Coercive and Controlling Behaviour

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Coercive and Controlling Behaviour

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a type of domestic abuse involving behaviour designed to manipulate the way the victim acts, thinks and feels. The goal is for the abuser to isolate the victim, exploit them, reduce their independence and regulate their behaviour.

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Abusers will use various tactics such as threats, humiliation, intimidation and physical violence, as well as often working to elicit sympathy from the victim, making themselves out to be someone who needs support and understanding for their harmful behaviour. Professor Evan Stark, an academic and an author on coercive control abuse describes how “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”

Examples of coercive controlling behaviour may include the abuser:

  • Isolating the victim from friends, family and co-workers
  • Controlling what the victim eats and what they wear
  • Monitoring where the victim is and what they are doing
  • Monitoring the victim’s phone calls, text messages and other communications
  • Repeatedly verbally degrading the victim e.g. criticising their looks, income, abilities as a parent etc
  • Controlling the victim’s finances


How common is coercive control?

Figures from the Office of National Statistics in March 2018 revealed that 9052 offences of coercive control were recorded – double the offences from the previous year.

Research commissioned by IBB Law found 34% of people aged 18-65 across the UK had been in a coercive controlling relationship, with 53% having experienced some form of bullying or controlling behaviour from a partner.

The people who took part in our research reported experiencing the following in a current or previous relationship:

  • 26% had a partner who had continually monitored or controlled their spending
  • 27% suspected their partner was spying on them and their communications
  • 30% had a partner who had controlled their activities, including who they could spend time with
  • More than a quarter had been bullied or belittled by a partner for their body size
  • 40% had a partner they believed regularly lied to them
  • 17% had been deprived of food by a partner
  • 23% had a partner who had intentionally destroyed possessions or deleted texts or emails
  • 19% had a partner who had hidden or taken away their phone
  • 10% had questioned their own judgement, memory, perception or sanity during the course of a relationship

Who experiences coercive control?

Coercive control can happen to anyone, with victims coming from all economic and educational backgrounds. Crucially, our research showed that exactly the same percentage of men and women had experienced coercive control in a relationship.

However, some types of coercive controlling behaviour were more commonly experienced by men, including:

  • Suspecting their partner of spying on them (30% of men vs 23% of women)
  • Having their spending monitored or controlled (29% of men vs 22% of women)
  • Being deprived of food (24% of men vs 11% of men)
  • Having possessions intentionally destroyed or important texts and emails deleted (27% of men vs 20% of women)
  • Their phone being hidden or taken away (24% of men vs 14% of women)

Is coercive control illegal in the UK?

Coercive or controlling behaviour within an intimate or family relationship was established as a criminal offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015.

The maximum penalty on conviction for coercive or controlling behaviour is 5 years’ imprisonment or a fine.

Why don’t more people report coercive controlling behaviour?

Our research found that 41% of people who experienced coercive controlling behaviour did nothing about it. There was a significant divide based on the sex of the respondents, with 47% of men and 33% of women saying they had not taken action.

We found that only 25% of people were aware that coercive controlling behaviour is a criminal offence and that 48% either would not report coercive control to police or were unsure whether they would.

Common reasons for people failing to report coercive controlling behaviour included:

  • Worrying about how they would be protected from their partner
  • Concern about how their partner being convicted might impact their family’s lifestyle and reputation
  • Not wanting to split up their family
  • Not wanting to burden others with their problems

Data obtained by the BBC from 33 police forces in England and Wales from January 2016 to July 2018 showed that whilst there were 7,034 arrests only 1,157 cases ended with charges being brought. Nearly 5,000 cases were dropped by police or prosecutors.

Recognising the signs of coercive control

Many people fail to recognise that they are a victim of coercive control, so it’s important to be aware of the signs both for yourself and any loved ones you are concerned about.

Common signs of being in a coercive controlling relationship include where your partner:

  • Makes you afraid
  • Intimidates you, threatens you or otherwise makes you feel unsafe
  • Threatens to leave you or cut you off financially, withholds emotional or physical affection or says they will self-harm if you leave them
  • Limits your independence, personally and/or financially
  • Preys on your vulnerabilities or insecurities
  • Makes you dependant on them for your feelings of self-worth
  • Makes you feel that you “can’t do anything right”
  • Has eroded your self-confidence and self-esteem over time
  • Goes through cycles of increasingly controlling behaviour followed by periods of reconciliation and “making it up to you” and then more controlling behaviour

If you recognise any of these signs, you should seek help as soon as possible.

If you believe you are in immediate danger from your partner, you should call 999 and ask for the police. Coercive control is against the law and domestic abuse should always be taken seriously by the police.

There are various charities who support victims of domestic abuse, including those who have experienced coercive control. These include Refuge (for women and children) and Men’s Advice Line (for male victims). They can offer advice and practical support to help you deal with your situation and make the right choices to protect yourself and your loved ones.

You can also talk to your GP who can advise you on how to access the help and support you need.

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