My experience of coercion and healing from the shame it caused

Trigger warning: describes coercion, including sexual coercion, in detail throughout. Also talks about gaslighting,other forms of domestic abuse, suicide and drugs.

I was 19 when I had my first proper taste of the pattern of coercion that’s officially known as coercive control.

It was my first relationship and it seemed to revolve around me giving my partner everything that he wanted from me. I had no idea back then that it was abuse.

I stayed in that relationship for six-and-a-half years.

It started with him telling me things like: ‘If you won’t kiss me with tongues in public then you obviously don’t love me.’ And ‘Now that we’re in a relationship, I can do what I like with your body.’ And: ‘If you wear underpants in bed then it means you’re rejecting me.’ And: ‘You need to be open and available to me at all times.’

It moved on to him regularly sexually abusing me, raping me and using my body in all sorts of ways which I never would have consented to willingly. He regularly deprived me of things like food and sleep just so that he could have his desires met, and he never stopped when I was in pain or when I was having an asthma attack one time. He made it loud and clear – his sexual desires mattered more than my needs for food, sleep and safety.

Although a lot of the coercion was sexual, he also coerced me in other ways too. For example, he once told me that he wanted to commit suicide because I wouldn’t stay up late to hang out with his friends when I had work the next day. (It’s important that someone who says that they’re suicidal has access to the help they need and Mind has a list of suicide support services in the UK. However, as in this case, threatening to commit suicide in order to control another person is coercion. Their actions and choices are not your responsibility, no matter how insistent they are that you do what they want you to do).

He also coerced me into doing something that I was adamant that I would never do – taking cocaine. He did it on his birthday when I’d already been drinking. He told me: ‘I bought this just for us to do together and I thought it would be special. I spent a lot of money on it for your sake. As it’s my birthday why don’t you try it just this once – just for me.’ Of course I said no but he pestered and guilt-tripped me for probably about an hour or more until I finally caved in out of guilt and a desire to shut him up so that I could eventually get some sleep.

Because I did things that went against my values and beliefs – even though I was coerced into doing them – I carried a lot of shame and guilt for many years. It was worse early on when I didn’t realise that I’d been coerced into doing those things and took the full weight of responsibility on my shoulders.

Defining coercion

Coercion can be so subtle and difficult to spot. I worked for many years in domestic abuse and sexual violence for the police and local council while I was in an abusive relationship and it wasn’t until about three years after the relationship finished that I finally accepted that it was abusive. It then took a further two or three years before I accepted that he’d regularly raped me. (Coercing someone into performing a sexual act is a form of sexual assault and coercing someone to have sex against their will is rape. Both sexual assault and rape are against the law in the UK and elsewhere. It’s not possible to freely or willingly consent to something when you’re being coerced into it. The UK government website has information about sexual violence support services that can help you).

The UK Home Office defines coercion as: “a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.” But I would, personally, broaden that definition to something like this: coercion is, in its simplest form, causing someone to do something that they don’t want to do. This could take the form of pressuring, pestering, lying, threatening, blackmail, gaslighting, arguing, emotional manipulation, physical force, guilt-trips and many other things. (Please bear in mind that this isn’t a legal definition of coercion).

I’ve included a list below of all the different forms of coercion that I personally experienced at the hands of my ex-boyfriend (there’s likely more but I can’t remember off the top of my head) in the hopes that someone who’s experiencing coercion which doesn’t fit into the normal definitions would be able to recognise what’s being done to them and get help. Even if what’s being done to you isn’t covered by the law, abuse and coercion are never acceptable and The UK government website has information about domestic abuse support services that can help you.

  • putting me down/verbal abuse when I didn’t do exactly what he wanted;
  • regularly telling me that I didn’t love him if I didn’t do the things he wanted me to do;
  • gaslighting me (making out that I was the one being unreasonable and that he was perfectly reasonable, denying my experience and causing me to constantly question my own sanity and values);
  • denying me food and sleep until he got what he wanted;
  • threatening suicide if he didn’t get his way;
  • saying that me not giving him his own way was making him depressed, and blaming his mental illnesses on me;
  • trying to create distance between me and my friends and family by saying how jealous he was when they were around;
  • criticising me;
  • using victim mentality/self-pity to get me to feel sorry for him and give him what he wanted (to this day I’m triggered by other people’s self-pity);
  • laughing at me/mocking me for wanting food even when I was feeling faint;
  • pestering me for sex several times a day and not giving me peace until I did what he wanted;
  • demanding sex when I was unwell or exhausted;
  • making out that his sexual desires were far more important than my genuine needs;
  • ignoring my physical pain and other symptoms (such as an asthma attack) as long as he got what he wanted;
  • humiliating me;
  • guilt trips;
  • ignoring my boundaries, for example by putting his hands around my throat without my consent, even after I pushed him away;
  • speaking and acting as though my body belonged to him and having a sense of entitlement to sex and my body in general;
  • pressuring me into drinking and taking drugs to make it more likely that I would say yes to things;
  • buying me things and implying that I owed him in favours and sex;
  • comparing me to other women and saying that they would do the things that he wanted me to do;
  • expecting me to wait for hours for him while he went off and did his own thing, then getting upset and offended and saying I didn’t love him if I chose not to wait;
  • calling me nasty names;
  • using my past mistakes against me to get his own way when I challenged him or when we were arguing;
  • regularly bringing up examples of how I’d wronged him several years earlier as a way to manipulate me into doing what he wanted me to do;
  • saying that I was boring when I wouldn’t do what he wanted me to do i.e. get drunk/take drugs/do sexual acts that I didn’t want to do;
  • regularly bring up how ‘fun’ I used to be and pine over the loss of my ‘fun’ side to try to pressure me into drinking with him and staying up late etc;
  • expecting me to be constantly available to him sexually, and saying that I should never wear pants or pyjamas to bed because that would mean that I didn’t love him;
  • breaking up with me because I wasn’t giving him what he wanted and then apologising and pestering me until I got back together with him;
  • blaming me for his behaviour and saying that I was the one who needed to change;
  • shouting and rage (thankfully this was rarely directed against me);
  • putting porn on without my consent;
  • expecting me to strive to keep our relationship going but not putting in any effort himself;
  • persistently moaning when he didn’t get his own way;
  • Sulking and giving me the silent treatment when I didn’t do whatever he wanted, usually until I grovelled or made it up to him;
  • harassing me over many years after we broke up to try and get me back;
  • promising to change his behaviour just so that he could get what he wanted and then going straight back to his old ways;
  • lying to me to manipulate me into doing certain things for him.

Those are just my some of my experiences of coercion and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list of all the types of coercion out there.

Coercion can also include:

  • using fear of violence to control you into doing what the abuser wants;
  • controlling what you wear, who you see, what you do, what money you spend;
  • constantly checking up on you throughout the day;
  • using physical restraint;
  • isolating you from your friends and family;
  • stalking you;
  • taking away or destroying your possessions;
  • monitoring your internet use and reading text messages or stealing your passwords and checking your online accounts;
  • restricting access to your phone or online accounts;
  • restricting how often you can leave the house (if at all);
  • reproductive coercion – coercing you to have an abortion or not have an abortion against your will, lying about birth control;
  • restricting your food intake;
  • telling you that if you don’t have sex with them, they will have an affair or use porn;
  • assuming that you consent to something just because you’ve done it before, for example a sexual act.

My advice would be that if you feel that something’s not quite right in your relationship but perhaps your experience doesn’t fit with the typical definitions of coercion, don’t just assume it’s you that’s the problem. You don’t need to feel ashamed of seeking help, the UK government website has information about domestic abuse support services that can help you.

Something else to note is that coercion is a pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off act. I can think of many situations where I did something that I didn’t want to do, not because he’d coerced me there and then into doing it, but because he’d coerced me over many years and I knew from many past experiences that if I said no there would be consequences.

One example of this is when I had some friends over for a games evening and I went upstairs to get some games out of my wardrobe. He followed me upstairs and demanded that I give him oral sex while my friends were waiting downstairs. I could think of nothing worse and I told him as much but I ended up doing it anyway because I knew from experience that he would sulk for days or weeks and tell me that I didn’t love him or care about him and that I was putting my friends before him. I also knew from experience that he would likely then bring it up against me for years to come when we argued or whenever he wanted something from me and wasn’t getting his way, and that he would also likely expect me to make it up to him somehow.

Can you see that, although I consented by going ahead with giving him what he wanted, I didn’t do so freely or willingly, and only did so to placate him because the alternative was far worse?

My healing journey

My journey of healing from coercion has taken four years so far, starting the moment when I acknowledged that I was raped – and the weight that lifted off my chest from just saying that – to being able to completely forgive my abuser and see light that’s coming out of the darkness through me being able to help and support others going through similar things.

Your journey will no doubt look different to mine because you’ve probably been through different things to me, but I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me along the way. These are in no particular order – just the order in which they came to mind. (Please note that I’m writing this from the point of view of someone who has already left their abuser. If you’re still in a relationship with your abuser the UK government website has information about domestic abuse support services that can help you.).

1. Acknowledging that it was coercion and rape and learning what true love really is

This was the first and probably the most important part of my healing journey. As I mentioned earlier, when I didn’t accept that I was coerced, I took full responsibility for the things that I was coerced into and felt huge amounts of shame. I had so much more shame about the things that I’d been coerced into than the things that I’d consented to and I didn’t know why at the time. I thought I was just an all-round bad person for doing those things, when in reality I would never have chosen to do them in a million years under my own free will.

Something that helped me to recognise it as abuse was learning what true love really is. I found the definition of love in the bible and just meditated on it and allowed it to seep into my soul. Recognising that that’s the type of love that God has for me was so freeing and healing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NIVUK

2. Forgiving yourself

Even though the coercion wasn’t my fault I still found it helpful to forgive myself for the things that I did. (I even had to do this today because writing this blog post has brought up so many feelings of guilt and shame from my past).

I just say a simple prayer or declaration, something like ‘I choose to forgive myself for… and I let go of any bitterness or judgement towards myself.’

3. Prayer

I know this isn’t very helpful for those of you who aren’t Christians, but I just can’t see how I could’ve healed to the extent that I did without a relationship with God and his constant love and care. He guided me in my healing and brought things to the surface that needed to be dealt with. Laying down the burden of false responsibility and guilt helped me to let go and only take responsibility for the things I did willingly. Also prayerfully breaking soul ties between me and my abuser. It might help – as it did for me – to pray with someone with experience in prayer ministry. I’ve heard good things about Ellel’s free healing retreats but have no experience with them personally so can’t make a personal recommendation.

4. Repeating the mantra: ‘There’s no excuse for abuse’

I used to think that I deserved it when people treated me in an abusive way because of what I’d done or just because of who I was. It made it so difficult to spot abuse when I experienced it. The words: ‘There’s no excuse for abuse’ helped me to see that no one ever deserves to receive abusive behaviour, no matter what they may have done wrong. It helped me to see coercion for what it was and let go of false responsibility for what he did to me. It even helped me to spot abuse in other situations, like abusive customers in previous jobs and abusive childhood friends.

5. Talking to someone (or writing it down)

I had a hard time calling what was done to me rape, even long after I’d accepted that that’s what it was. I would doubt myself constantly. It’s likely partly because of the invalidation I experienced through gaslighting, which still affects my ability to see clearly in this area. Plus where I wasn’t physically forced it was easier to dismiss it as being a bit of a grey area.

My abuser wasn’t consistent in the ways in which he treated me – sometimes he would use the coercion tactics listed above and at other times he would act reasonably. That’s why, to this day, I still find it hard to see him as abusive and can often only picture him smiling and acting kindly. It’s only in writing it all down in this blog post that I can more clearly see the full extent of the coercion.

Something that really helped me to clarify my thoughts was talking to friends and family about it, though I made sure I only chose trusted people who listened to me and validated my experience, rather than gaslight me further. For me, as I mentioned above, prayer really helped with this because God validated my experience and showed me love and compassion throughout. You might benefit from seeing a professional counsellor. Here’s a link to more information about getting counselling.

6. Processing my emotions about the abuse

I can’t emphasise enough how crucial this step has been in setting me free. I genuinely believed up until a few years ago that I just wasn’t an “emotional person”. I’d suppressed my emotions for so long that they came out in other ways through ill health. The first time I tried intentionally feeling my emotions in my body, all I could feel was a persistent tightness in my belly area. Nowadays I’m much better at feeling emotions but I still have a long way to go. I don’t dig around for hidden emotions but just process them as they come up. This podcast episode ‘How to Feel’ is what taught me how to feel my emotions.

A brilliant free resource that I’ve discovered recently is the comfort circle worksheet, soul words list and triggers worksheet that can be found on the How We Love website. It’s supposed to be for married couples do together but I’m single and still benefit from doing it on my own.

Counselling may be able to help you with processing you emotions too.

7. Forgiving my abuser

This is definitely the hardest step I had to take – and it’s something that you may decide not to do and that’s totally up to you – but it’s one of the best and most freeing things that I could’ve done in that situation. Letting go of the bitterness I felt set me free from the power he still held over me even after we’d broken up.

As a Christian, forgiveness is a central part of my faith. God loves me so much that he sent his only son to die for me. He’s the only one who ever lived on this earth without sinning and yet he chose to take my sin on himself on the cross to make me righteous, holy and pure and cleansed from all wrongdoing. He doesn’t hold any of my wrongdoing against me, and he never has and never will. He’s also taken away my punishment on the cross so that I never have to bear it (this doesn’t mean that I never have to face the consequences of my actions). He’s led by example by showing me that kind of radical love and forgiveness and he always helps me to forgive others in the same way when I ask him for help. If that’s the kind of love, acceptance and forgiveness that he’s shown me then he can show the same to you too. If you want to learn more, here’s a video with more information about God’s forgiveness.

I didn’t go searching for things to forgive but let things come up naturally and as they did I would process them and forgive using the prayer below. Sometimes something that I had already forgiven would come up again but it was usually because there was another aspect to it that I hadn’t forgiven or because there was something deeper related to it that I needed to forgive.

I’m not saying that it was a quick or easy process but it’s been worth it for me personally.

I tend to pray a simple prayer including these points:

  • who I’m forgiving;
  • what they did to me;
  • how I feel about it;
  • acknowledging that what they did to me was wrong;
  • saying that I choose to forgive them for the wrong they did;
  • Letting go of my desire to get revenge;
  • saying that I release them from my judgement (even if I’ve forgiven someone it’s still easy to judge them harshly for what they did to me).

Here’s what forgiveness isn’t:

  • pretending that they didn’t do anything wrong;
  • pretending that you’re not hurt by what they did to you;
  • ignoring trauma;
  • accepting the abuse or saying that it was ok;
  • downplaying what was done to you;
  • trusting them again and inviting them back into your life when they’ve done nothing to earn your trust;
  • enabling abusive behaviour;
  • letting them walk all over you;
  • taking away the consequences of your abuser’s actions;
  • something that another person can guilt-trip or force you to do (this in itself is coercion).

8. Learning about healthy boundaries and starting to take responsibility for my own thoughts, feelings and actions

I didn’t know back then that I had agency over my own body or that I was solely responsible for my own thoughts, emotions and actions (and that other people are solely responsible for theirs). I also had limited boundaries – especially relating to my body – when I entered into the abusive relationship because of the child sexual abuse that I’ve mentioned previously.

Understanding what I’m responsible for and what I’m not responsible for means that I can now see the red flags of coercion and emotional and psychological abuse from afar. And learning that it’s not selfish – and is in fact actually Godly – to say no to things has helped me to reframe what was done to me and start to heal in that area.

The book that helped me the most to put in place healthy boundaries and take ownership of my own thoughts, feelings and actions was Boundaries by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend. Another helpful resource that covers similar themes is the Life Coach School podcast.

9. Dealing with the lies I believed as a result of coercion

My abuser spoke a lot of lies over me while I was with him and that was on top of the lies I already believed before I even entered into the relationship. Lies like: ‘My body belongs to him,’ ‘I should submit to his will,’ ‘I’m worthless,’ ‘If only I were perfect like other women then he would love me more,’ ‘It’s my fault that he did what he did,’ ‘I should’ve known better,’ ‘All relationships are like this,’ ‘He’s acting like this because he loves me.’

These lies kept me trapped and perpetuated the abuse. They were easy for me to believe because they were similar to lies that had been spoken over me at a young age when I was sexually abused.

It took a long time to get free from them, especially the lie that I’m worthless which I still battle with. One thing I do is bombard myself with the truth by declaring out loud who I really am and what I’m worth. I have a list of declarations that I say regularly and I will cover this topic in more detail in a future blog post.

Another thing that I’ve found helpful with this recently (as it helps to reframe a lot of the lies linked to coercion) is a book called The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Wray Gregoire. It’s all about healing from toxic messages about sex in the American evangelical church but it helped me to expose the lies I’d picked up from my ex-boyfriend, as well as the lies I believed before entering into the relationship that made it easier for him to control me. The book can be quite triggering in places but it’s also validating too.

If you’ve been affected by coercion/coercive control or other forms of domestic abuse,the UK government website has information about domestic abuse support services that can help you. If you’ve been affected by sexual coercion or other forms of sexual violence, the UK government website has information about sexual violence support services that can help you. You can also contact me to discuss any of the issues raised.

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2 years ago

A well written blog on a difficult subject. So helpful to have information about books to read etc.
Thank you so much Helen.

Kirstie gale
2 years ago

You write so well. I especially liked the bit about being clear what forgiveness is and is not .
I hope the lies he told you , no longer permeate you.
I know who you are ( I hope that makes sense !)

Maria Kane
2 years ago

This is a honest and well written blog you got a real
Talent. The subject is painful but something that is needed to be heard, there are many people that are or have been experienced the same.
Shame is a powerful enemy.
I personally have l found Rene Browns books and talks on the topic of Shame extremely helpful.
Brene Brown calls shame “the swamp land of the soul”
Keep writing ..