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For years, Hannah Clarke didn't have bruises or broken bones. But her abuse was just as brutal.

The phrase ‘domestic violence‘ evokes images of bruises and broken bones, ‘incidents’ and emergency calls. But as a society, we are slowly coming to understand that is only one part of a much larger picture.

Researchers have been stressing for years that most abusive relationships involve more than just physical violence. Often there’s also evidence of tactics like financial abuse, sexual abuse and social isolation.

All are ways of an abuser exercising what’s known as coercive control — a pattern of behaviour designed to oppress an intimate partner.

Watch: Women and violence, the hidden numbers.

Video by Mamamia

The recent murder of Brisbane woman, Hannah Clarke, and her young children — Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and Trey, 3 — has demonstrated the horrific potential of an abuser’s quest for complete, uncompromising dominance over the people who love them.

On the morning of Wednesday February 19, the 31-year-old’s estranged husband, Rowan Baxter, ambushed her car on a quiet street in the suburb of Camp Hill. He doused petrol on the vehicle, set it alight and allowed it to burn before taking his own life. The children died at the scene. Hannah died later in hospital, but not before she somehow found the strength to tell authorities what he’d done.

According to her loved ones, it was a final, violent punishment that followed years of non-violent abuse.

Speaking to Mamamia’s daily news podcast, The Quicky, Dr Susan Heward-Belle, a leading domestic violence researcher from the University of Sydney, described coercive control as a “real red flag in terms of danger”.

“A lot of the tragic murders that we’ve seen of women, in the weeks and months leading up to the deaths, there’s often an increasing level of control that they’re under, which often goes undetected or unrecognised,” she said.

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In Hannah’s case, that increasing control was known, both to her and those around her, as well as the police. But none predicted just how far it would go.

Here’s how her abuser knowingly, deliberately, went from being her husband to her perpetrator.

A pattern of abuse.

Over the past week, those close to Hannah have told of how her abuser steadily and deliberately increased his influence over her during the course of their relationship.

Manja Whaley, who met Hannah through the gym the couple owned, penned a letter to her “beautiful” friend that was published on Mamamia last week. She recalled Hannah confiding in her about what was happening behind closed doors:

“At first, you were confused and told me that you had never thought you were in an abusive relationship, as you explained: ‘he never hit me.’ We talked about the different types of violence including financial abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. You had experienced all of them.”

Hannah’s family elaborated in an interview on A Current Affair, in which they detailed that the abuser forced her to have sex with him every night.

hannah clarke family
Hannah Clarke's parents, and her brother Nathaniel on A Current Affair. Image: Channel Nine.

"If she didn't, he would make the next day unbearable for the kids," Hannah's brother, Nathanial, said. "Not physically hurting the kids or anything like that, but just you know just make it a tortuous day of 'You want to go to the beach? No, you're not going to beach. You're not allowed that.'"

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Her mother, Suzanne, said the abuser also forbade her from wearing shorts, despite her role in the fitness industry: "She had to cover up," she said. "In the beginning, we thought, 'Oh, he's a prude.' But in hindsight we know there's more to it."

Then there was the stalking. During the relationship, Baxter reportedly monitored Hannah's phone, social media accounts and recorded her conversations.

And once she took the children and left the relationship in December 2019, the behaviour escalated. He reportedly kept A4 photographs in his car of her wearing nothing but underwear. And according to The Daily Mail, he even applied for a job at her new gym just to taunt her. After his interview, he took a photo of himself outside the gym, so she'd think he'd been hired, too.

Perhaps his most devastatingly effective tactic throughout it all: emotional abuse. Hannah's family told ACA that if the house was untidy, for example, he would stop speaking to her for days and then make her "grovel" for forgiveness.

“He could manipulate her," Suzanne added. "The night before he killed them he was on the phone to the children crying and she hung up or the children hung up she said to me, 'Mum, I feel so bad for him'."

How to help woman being abused.

Hannah did everything people in an abusive situation are advised to: she told trusted friends and family about her situation; she contacted police who offered counselling to all involved; she established a support network and moved away; she obtained a Domestic Violence Order after he kidnapped one of her children for four days in December; she sought a child-custody arrangement; and more.

But the abuser's desire for control persisted and inflamed. He was clearly prepared to reassert it by any means necessary; even if that meant publicly murdering his wife and children and ending his own life.

As shocking as this case is, it's not isolated. On average, one woman is murdered by a current or former partner every week in Australia. One in six of us has experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner. For emotional abuse, it's one in four.

Advocates are now renewing their push to criminalise coercive control nationwide, as has been done across the UK. Currently, Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction to have made certain coercive controlling behaviours — namely financial abuse and emotional abuse — criminal offences.

But what should we, as individuals, do now? How can we help abused women in their lives without increasing the danger?

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Listen: How we can help women in our lives like Hannah Clarke. (Post continues below.)

Dr Susan Heward-Belle told Mamamia that if you witness or overhear immediate physical assault, then you should call the police. However, if you recognise that someone close to you is caught in an ongoing pattern of coercive control, you need to be wary of how you approach the situation.

"I think it's really important to honour and privilege [the person being abused] as being the experts in their own lives. Have a conversation with them to tease out how they feel about you actually taking interventions on their behalf," she said.

"Sometimes we can kind of run in guns blazing and inadvertently create a situation that creates less safety for them. So I think it's really important to be talking to them about the services that are available out there to assist them. It might be about navigating really complex legal and social systems. It might be about trying to assist them to get in contact with a domestic violence liaison officer at a police station.

"You really need to help your friend or family member get the right advice from the right people; people who actually really understand the dynamics of domestic violence and understand how dangerous circumstances can be for women and children."

Before all that, though, the best thing you can do is to listen and to believe.

Domestic abuse survivor, Juliet Moody, said to keep an eye and ear out for signs of non-physical abuse, as that's often the first sign something is wrong.

"When someone comes to you and talks to you about their experience — if they're feeling disempowered in a relationship or they're feeling like someone's controlling them or overly critical of them — listen without judgment, believe what they're saying and try and support them to understand that perhaps they're not in a safe relationship," she added.

"There's such power in standing next to someone and saying, 'I believe you, and I'm standing here as your advocate'. We can all do that in our community."

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Feature image: Facebook.

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