Controlling and Coercive Behaviour: What Is It & What Can You Do About It?

lucie-tauveron
Lucie TauveronLegal Insights Contributor
Updated on 1st December 2023

Controlling and coercive behaviour is a type of domestic violence. It’s a pattern where one person tries to control, manipulate or scare their partner, ex-partner, or even a family member.

coercive-and-controlling-behaviour

In this article, we’re going to unpack what coercive control is and how it might affect someone, or someone close to them, without even realising it. We’ll look at the different tactics involved, how to spot signs of controlling and coercive behaviour and what steps you can take to get help.

This article is intended to provide general information, but it’s important to note that each case of coercive and controlling behaviour is unique and may look different. If you have questions or concerns after reading it, please reach out to one of the helplines or charities listed or seek legal advice to better understand your rights.

Statistics on controlling and coercive behaviour

In the year ending March 2022, the police recorded 41,626 offences of coercive control, an increase of over 60% compared to offences recorded in the year ending March 2020. 

However, these statistics may not be reflective of the severity of the problem as many individuals do not report instances of coercive control, or other abuse, which occurs in their household for a range of reasons. 

Coercive behaviour is not something to be taken lightly. It can have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the victim, as well as long-term implications for those witnessing the behaviour regularly, for example children. 

Therefore, it’s important for everyone to be aware of what coercive and controlling behaviour is, what it looks like, and what steps can be taken to protect victims and their loved ones from abusers. 

What is coercive and controlling behaviour?


In the United Kingdom, coercive and controlling behaviour is addressed in both The Serious Crime Act 2015 and Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

For coercive behaviour to be recognised under law: 

  1. The behaviour has to happen more than twice, and be an ongoing trend, not a one-off;

  2. The people are involved should be personally connected, for example family members or in an intimate relationship; 

  3. The behaviour has to seriously affect the person on the receiving end. It could be that they’re afraid violence might happen, or it’s causing serious distress affecting their daily life; 

  4. The person doing the controlling or coercing must know or should know that it’s seriously affecting the other person. 

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 also provides additional legal measure to the pre-existing legislation that reinforces coercive and controlling behaviour as a criminal offence and expands the range of certain criteria to reflect the complexity of domestic abuse cases by: 

  • Applying the law to partners, ex-partners or family members and removing the requirement of both parties to live together;

  • Enabling ex-partners to bring a claim of coercive and controlling behaviour post-separation;

  • Recognising psychological and emotional harm as a form of abuse.

Coercive and controlling behaviour is a criminal offence. Perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour can face penalties including prison sentences of up to 5 years or fines. Furthermore, restraining orders can be put in place to protect the victim from further harm. 

Is coercive control the same as gaslighting?

Gaslighting involves manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity, perceptions or reality. The goal of this is to make the victim question their judgments and exacerbate the control the manipulator has over them. 

Coercive control is behaviour that seeks to get control of, and dominate, an individual, in order to establish dominance and maintain control over the victim over time.

Both behaviours are similar and can co-exist in a relationship. They both involve manipulation tactics to assert dominance over their victim. However, coercive control is a broader concept which involves many types of manipulation, and gaslighting is a technique which is more specific to a certain type of targeting.

Indeed, coercive control could include gaslighting as part of their overall controlling behaviour.

What are the 10 types of coercive control?

There are various patterns which can be witnessed in coercive behaviour, and they often overlap. To help you identify those patterns better, below is a list of 10 types of coercive control which are often witnessed in a controlling relationship:

Types of Coercive Control

Examples

Isolation

Keeping victims away from their family, friends, or other support channels to make them more dependent on the perpetrator.

Monitoring

Tracking their location, reading their text messages or monitoring their online activities.

Financial

Controlling the victims access to finances, including how much they spend and what they buy. This might include only giving them a set amount of money per month or keeping control of their credit or debit cards.

Threats

Threatening physical harm or violence with the intention of frightening the victim.

Emotional Abuse

This can include criticism, degradation or humiliation which undermines the victim's self-confidence.

Gaslighting

Behaviour that distort the victim’s perception of reality and makes them doubt their own feelings, perceptions and memories.

Sexual Coercion

Pressuring the victim into unwanted sexual activities.

Control of Daily Activities

Imposing rules as to what the victim can wear, where they can go, and who they can interact with, which limits the victim’s independence.

Stalking

This can include cyberstalking or physically following the victim around to keep track of them or intimidate them.

Conditional Love

Using words of affirmation and affection as a reward for 'compliance' with controlling behaviour, which reinforces a sense of dependency.

The following list is not exhaustive, there are other types of behaviours which can contribute to coercive behaviour. However, this list is a good starting point to identify the combinations of tactics often used by the perpetrator. Those can escalate over time, making their victim more and more dependent on their partner.

How do you know if someone is controlling you?

There are different things to look out for to determine if someone is controlling you. Some patterns can be recognised as:

  • Jealousy and possessiveness;

  • Controlling your finances;

  • Using degrading words to hurt you or put you down;

  • Telling you where you can/can’t go, who you can/can’t see or even what you can/can’t wear;

  • Isolating you from your loved ones;

  • Constantly monitoring your phone, such as calls or texts;

  • Controlling what you eat, drink, or wear.

Signs of coercive control

After reading this article you might recognise patterns of behaviour commonly associated with coercive behaviour either in your household or for someone you know.

Common signs to look out when you feel like you might be in a controlling or coercive relationship are instances where:

  • You are afraid of your partner;

  • You feel dependent on your partner in terms of self-esteem;

  • You feel unsafe and threatened;

  • Your partner uses your insecurities against you;

  • You feel as if your self-esteem has vanished over time;

  • You feel like you lack independence either financially or personally;

  • You feel as if you only experience love and support when you comply with your partner’s wishes.

How do you prove controlling and coercive behaviour?

Proving coercive behaviour can be challenging as there is little tangible evidence. However, there are things to look out for and document over time to show patterns of controlling behaviour. Here are some ideas of things to look out for and save to prove such behaviour

  1. Take photos/videos - If there are any injuries or physical damage caused by your partner’s behaviour, take photographs to document the following.

  2. Save communications - any emails or text messages which show the abuse. 

  3. Keep a journal - Including dates, times and descriptions of actions and details of what happened. Make sure to note your feelings throughout the journal, to be able to later rely on the impact the behaviour has on your mental health.

  4. Professional documentation - If you are regularly seeing a doctor or a therapist, request written documentation of their observations. Expert evidence will attest to the impact on your mental and physical health.

  5. Witnesses - If you have any friends or family who have witnessed instances of controlling behaviour, ask them to write a written statement stating the details of what they have seen.

Further steps to take if you feel threatened or in danger would be:

  • Report to authorities - In situations of immediate danger you should call 999 and the police will provide you with assistance and will document the claim.

  • Domestic violence hotlines - If you need advice on how to behave and protect yourself.

  • Legal advice - Consult a lawyer specialising in family law or domestic violence. They will provide you with guidance as to what options you might have regarding a potential claim against your partner.

  • Restraining order - If it is necessary for your safety, consult a legal professional to understand the process of getting a restraining order.

What to do if you’re being controlled or coerced

Many individuals being controlled or coerced do not voice it to the authorities for various reasons. Common ones are the following:

  • Not wanting to upset children or family;

  • Financial concerns;

  • Not wanting to burden other people with their issues;

  • Concerns as to how this might affect their lifestyle;

  • Worrying about how they could seek protection if their partner found out more extreme cases.

However, we want to make it clear that control and coercion is a criminal offence, and there are things that you can put in place to regain control over the situation and prioritise your safety including:

  • Acknowledging the situation. This is the first and most important step;

  • Reaching out for support;

  • Creating a safety plan for yourself;

  • Establishing boundaries;

  • Protecting your online searches whether it is using a password or being cautious of sharing your location;

  • Considering temporary housing, such as staying with friends or family;

  • Seeking professional help or contacting a helpline to get personalised advice.

Restraining orders for coercive and controlling behaviour

This is an overview of how restraining orders may be relevant to cases of coercive control.

There are 3 types of restraining orders:

  1. Emergency Protective Orders – these are temporary orders issued quickly in emergency cases;

  2. Temporary Restraining Orders – these are initial orders and will be valid until a court hearing can be held;

  3. Permanent Restraining Orders – these are issued in a court hearing and will last for a time period specified by the court.

How do I apply for a restraining order?

  • Make sure you are eligible. You must be eligible to obtain protection through the court system. To make sure of this you could seek legal assistance.

  • Apply for an injunction This is the first step to obtaining a restraining order. This can be done with support from a legal advisor who will be aware of which documents to use and the process of collecting evidence.

  • Court proceedings – the court will consider your application and consider the evidence and will make a judgment as to whether to provide a restraining order.

If the restraining order is violated, the violator can face legal consequences (including arrest).

Domestic Abuse Helplines & Charities

If you or someone is experiencing coercive control, there are helplines and charities which can provide support and information to help you. 

Make sure to seek help from associations specific to your country as services and advice can vary.

In the UK, you can reach out to:

What to do if you’re accused of controlling and coercive behaviour

This can be a scary situation to find yourself in – but make sure to approach this with calm and sensitivity. 

These are the following guidelines you can consider when assessing your position:

  1. Stay calm – an emotional reaction seems natural, however, this can make the situation more challenging for yourself.

  2. Listen and reflect – try to understand where the accusations come from and consider whether some of your actions can be seen as controlling or coercive. 

  3. Understand – understand each allegation made against you to better address them individually and provide clarification on your actions.

  4. Respect – if there are any restrictions in place (such as a restraining order) respect them. If not, the situation will only become worse. 

  5. Gather evidence – to support your side of the story (this can be the same evidence as for the victim)

  6. Be cooperative – whether it is in legal proceedings or in mediation, show willingness to address the issue at hand.

  7. Reflection – use the experience to better self-reflect and implement changes. Take positive steps to address behaviours which might not have been appropriate. 

All these pointers are general, and every case of coercive behaviour accusation is different. Therefore, seeking legal advice in your specific circumstances could be very beneficial in understanding the seriousness of the claim and how it can be remedied.

Seeking help with controlling and coercive behaviour

Recognising signs of controlling behaviour is key for individuals and authorities. The effects of controlling and coercive behaviour on a victim can have lasting effects and rapidly evolve into further types of domestic violence, therefore it is key to intercept it at an early stage. 

If you suspect you are being coerced and controlled, it’s important to seek help right away from the police, or other specialist domestic abuse and violence organisations like Women’s Aid, Men’s Advice Line, or Karma Nirvana.

There are also legal options available to you, including applying for a civil court order to stop a person from harassing you or hurting you.

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