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Coercive control

Over recent years, the term coercive control has entered mainstream use. It is now commonly accepted that domestic abuse can take many forms including physical, psychological, emotional, sexual and financial.  

It is situation that unfortunately we increasingly encounter in divorce, finances and child arrangements cases. The Archers, Coronation Street and films such as Tyrannosaur have helped to raise awareness of what coercive control is. Rosie Duffield MP also spoke incredibly movingly about her personal experience in the House of Commons in 2019 to raise awareness of this type of abuse. Promoting education about controlling relationships is urgently needed as people may realise that they are being controlled or may recognise it in a friend or relatives relationship and offer support.  

Education is also required to dispel the misconceptions that abound in terms of what constitutes control. The pandemic has alarming resulted in an increase in the incidence of domestic abuse and the statistics remain devastating with two women a week being killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales with one in three women and one in four men being subject to partner abuse.  

This is a critical issue that needs to be highlighted to increase public awareness to reduce the stigma of shame or lack of information about this abuse which can lead to people enduring such behaviour for years.  

What is coercive control?  

There is no legal definition. It is not a single incident. This is a pattern of behaviour that can involve assault, threats, humiliation, intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten a survivor. It can take a subtle, repetitive and even mundane form that can become normalised so that the survivor no longer recognises how much their life has changed.  

Coercive refers to someone being compelled to do something to themselves, this is what makes such abuse particularly pernicious. You can be made to feel fearful of the potential repercussions of even the most minor indiscretions if you defy what is expected of you and what you become conditioned to regard as normal. The speed and scale with which such abuse can take hold can be attributed to the fact it can be framed as rooted in an abuser loving and caring for a survivor and is positioned as coming from a place in your best interests, when in reality it is crushing autonomy and independence. For some people, the volatility of such relationships can sadly become romanticised, and this can lead survivors to defend abusers and make extricating people from such relationship very difficult.   

It is important to appreciate that this abuse is more than being able to provide some examples of unfortunate behaviour. We have all made mistakes in relationships and recent court judgements have highlighted that there is a distinction between people acting regrettably and those being abusive. It is the scale and continuous, all-pervading nature of coercive control which makes it particularly insidious.  

Survivors may speak about always feeling anxious, even in happy moments – the mood can change in a heartbeat, feeling like they are treading on eggshells, having difficulty sleeping, feeling distracted, trapped and isolated and unable able to relax. Friends and family may start to recognise that you are a shadow of your former self and that your personality has been dimmed. 

Is it a crime? 

Yes, coercive control has been a crime since December 2015. The Serious Crime Act made controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship where the behaviour has a serious effect on the victim an offence.  

It is important to appreciate that at the time of the abuse, the parties need to have been living together to fall under the legislation (although campaigners are seeking to widen the definition to include couples that do not live together) and it is not retrospective so only behaviour post December 2015 could constitute an offence.   

The following are all examples of coercive control:  

  • Isolation of the victim from friends and families 

  • Turning family or friends against the victim 

  • Gaslighting 

  • Psychological and emotional abuse, including emotional blackmail 

  • Threats, and acts of, physical and sexual abuse 

  • Stalking and harassment 

  • Digital abuse 

  • Financial and economic abuse 

  • Parental alienation 

  • Intimidation 

Getting help   

If you have a coercively controlling partner, it is vital that you get help as quickly as possible. Please contact our specialist team who can support you and explain the options and protection that are available. Please call 999 if you are in imminent danger. In circumstances where calling the emergency services may inflame the situation, you can press 55 once you have dialled 999 and the emergency services will go to the address from where you have called without you having to say anything. 

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