What is coercive control?
Coercive control can be defined as an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation, isolation, intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, frighten and control. Abusive men will often ‘micromanage’ every aspect of their partner’s life, allowing her little choice or freedom. Coercive and controlling behaviour has been a criminal offence in the UK since the introduction of the Serious Crime Act 2015. However, there have been few successful prosecutions. It is an offence that is very difficult to prove because it often encompasses countless small acts that aren’t witnessed outside of the relationship. It is also an offence that seems poorly understood by the criminal justice system. Broken jaws and black eyes are far easier for the legal system to understand and deal with. Coercive control is also difficult for the survivor because it undermines confidence and confuses. Women abused in this way may often believe they’re in some way to blame for their abuse.
“Asking clients – ‘Is there someone in your life making you afraid or controlling what you do or say?’ promises an even more profound awakening than asking women about violence.”
– Stark, 2007[i]
Coercive controllers often believe they own their intimate partner’s. Claiming ownership enables them to justify controlling every aspect of their partners’ life. Normally a desperate insecurity drives their behaviour, a terrible fear of losing their partner and an obsessive need to prevent this from happening. Controlling their partner may give them a feeling of power that they desperately need to manage their own feelings of unworthiness. Coercive controllers are often highly jealous and possessive, but not always. They sometimes operate from the entitled belief that they have a right to protect their own property – their partner being their property as they see it.
Tactics used by coercive controllers
(Lavishing someone with attention to manipulate and influence them.)
A common tactic of abusive and controlling men is to ‘love bomb’ early in the relationship. Moving the relationship on quickly, declaring love early and being very intense in the courtship phase coerces women into believing their partner is devoted. It can be flattering but it is highly manipulative.
“I was intoxicated by his passion for me – he wanted and needed me so much and this made me feel very special.”
The ‘terrible childhood’ and other sob stories
Earlier in the relationship, the terrible childhood or evil ex-girlfriend may be mentioned as a way of eliciting sympathy and excusing abusive behaviour. Women are often drawn in by these sob stories and want to do all they can to make up for his neglectful mother or abusive father. The terrible childhood is likely to be true; most abusive men seem to have had unhappy childhoods. Bad childhoods often create narcissists. Knowing this, their partner may feel motivated to be more tolerant of poor behaviour and try harder to show love and compassion to make up for his terrible past. She may want to prove she won’t cheat on him like his ex-girlfriend (this probably isn’t true), so she may go along with his need to monitor her movements and check her phone. She may excuse his terrible jealousy and isolation tactics. Many of the stories used to elicit sympathy are complete lies.
Women are more easily controlled when isolated from support networks of family, friends and colleagues. Abusive men use a variety of methods to isolate – from sulking when their partner socialises with friends – being jealous around other men, to stopping their partner working, or being so rude when she invites family to the house that she doesn’t dare do this often. An isolated woman is very vulnerable to manipulative and controlling behaviours, and she has no ‘sounding boards’ or point of reference.
Reinforcing traditional gender roles
“If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused.”
– Horley, 2017[ii]
Expecting his partner to stay at home, care for children and carry out menial household tasks while he works outside the home is common amongst controlling men. He may claim to be ‘head of the household’ and, as such, make all the important decisions. He might give his partner endless lists of household tasks and get angry if his dinner is not on the table on his return from work. Behaving like this will reinforce his perceived superiority and close down his partner’s options.
Name-calling, ‘put-downs’ and criticism
Once the relationship is established, abusive men may begin using criticism and ‘put-downs’ as a means of control. These criticisms and ‘put-downs’ are sometimes so subtle that the woman may not interpret them as being abusive – but even though she may not be consciously aware, her sub-conscious is likely to detect the criticism and make her feel terrible. This abuse can also be more obvious and will often focus on accusing the woman of being stupid or criticising her appearance.
“For most of our relationship, he referred to me as ‘fucking stupid slag’ or variations of this. It wasn’t until I left that I fully realised how terrible this was and how much damage it caused me.”
(Manipulating another by psychological means to cause that person to question their sanity.)
Abusive men may ‘gaslight’ by questioning their partners’ memories, denying events, trivialising their feelings, and misrepresenting situations to confuse and trick. This is an insidious form of psychological coercive control that makes survivors question their perception, judgement and sanity. It is highly undermining and women subjected to it might really believe they are losing their minds. A common gaslighting tactic is to hide her car keys and suggest she is losing her memory when she’s searching for them.
Controlling access to money
Financial abuse is almost always a factor of coercive control. Once access to finances is controlled, women’s options, particularly her ability to leave, are massively curtailed. In losing control of finances, women lose control of many other aspects of their lives.
Assault is often threatened and sometimes carried out. Coercive controllers may use assault and fear of assault to manipulate. Once his partner knows that this method of control might be used, he can give her subtle reminders such as a clenched jaw or an angry look to frighten her into behaving as he expects.
Abusive men may step up their coercive control if they fear their partner might leave
The cancer diagnosis
When men are worried about losing control of the relationship, they’ll regularly claim to have cancer – this is very common and they will sometimes go to great lengths to embellish their claims by listing manufactured symptoms to their GP, who may refer them for further testing. Few women will feel able to leave when they believe their partner has a cancer diagnosis. Men may also purport to be in great pain and deliberately lose a significant amount of weight to help trick women into believing they are genuinely ill. They may tell their partner’s family and friends who might encourage her to look after him. The terminal illness lie can prove impossible to walk away from.
Promises to change
When concerned that their partner might leave, abusive men may manipulate by admitting their real issues and making promises to change. These promises can be difficult to resist.
“I know I drink too much but I’ve checked in with AA, I’m doing this for you.”
“I know I get angry, but I’ll go for anger management, I can’t live without you, I’d rather die.”
“We can go for counselling together; I’ll do anything not to lose you.”
The reality is that even if they are intent on change, (but often they’re not), domestic abuse is about power and control, and so addressing anger problems or challenging alcoholism will rarely stop the abuse. However, women are often drawn in by these promises of change and may be ‘guilt-tripped’ by the perpetrator if they consider leaving despite such promises.
Threats of suicide
Threats of suicide and suicide attempts are common actions of abusive men. Sometimes suicide is carried out. The terror of seeing a partner standing on a chair, a belt around his neck threatening to jump is enough to persuade most women that they need to do what they’re told and give up the dream of fleeing the relationship. Even though he’s making the threat against himself, the risk of a suicide attempt will be too appalling for most women to contemplate. It is the ultimate in emotional manipulation and a highly persuasive tactic. If there are children in the family, the threat of suicide will impact on them, too, adding an additional sinister dimension.
Threats to kill
But it’s not just threats against themselves; abusive men will often threaten to kill their partner as a means of control, especially when there is a threat that the relationship will end. Sometimes there is a constant reminder – “If you ever leave, I’ll kill you.” At other times it’s said when there is a real fear of losing control – if he fears his partner may leave. We know that domestic homicide happens all too frequently and that women are most in danger at the point of leaving, so it’s no surprise that this is a highly effective and powerful threat, very likely to increase his control over his partner’s behaviour. Women will know this won’t always be an empty threat and the consequences of the threat being carried out are terrifying. When children are involved, they are regularly included in the death threats. Women are often capable of a high degree of self-sacrifice when they fear their children are in danger. They are often successfully persuaded to sacrifice their freedom and happiness by staying with the perpetrator if they believe this is necessary for him to withdraw his threat to murder the children. Threats to kill are so commonly made by abusive men that they feature on domestic abuse risk assessment forms. Making threats to kill is extraordinarily abusive and menacing, and also a highly effective persuasive strategy. Threats to kill are difficult to police. The threat alone does not constitute a criminal offence – it is also necessary to prove he meant the threat to be believed. Proving someone’s intentions can be very tricky, so few prosecutions arise from these death threats.
(Sharing private sexual images of another without consent and with intent to cause distress.)
‘Revenge porn’ is an increasingly common form of abuse and the threat of having intimate pictures sent to family, friends and colleagues, or uploaded to the internet, is a powerful weapon used by abusive men. It is a criminal offence with a maximum prison sentence of two years, perhaps not long enough when the consequences for the victim are so profound. Just the threat of this is an act of intimate terror and likely to induce obedience in the survivor. Some men will quite deliberately obtain intimate images either overtly or covertly early in a relationship. By doing this, they possess a powerful means of manipulation, to be deployed as and when necessary.
Children are used by perpetrators of abuse in a variety of different ways to manipulate and persuade their partners. Abusive men will seemingly not care about the damage caused when they emotionally burden children as part of their abuse.
“Mummy doesn’t love me anymore and I’m really sad and upset because I love her.”
“Mummy wants to kick me out and I have nowhere to live and no money to buy food.”
Putting children in this situation will have two advantages for the perpetrator: first, the children may try to influence their mother to behave as their father expects; secondly, she will be anxious to avoid this abuse of them, knowing what damage it is causing, and so may want to do what’s demanded of her to save her children from further emotional harm. Threats may also be made to keep the children should she try to leave and, knowing how professionals are often persuaded and manipulated, too, this can be a very real threat.
Return of love bombing
The ‘love bombing’ that is often seen early in the relationship can be deployed again to target a woman threatening to leave. Protestations of undying love can be confusing and disorientating; claims that he’s nothing without her and can’t live without her can trigger empathy in survivors. This behaviour can take a more sinister turn when he tells her that if he can’t have her no one else can or, if she leaves, he will always find her. These obsessive gestures of love mixed with abuse are alarming and frightening – they can cause the survivor to feel completely trapped and believe she has no options. This behaviour is likely to persuade the survivor to stay in the relationship and behave as she is expected.
Coercive controllers can be highly dangerous
A history of physical assault was considered to be the biggest risk factor for very serious assault or murder – the theory of escalating physical abuse. More recent research has indicated that it is the coercive controlling abusers who pose the greatest risk of murdering their partners.
A study published in 2021 of 358 domestic homicide reviews by Dr Jane Monckton-Smith[iii], of the University of Gloucestershire, showed that control was seen in 92% of domestic killings, obsession in 94%, and isolation from family and friends in 78%. These types of behaviour can lead to a victim having no life of her own and no privacy from her abuser, who will frequently monitor her day and night.
Dr Monckton-Smith identified an eight-step pattern leading up to the killing in almost all the domestic homicides that she had researched. The eight steps were identified as:
- A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator
- The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship
- The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control
- A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control – for example, when the relationship ends, or when the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty
- Escalation – an increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics such as stalking or threatening suicide
- The perpetrator has a change in thinking – choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide
- Planning – the perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone
- Homicide – the perpetrator kills his partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children. (Monkton Smith, 202110)
How coercive control affects women
- Depression, anxiety, stress.
- Feelings of helplessness and fear.
- Feeling isolated and being trapped in a toxic relationship.
- Experience of toxic guilt that accompanies self-blame.
- Low self-esteem and poor self-care.
- Being more vulnerable to mistreatment from others.
- Loss of employment and financial freedoms.
Tips for surviving the coercive controller
- Many men use coercive control tactics. If the abuse is not serious and there is no intention to leave the relationship, there are ways of managing this abuse and standing up to it. However, we are concentrating here on the more serious abuse that is not possible to live with or change.
- Understanding these persuasive tactics used by abusers can be the key to dismantling their power. When women know the games abusive manipulators play to trick or frighten them into behaving in a certain way, the games lose some of their effectiveness and women can understand that they are not going mad. Education is key!
- Maintaining communication with friends, or other support networks where possible, is very helpful. Good friends can provide a more realistic perspective when you become confused and doubtful due to the abuse.
- Access professional support from a domestic abuse charity if you can. Someone with domestic abuse expertise will provide invaluable support because they will understand all the tactics to which you are being subjected. Having professional support can also help manage your risk.
- Standing up to an abuser and telling them you’re leaving will threaten their feelings of control and encourage them to use more extreme tactics. This is why it is important to carefully plan your leaving the relationship and put a safety plan in place to mitigate any danger.
- Collect evidence of your abuse and record all instances of abuse. Do it safely – you must never be found doing this. Collecting evidence has various uses. You might wish to report the abuse to the police, if so, document your abuse and take photos of injuries, abusive text messages or emails etc. Also because coercive control is confusing and often leads to self-blame, writing about what has happened may give you clarity and a more objective perspective that is essential in helping you to recover.
- Journaling is a helpful tool for recovering from any form of domestic abuse.
“I’d wanted to leave for years; I was emotionally broken by Tom’s control of me. He’d taken charge of every decision in my life. I didn’t feel able to think for myself. I was confused about so much except for one thing – I needed to leave. Tom seemed to read my mind. The first time I properly contemplated leaving, Tom was diagnosed with prostate cancer – well, that’s what he told me and I believed him at the time. I hadn’t told him of my intentions, but he’d always watch me so closely and he must have guessed. I immediately realised I couldn’t leave him with a serious illness and I committed to supporting him. He told me he had various hospital appointments and procedures, but there were no hospital admissions. He told me he was successfully treated but that it could come back at any time. I’m now pretty certain the cancer diagnosis was a lie.
“Two years later, I told him I was leaving. I knew he was having an affair, so I felt brave enough to tell him, imagining he’d be relieved. I was wrong. He became suicidal, and told me I couldn’t do this to him, we were married, and I had no right. He never once said he loved me, it was as if I was his property and he wanted things to remain as they were – him having the freedom to do as he liked, me doing as he expected. Soon after this, I returned home to find Tom standing on a chair in the kitchen with my dressing gown cord around his neck. I was so shocked seeing this. I wanted to believe he wouldn’t have gone through with it, but I felt terrible, and responsible somehow. I thought it was my fault for driving him to this – he told me it was. His antics bought him another year of my life.
The death threat came when I did leave. He didn’t know where I was, I’d just collected a few essentials and fled while he was away for the weekend with his girlfriend. I had blocked him on my phone, but he rang from another number. He only said it once but so clearly and with such intention – “Gemma, you know this is stupid, you either come home today and it will be fine, if you don’t, I will find you and kill you”. My blood ran cold. He didn’t find me so couldn’t touch me physically but instead tore me apart on social media. He was calculatingly manipulative, accusing me of leaving him for another man, that he was confused and heartbroken. He claimed to whoever would listen that I’d been sleeping around for years, taking him for granted and controlling him. I lost friends who believed him. I have a new life now. I like to believe the death threat was a lie too, but I can never feel sure.”
[i] Stark, Evan (2007), Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, Oxford University Press: Oxford
[ii] Horley, Sandra (2017) Power and Control: Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers, Ebury Publishing: London
[iii] Monckton Smith, Jane (2021), In Control – Dangerous Relationships and How They End, Bloomsbury Publishing: London
“This is an exceptionally well written and succinctly informative guide. It provides a wealth of easy to access information which enables readers to identify and understand a wide range of abusive behaviours. It is essential reading for anyone suffering in an abusive relationship but also for those around them, both professionals and friends. The more people who are aware of main features of domestic abuse of women by men, some may appear on the surface as dismissible, the better chance we have as a society to stop domestic abuse and save lives.”
Please click on the link below to buy the book. All proceeds to BWP (domestic abuse charity)