My Dad and I had a difficult relationship. When I was 16 and I disobeyed him, he wheeled the garbage bin into my room and started putting my school work and clothes into it. This was a Sunday evening, I was doing homework, and I had an assignment due the next day.
I hate confrontation and I was frightened. When he started to lose his temper, I left quickly. I think I might have gone to the local shopping centre and finished my homework, and not come back til late in the evening. Mum told me that my sister had gone to get her, and there’d been a tremendous argument. Dad threatened her, but he didn’t actually hit her that time. We were all terrified, but I was angry too.
My room was pretty messy, and it’s a parent’s prerogative to enforce cleanliness on teenager’s rooms. Most people want to live in nice houses; Dad included. Dad wanted to live in a clean and orderly space. He wanted me to show gratitude and respect for the area he had worked hard to provide for me, by keeping it tidy and harmonious. That’s fair enough.
However, this is an example of coercive control. The constant threat of violence, the unpredictability of the demands, the lack of empathy, the rigid hierarchical system enforced through authoritarianism: That’s coercive control. The reason it happened was because my Dad was unskilful, and unable to communicate or cope.
A better way of doing it would be instead of saying “I want this room tidied tonight” like a temperamental despot, saying “how can we work together to create a system that will help you to keep things tidy”. People thrive through connection. Chris Voss in ‘Never Split the Difference’ says that all negotiation begins with empathy, and that includes negotiation with teenagers.
I’ve got an example of coercive control where I’m the perpetrator, too. My husband and I went to a birthday party, and I kept an eye on the number of slices of cake he had, and when he got to five I said stop. There is an arrogance of me deciding what he should eat, when he should stop, and saying so in front of others. I shamed him.
Again, this is entirely wrong.
As an adult, it’s his prerogative to decide what he eats, and how much. If he specifically asks me to help him with food, it’s OK to say something in a non-shaming way. He had in-fact asked me to do that previously, and commented that we enable each other to eat unhealthy food. However, consent isn’t just about saying yes. True consent requires you to make sure that the other person is OK. And he wasn’t. And that was wrong.
If you don’t have the skills to communicate without violence, or threat of violence, it’s very important that you get those skills. And the great thing is, not only will they be happier—you’ll be happier. Not only will they learn to have good relationships—you’ll have good relationships. You’ll be able to connect with people on a real level, because you’ll both feel safe. You’ll be able to listen. And listening and being listened to is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
It’s one of the things that makes life worth living.