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Coercive Control

This form of Domestic Abuse has been described as “the most dangerous” form of abuse. The victim is made to feel afraid, controlled, dependent, isolated and worthless. Coercive Control can occur between a couple in an intimate relationship or family members. Coercive Control does not have to include violence.

Coercive control is an 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.

This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent on the abusive partner by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive control creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that pervades all elements of a victim’s life. It works to limit their human rights by depriving them of their liberty and reducing their ability for action. Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage. As he says: “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”

Coercive Control behaviours may include:

  • Isolating a victim
  • Depriving a victim of their basic needs
  • Monitoring time – e.g. only allowing a short time to take children to school
  • Monitoring use of car/fuel
  • Monitoring a person via spyware or online communications
  • Controlling sleep, what they can wear, what they can eat, where the person can go or see
  • Attending appointments and insisting on driving the victim anywhere they need to go
  • Depriving the person of finances; preventing them from working
  • Denying the person access to medical or other support services
  • Putting them down and making the person feel worthless
  • Degrading the person by humiliating them
  • Setting tasks that have to be completed, with threats of violence if not
  • Forcing the person to engage in criminal activities, including child abuse/neglect
  • Financial abuse
  • Threats to hurt or kill
  • Threats to harm or kill children
  • Threats to reveal private information, ‘outing’
  • Gas lighting
  • Assault
  • Criminal damage
  • Rape
  • Preventing access to transport
  • Threats to or harm to pets

This list is not exhaustive; these behaviours are carried out to humiliate and punish the victim; the victim is deprived of their independence and can feel as though they are a hostage; not knowing how the abuser will react to what the victim says or does. The victim is in a constant state of high alert.

Coercive Control is a Criminal Offence and should be reported to the Police.

Coercive Control from a distance

The controlling behaviour can happen even if the perpetrator is away from the victim, as the victim can be monitored via the phone or social media; the threat of violence is enough to ensure that the victim will do as they are told.

Coercive behaviour can be perpetrated by anyone regardless of age, gender and ethnicity.

Often perpetrators of Coercive Control can be seen by others as caring and kind; this makes it easier for professionals to collude with the perpetrator, which re-victimises the one being abused and gives the perpetrator more power by telling the victim that they are not believed. If a victim hits back in self-defence or fear this can be utilised by a perpetrator, the Police can be called, and the victim is cited as an abuser.

Impact on the victim

The impact upon the victim of Coercive Control is immense; the victim feels as though they are ‘walking on egg shells’ for fear of what the perpetrator might do. Living in a state of high alert because of fear of harm to them self or the children can have a long-term detrimental effect on the victim’s health psychologically and physically.

Impact on children

Children are affected by the domestic abuse that they witness, or that they are aware of; seeing the victim upset following an incident is difficult for young children to cope with. Sometimes children can be used to ‘support’ the perpetrator in belittling the victim. If the children live in fear for their own safety, it is in their best interests to side with the perpetrator in order to survive.

Getting help

If you are in a controlling relationship and need help, call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247. Visit the Get Help page of this website to find more information about local and national support services. Or visit the Women's Aid website for more information.