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What is Coercive Control?

Last updated on 3rd May 2023

A recent study by the Crime Survey for England and Wales has shown that women are much more likely than men to be victims of abuse including degradation and threatening behaviour, which are stark markers of coercive control.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control refers to a pattern of different actions that seek to exert dominance and control over an individual through psychological and emotional manipulation. It is a form of domestic abuse which is illegal in England and Wales, and it can be reported to the police.

Coercive control comes from a person who is close to you, typically a partner, but it can also be a parent or family member, or even a close friend that you live with. If the same behaviours are displayed by someone who is not personally connected to you, it is not classed as coercive control but may qualify as a different criminal offence.

Personally connected means:

  • You are involved in an intimate relationship with them.
  • You live with them.
  • They are a family member.
  • You live together and have been intimately involved in the past.

Coercive control may not be recognised by the victim, or they may not be willing to acknowledge it. Usually, the first reported incident comes after a long history of abusive and controlling behaviour. It can be hard to spot by looking at a relationship from the outside. A perpetrator of coercive control may have perfected their outward-facing persona, with the ability to deceive others. They might appear as well-meaning, concerned and caring towards the victim in front of others.

The signs of coercive control

What are the types of coercive control?

There are many ways that coercive control can be displayed, though the main forms of coercive control are listed below.

Psychological abuse

This is usually through isolation, derogatory comments, threats and restrictions. Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse used in coercive control that aims to make someone feel unsure of themselves, their recollection of events that have happened, and their own perceptions. It uses lying, denial of events and misleading statements to invalidate their perception of things. It can be reactive, or purposefully orchestrated, with some abusers going to extreme lengths to stage events that will confuse the victim.

Emotional control

Emotional control is carried out by using emotions to humiliate, manipulate, blame and critique someone. The aim of this type of abuse is to wear away at their confidence and self-esteem. Perpetrators might play on emotions to make unfair and unreasonable requests and diminish boundaries so that the victim dedicates all their time to them. Emotional abuse also includes bullying the person into sharing a viewpoint, invalidating upsetting events because the victim cannot remember the exact time and place that they occurred, and never being pleased with the victim’s actions. They may relay that their jealousy is a form of love.

Blackmail

This incorporates elements of psychological and emotional control but uses specific events or materials to coerce someone into submission. An example of this is revenge porn. A partner or ex-partner might threaten to release intimate images of you if you don’t follow through on something they have asked you to do. In some cases, blackmail doesn’t involve a threat of something involving the victim, but the victim can think they have done something wrong when they have not, and submit to the offender’s wishes in order for it not to be exposed.

Sexual coercion

This is when sexual activity is unwanted but occurs because one is non-physically pressured, tricked or intimidated into participating. For example, a partner might tell you that you owe them a sexual favour as they have done something for you. It can also be in the form of repeated demands for sex, pestering and harassing you to give in.

Economic sanctions

This entails the perpetrator orchestrating financial sanctions when they don’t get their own way. This could start with small ‘fines’, and progress to taking away the person’s entire financial freedom.

What are the signs of coercive control?

Some of the signs of coercive control are:

  • Isolating someone from their family and friends.
  • Restricting their use of communication platforms. This could be limiting their phone and social media use, or any other form of communication.
  • Controlling different aspects of their lives, including how much they go out, where they can go, who they can visit, how they dress, what they eat.
  • Not allowing them to visit a GP or any medical provision.
  • Continuously putting them down through derogatory comments and insults, with the intent to damage their self-esteem.
  • Making them participate in rules and actions that may be degrading and humiliating. This can be activities in the house, or sexual acts.
  • Making them participate in illegal acts such as theft and child abuse.
  • Damaging their property.
  • Sexual abuse.
  • Violence.
  • Restricting their use of basic facilities, such as heating and electricity.
  • Not allowing them to have a job.
  • Taking their money away from them, and not allowing them to have personal money.
  • Making small comments on numerous details of things such as their appearance, their friends, their family, their work.
  • Keeping information from the individual.
  • Denying something has happened, including domestic violence.
  • Undermining the individual.
  • Convincing the individual that they need to change themselves.
  • Hiding things so that they can’t leave, e.g. car keys.
  • Making accusations of things that are not true.

Signs that you may notice if someone you know is a victim of coercive control:

  • They are scared of their partner or other personal connection.
  • They are cut off from their friends and family and are difficult to contact or make plans with.
  • They have physical signs of abuse, such as bruises, or they hide parts of their body that are bruised.
  • They become defensive when it comes to discussing the suggestion of their being abused.
  • You have noticed that they have a new sense of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, anxiety and/or depression.
  • The person who you suspect of abusing them is constantly calling them, asking where they are, who they are with or telling them to come home.

You can read more about the signs of violent abuse in adults here.

Person suffering from coercive control

What are some of the things that might be said?

There are some common phrases that are often said to victims of coercive control. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Calling you crazy.
  • Saying you are over-emotional and too sensitive.
  • Telling you that you are exaggerating.
  • Calling you selfish for wanting something.
  • Calling you needy.
  • Guilt tripping you.
  • Punishing you through silence.
  • Saying that things are your fault.
  • Telling you that you’re stupid.
  • Speaking down to you.
  • Superiority in their tone – acting as if you are inferior to them intellectually.

What effects can coercive control have?

Coercive control has a damaging effect on mental health and emotional and physical wellbeing. It can diminish one’s sense of self-worth, and they may even become dependent on their abuser, due to the freedom and independent thought being taken from them. Coercive control can cause PTSD.

You can read more about PTSD here. It may take years for someone who has been subject to coercive control to undo the damage caused to them. They may be scared to go into another relationship or they may be very distrustful of people. On the other hand, some people sink back into a cycle of abuse, as they have been conditioned to believe that they can’t function without being dependent on such treatment. You can read more about the cycle of violent abuse here.

Additionally, coercive control is linked to extreme violence and murder. Abusers may go to great lengths to make it difficult for the victim to leave them, and victims, in rare instances, can retaliate out of fear and anger.

In families, coercive control can also affect children. Children may be used as tools of blackmail and may be affected psychologically and emotionally by what they have witnessed. Children who have grown up witnessing coercive control may be more inclined to carry out such behaviours in their own relationships.

Who is at risk of coercive control?

Women are most at risk of coercive control, with women who have children with their partners being more at risk than women without children with their partners. The majority of women, up to 90%, who report abuse, experience coercive control in some form. 97% of people who were persecuted for controlling behaviours in the UK in 2019 were male, though this does not negate how many men are victims of domestic abuse each year.

Vulnerable people are at risk of coercive control. This could be disabled people, people with learning difficulties and mentally vulnerable people. People who have been abused previously may be more inclined to fall back into a pattern of abuse, as they may have become conditioned by certain behaviours.

Cultural expectations to submit to the will of a husband may prevent someone from seeking help. They may have feelings of shame, and a sense of duty to continue in their relationship, despite the abuse.

Elderly woman being emotionally controlled

Can coercive control be prevented?

There is no way to prevent the decisions that people make, but you can be aware of the signs that someone is being subject to coercive control, so that you can try to call it out, report it or provide help.

Coercive control is a criminal offence in the UK. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 denotes that it is an offence to perpetrate controlling or coercive behaviour, where the perpetrator and the victim are personally connected. This means intimate partners, ex-partners and family members who live together. The offender can spend up to five years in prison for coercive control if they are found to be guilty.

Looking out for signs of coercive control early on in relationships can prevent issues from becoming more deep-rooted.

How is coercive control reported?

As much of coercive control is emotional and psychological, it can be hard to prove that it has happened, which puts a large number of women off reporting it, for fear of not being believed. Government guidance outlines some of the evidence that can be gathered to help to build a case and prove that coercive behaviour has occurred:

  • Emails, text messages and telephone records, demonstrating the frequency of calls or the content of messages. You can read more about online abuse by visiting here.
  • Photos of physical assault injuries.
  • Recordings of emergency calls.
  • CCTV.
  • Voice recordings.
  • Medical records.
  • Witness statements, perhaps from neighbours, family or friends.
  • Any abuse that occurs on social media.
  • Bank records that show money transfers to the offender.
  • Written records.

Victims may also be scared of the repercussions of the offender. Nevertheless, there are many ways that help can be provided, so that you do not have to continue to be subject to controlling behaviours. If you are a victim of coercive control, or you believe that someone is a victim, you can report it in the following ways:

  • Report it to the police on 999. The police may give the offender a warning, or they may arrest them. If they can gather enough evidence, they will transfer the case to the Crown Prosecution Service. This can result in a sentence and/or restarting order if they are found to be guilty.
  • You can apply to the Family Court for an injunction to protect you from that person, which will bar them from coming to your house or within a certain proximity to you.

You can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 200 0247. This is not equivalent to reporting an offence, but trained operators can offer advice and guidance to help you feel safer.

Who can support with instances of coercive control?

The following organisations can offer support with domestic abuse and violence, including coercive control:

  • Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline offers support, advice and information about your rights and your options. They support victims and survivors.
  • Rights of Women offers confidential support and advice for women who are impacted by domestic abuse.
  • Respond helps to support people with learning disabilities who have experienced abuse.
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About the author

Rose Winter

Rose Winter

Rose is a qualified teacher with six years of experience teaching in secondary schools and sixth forms across London. Before this, she worked as a communications officer in the Cabinet Office. Outside of work, Rose can be found researching topics of interest and spending time abroad.



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