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What Is Coercive Control? Recognising The Signs And Getting Help

Sadly, domestic abuse in relationships is all too common, with 25% of women and 14% of men being subjected to domestic abuse at least once in their lives.

However, these statistics don’t paint the complete, horrifying picture. There are, in fact, countless more cases of domestic abuse that go undocumented simply because they aren’t as obvious — neither to the victim nor to the justice system. 

This kind of subtle domestic abuse is known as coercive and controlling behaviour

Usually, victims of coercive control don’t even know that their partners are subjecting them to domestic abuse. But, of course, this is not the survivor’s fault. On the contrary, denial, rationalising, and self-blame are common coping mechanisms while surviving such malicious forms of domestic abuse.

This post will help you understand what coercive control is, how to recognise the signs, and validate that little voice at the back of your head that pleads “something doesn’t feel right.” 

What Is Coercive Control? – The Legal Definition

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse. Other forms of domestic abuse, such as physical violence and controlling behaviour, may also accompany it. In fact, coercive control is present in most domestic abuse cases. 

However, coercive control is much less visible, making it more dangerous for the victim. Not only that, but the legal system has also had a difficult time defining coercive control, which has also hindered its ability to deal with such cases effectively. 

Fortunately, the Family Procedure Rules 2010 Practice Direction 12J set forth the following definition of coercive control: 

“Coercive behaviour means an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation, and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim.” 

As such, coercive control typically involves patterns or continuous manipulation tactics to physically and emotionally dominate the victim. 

In abusive relationships, coercive control is the gateway to other forms of domestic abuse, including physical violence. By this point, though, the victim has become so psychologically and mentally wounded that they are unlikely to seek out any help. Simultaneously, the victim becomes more and more dependent on the abuser, making it much more difficult to escape. 

How to Recognise Coercive Control? 15 Tell-Tale Signs

Since coercive control isn’t as overt as physical violence, victims often don’t realise that they are experiencing it. Either they accept it as normal, blame themselves for their partner’s outburst, or outright refuse to accept that their partner could ever do anything to harm them. 

To reiterate, though, the fault does not lie with the victim and never will

Domestic abusers who employ coercive control tactics do it so meticulously and gradually that their victims don’t catch on — not until it is too late. 

In fact, the beginnings of such abusive relationships often involve a lot of love-bombing and grand gestures of love. However, once the abuser emotionally entraps their partner, their entire demeanour suddenly changes. 

Here are some of the coercive control tactics that abusers often employ. 

Isolating you from friends and family

Controlling partners often try to separate you from your loved ones or reduce your interactions with them. This way, they prevent you from reaching out to them for support. 

They may do this by monitoring your phone, spreading rumours about you, or making you move away from family. Not only that, but they may even start limiting your socialising time, so you spend every waking hour with them and no one else. 

Monitoring everything you do

Abusers exert control by making themselves seem like they know all about you. They may accomplish this by installing cameras or recording equipment in your home and, in some cases, employing two-way surveillance to communicate with you at home during the day.

In some ways, this is their way of saying, “you can’t hide from me; I’m always watching you.” 

Denying your autonomy and freedom

Someone attempting to exercise coercive control may attempt to limit your freedom of movement and independence. They may do this by: 

  • Preventing you from going to work or school
  • Limiting your access to methods of travel
  • Following you to places or stalking you 
  • Withholding your phone
  • Demanding access to all your social media 

Gaslighting

The abuser has an unending need to be right even when they are mistaken and control victims by making them doubt their reality. This is known as gaslighting.

Here’s an example: imagine your partner made plans with you to go out to dinner. When they return from work, they become angry at you for not cooking dinner. 

Confused, you ask what happened to the dinner plans you had made earlier. But they deny ever having had such a conversation, making you doubt your sanity and reality. This would be considered coercive and controlling behaviour from a partner.

Humiliating, degrading, or dehumanising you

Abusers manipulate you into never leaving them or reporting them by maliciously bullying you. This includes continuous criticism, pointing out your flaws, and insulting you. 

Consequently, this bullying makes you feel worthless and damages your self-esteem, so you become even more dependent on them for validation and approval. 

Limiting your financial freedom

Another prominent identifier of coercive control is when a partner tries to control your finances. For example, they might try to keep you from having access to a credit card – or altogether restrict you from having a bank account. 

An abuser may also try to limit your financial freedom by:

  • Keeping you on a strict budget (one that’s only enough to cover essentials such as food and clothing)
  • Keeping financial assets from you
  • Vigilantly tracking what you are spending money on

Reinforcing traditional gender roles

Abusers also display a pattern of asserting control by using traditional gender roles to confine their partners to their homes. For example, they may coerce you to obey traditional roles such as cooking, cleaning and general house maintenance. 

They might also go as far as arguing that women are supposed to stay home while the breadwinner – a man – goes out and earns, further limiting their access to the world. This could also lead to a depletion of one’s social life causing further isolation.

Controlling aspects of your health

Your abuser may even try to control aspects of your health. They can do this by putting you on strict diets, regulating the medicines you are taking, and the medical care you are receiving.

Another health-controlling tactic might be keeping track of your eating and sleeping schedule by observing any physical activity. This is, essentially, a way for your abuser to hinder the control you exercise over your body, and it may make you feel like your body does not belong to you.

Turning your kids against you

An abusive partner might try to turn your kids against you by belittling you in front of them or bad-mouthing you to them. By weaponising them in this manner, they may try to make you feel powerless.

Abusers deliberately try to minimise the number of people in their partner’s life. This type of isolation ensures that the victim has few spaces besides their relationship, thus ensuring that the abuser remains the primary focus of their partner’s life.

Threatening or isolating your pets

Threatening violence against your pets or children or your authority over them is another tactic an abuser may use, especially if other coercion methods fail. This may include:

  • Threatening to harm your children or pets
  • Overriding your authority by making important decisions for them without your consent
  • Threatening to get rid of your pets

Regulating sexuality 

Regulating their partner’s sexuality and sexual relationships is an extremely common coercive control tactic. First, they create a power dynamic to ensure that their partner can never withdraw consent. This could include threats of divorce, emotional manipulation, or countless other negative consequences if the victim does not comply. 

For this reason, sexual coercion may seem consensual to an outsider and even to the victim themself. But, in reality, the abuser is forcing their partner to:

  • Have sex a certain amount of times each week
  • Perform certain sexual activities with which they are not comfortable
  • Take sexual pictures and videos
  • Have sex without the use of a condom
  • Undergo plastic surgery to amplify certain physical features 
  • Lose or gain weight according to their preference

Jealousy or possessiveness

Jealousy is a natural human emotion, but the coercive controller takes it too far. Their jealousy extends not only towards your friends or a random stranger you’ve chatted to but even your family. 

Such controlling partners will complain about you spending too much time with your family and friends. They will even go as far as falsely accusing their partner of cheating. 

Consequently, the victim will feel guilty and blame themselves for not spending enough time with their partners. Eventually, they will completely cut off their social and familial ties until the only person in their life is their abusive partner. 

Depriving you of basic needs

With such extensive control over their partner’s life, a coercive controller can easily deprive them of basic needs. This includes: 

  • Not allowing you to eat what or how much you want, especially since they control your finances
  • Depriving you of sleep
  • Restricting your access to the internet
  • Threatening to kick you out of the house
  • Isolating you from your friends and family (remember: social interactions are a basic human need
  • Restricting your mobility by not allowing you to drive or take the bus

Physical violence

Coercive control encompasses a lot of non-visible signs of abuse. However, that doesn’t mean that it is exclusive from physical violence. 

In fact, 63% of coercive control cases also feature physical violence as well as emotional manipulation.

Learn more about domestic abuse and harassment and toxic relationships with Austin Kemp.

Making threats of physical violence

Threats of physical violence are just as much a form of domestic abuse as is actual physical violence. For example, if your partner constantly threatens physical violence towards you, your children, your pets, or even property, it would make you perpetually anxious. 

As such, you would start doing everything in your power to avoid physical violence. But, alas, nothing you do will diminish the threat. After all, you’re not responsible for someone else losing their temper. 

Is Coercive Control a Crime?

Coercive control is a legal offence and therefore is against the law in the United Kingdom and some other countries. This wasn’t always the case until a few years ago, when legislation passed in 2015. 

Historically, domestic abuse cases have always been dependent on hard-hitting, clear evidence of violence or danger to the victim’s life. Not only that, but the legal system often saw domestic abuse cases as “isolated incidents,” whereas coercive control is a repeating pattern..” 

Fortunately, though, things are taking a turn for the better. 

Over the past decade, there has been international advocacy to define, recognise, and illegalise coercive control. In 2015, England and Wales were among the first nations to recognise controlling behaviour in relationships as a legal offence. Specifically, coercive behaviour was made punishable with a five years sentence. 

Over the next few years, other countries began to follow suit. This includes Scotland, Ireland, and a few U.S. states. However, there is still a long way to go.

Since it is a punishable crime in many European countries, you should take action against it immediately. If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic abuse in the form of coercive control, email us at mail@austinkemp.co.uk, or call us at 0333 311 0925.

How to Get Help In a Coercive And Controlling Relationship

Escaping an abusive relationship can seem impossible at times, especially when children are involved. However, you don’t have to bear the abuse just because you want to minimise casualties. 

Here are some ways you can finally take that leap of faith and reclaim your life: 

  • Maintain communications with your friends, family, or support system, even if your abusive partner tries to convince you otherwise. People in your life should know what you have to endure so they can keep checking up on you. 
  • As suggested in our blog post on gaslighting, document anything and everything that shows proof of your partner’s abuse, such as texts or medical bills. This will prove extremely useful while building your legal case
  • Contact your region’s domestic violence helpline
  • Seek a therapist who can help you recover from your emotional trauma. They can also help testify against your abuser. 
  • Establish an escape plan that you or your kids can use when your partner becomes excessively violent. Your kids, especially, should know where to go for help. 
  • Always have a safety net in place where you can go for refuge. This could be a close friend, a family member’s house or a refuge.
  • Get legal help by contacting our legal experts through email (mail@austinkemp.co.uk) or phone (0333 311 0925)

Conclusion: Have You Been A Victim Of Coercive Control?

Not all forms of domestic abuse are physical or even as obvious as a black eye or bruised lip. In fact, emotional and psychological abuse is just as dangerous, if not more. 

Most people don’t understand what coercive control is and whether they’re a victim of it. How can you seek help when you don’t even know you need it?

Hopefully, though, this post has helped you open your eyes and given you the push you need to reclaim your life. 

More articles you may be interested in:

Get in touch with our family lawyers for advice 

For more information, contact our expert solicitors on 0845 862 5001 or email mail@austinkemp.co.uk.

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03rd May 2022

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