law, she says, would allow the courts to recognize patterns of violence within relationships, instead of addressing incidents individually.
A number of researchers have reservations about criminalizing coercive control. They question whether criminalization will work as a deterrent, and emphasize that the justice system is stacked against racialized people.
Ardath Whynacht, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Allison University who has worked with incarcerated men as well as victims of domestic violence, views the criminal justice system itself as inherently violent.
“The prison system and policing, and our whole sociocultural history for the last few hundred years, has actually taught violence,” she says.
“The prison system doesn’t work. It doesn’t rehabilitate, it doesn’t save lives, and greater resources to policing has never really made it safer.”
It is well documented that a fear of an unfair or heavy-handed response by the justice system can also keep women from seeking help. A lack of confidence in police causes a “significant impediment to reporting” for women experiencing violence, the recent House of Commons report said.
The report also specified that these concerns are far greater for Indigenous, racialized and other marginalized communities who have experienced systemic discrimination within the justice system.
Even police acknowledge this tension. Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah, writing in the Commons report, described it this way: “What I think goes through everybody’s mind [before calling 911] is: Is this phone call to the police actually going to compound my situation and make it worse?”
Researchers who are worried about coercive-control legislation believe in a more holistic approach that addresses violence at its root, focusing on prevention and changing misogynistic attitudes.
Janet Mosher, an associate professor at Osgoode HallLaw School who has researched intimate partner violence and access to justice, says that courts and the criminal justice system often look at individual incidents of domestic abuse, but patterns and the broader context should be recognized, as well. She is skeptical that the solution lies in further criminalization.
“That’s not a route I would go,” Prof. Mosher says. “We know the multiplicity of ways in which the criminal justice system has failed and continues to fail so many women, especially Indigenous women, and Black women, other racialized women, low-income women. We know that, for lots of good reasons, most survivors don’t turn to the police. It’s not a very effective mechanism for the safety of women and children. What are some of the other things that really matter? Ensuring that there are viable options for women to leave abusive relationships. Access to adequate social assistance, access to affordable housing. Those are really critical.”
Prof. Dawson agrees. “If this legislation happens, it must come with bigger and more substantive, structural changes – a package of changes that can actually save women who are at risk of male violence and ultimately femicide. Not just a few words added to our Criminal Code and congratulatory platitudes from our politicians,” she says.
‘Controlling behaviour takes away your choices in life and the things that make you you,’ reads one of Scotland’s educational videos on domestic violence.
Outside Canada, there is momentum to define and criminalize coercive control.
In 2018, coinciding with the launch of its Domestic Abuse Act, Scotland launched a massive public education campaign on coercive control, with videos, posters, improved online resources, and extensivetraining for police and prosecutors. A similar U.K. campaign – “Know this isn’t Love” – aims to show young people how to spot the warning signs of controlling behaviour.
More broadly,Australia is establishing a new federal commission to combat domestic violence with a goal of bringing such violence “toward zero.”
South Africa is creating a National Council on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide. The U.K. has a domestic violence commissioner, while the U.S. is renewing the Violence Against Women Act.
Canada, meantime, is the only G7 country without a national helpline for those experiencing domestic abuse. Its national action plan to end gender-based violence, years in the making, has yet to be launched. (Australia’s was launched in 2009.)
Prof. Gill agrees that education, early interventions and resources for both victims and abusers are critical. But first, she believes in the importance of recognizing this violence as illegal.
“You know, I understand certain people saying, ‘No, criminalization is not the answer.’ It’s not going to be the [only] answer. But we cannot not criminalize this particular issue – because then we minimize the seriousness of what it is in our society.”
She has worked closely with police chiefs across the country to try to familiarize them with the nuances of coercive control. “It starts with the police officers,” Prof. Gill says, “because they are the ones who are going to be able to assess if there is violence or not when they arrive on scene.”
Mr. Garrison agrees. “What I heard consistently from police is that they would go to domestic situations where they knew [that something] was problematic – and that it risked physical violence at some point down the road – but they didn’t have any tools to intervene,” he says.
He understands that criminalization has its critics, and agrees that it won’t be the be-all and end-all.
“Some people said, ‘Well, you want to lock up a bunch of people.’ No. Really, the point of criminalizing coercive and controlling behaviour is to provide an earlier point for intervention,” he says.
“I have no illusion that simply adding coercive control and violence to the Criminal Code is the solution. It’s a tool. And it has to be alongside better social service interventions altogether.”
Ms. Suchite Rivas, the survivor in Alberta, is in a good place now, the trauma of her past relationship long behind her. She works as a diversity and inclusion educator for a college, and she’s a passionate advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence.
Ms. Suchite Rivas has talked to her children about her own history, but she’d never really discussed one aspect – that controlling behaviour is dangerous on its own, and a possible indicator of more serious abuse to come. When her oldest child, a teenaged daughter, was recently in a problematic relationship with a boy who manipulated her, Ms. Suchite Rivas realized that it was time to put that knowledge into action in her own home.
She sat down with her daughter to talk about the different types of abuse, and that not all of it involves physical violence. After they spoke, the girl changed her phone number and made an appointment with her psychologist.
The cycle of violence that had trapped Ms. Suchite Rivas, and her mother and grandmother before her, has – for the moment – been broken.
The Globe and Mail’s research into domestic violence identified a number of critical issues in addition to the problem of coercive control. Canada lacks effective prevention programs for men who abuse. Services for survivors (and their children) are chronically underfunded – the dearth of affordable housing in Canada is a huge barrier that prevents many from leaving abusive environments. Access to shelters and other services is uneven across the country, which means many who are disproportionately affected – Indigenous women, rural women and those in the North – are the least likely to have access to resources. And Canada’s justice system notoriously retraumatizes those fleeing abuse.
Future stories will explore these issues.
For help with controlling behaviour or intimate partner violence, call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511. In Quebec, call SOS violence conjugale at 1-800-363-9010.
(Return to top)
Elizabeth Renzetti spoke with The Decibel about the debate around whether to criminalize coercive control. Subscribe for more episodes.
More coverage from Molly Hayes
Non-profit Shelter Movers helps women flee violent home situations
Alberta shelter takes innovative approach to domestic violence: Focus on the male perpetrators
Organizations warned of deadly upward trend in femicide at pandemic’s onset. New data confirms their predictions
Opinion from Elizabeth Renzetti
The most dangerous place for women is behind closed doors
Who protects wealthy sex predators? Just about everyone
Would you recognize the TikTok hand signal for help?
(Return to top)