Coercive control

If you feel controlled, frightened and alone because of the behaviour of your partner, ex or relative, you may be experiencing coercive control.

Coercive control is a dangerous form of domestic abuse and it's a crime. If you think you're experiencing it, you can report it to the police or get a court order to protect yourself or both.

It can involve lots of different sorts of abusive behaviour, sometimes over a long time – and even after you've split up. It's not always easy to spot or deal with.

Here you'll find information on what to look out for and what to do about it.

What is coercive control?

Your abuser may try to make you feel helpless, frightened and alone in order to control you. They may do this by:

  • making you feel stupid or worthless
  • persistently criticising you
  • isolating you from your friends and family
  • keeping a close watch over you
  • bullying you
  • shouting at you
  • guilt-tripping you
  • manipulating you
  • lying to you
  • lying about you
  • intimidating you
  • humiliating you
  • undermining you
  • gaslighting you (making you doubt yourself or your sanity)
  • pressuring you to do things you don't want to
  • stopping you doing everyday things you want to
  • stopping you working, training or earning money
  • controlling the money
  • damaging your property
  • punishing you
  • blackmailing you
  • threatening to kill themselves to get you to do what they want
  • threatening to kill or harm you or your child
  • harming you or your child

An abuser may use any of these behaviours over time to get control over you.

The abusive behaviours may come bit by bit (often after an intensely romantic start to the relationship), building up until eventually you've lost your freedom and any easy means of escape.

A coercive controller may attempt to cut you off from your friends, family and everyday life, taking away your independence and confidence and trapping you in a threatening or closely controlled environment.

Coercive control is closely linked to other forms of domestic abuse and sometimes underlies them. For example, an abuser may use:

  • physical or sexual violence, or the threat of it, to get what they want and to frighten you
  • emotional and psychological abuse to undermine and control you
  • economic abuse to make you financially dependent on them
  • tech abuse to check up on you, bully you or blackmail you

Why it's important to recognise it

Some people get so used to their partner's coercive and controlling behaviour that they forget what normal life is like. Others make excuses or blame themselves for their partner's behaviour. This can make it harder for them to recognise it for what it is – abuse.

Coercive control can impact the seriousness of other connected incidents. What the police may otherwise view as a mild incident of physical harm some years ago may underpin an intense fear that puts a victim in an abuser's control.

It can also cast an abuser's actions in a completely different light. For example, if you gave consent for sex but under coercive control (you were scared not to go along with it), then it wouldn't really be consent at all – it may be rape.

It may be a more hidden form of abuse than some others, but it is no less dangerous. Research has shown that in coercive and controlling relationships, the risk of murder or serious harm dramatically increases at the point someone tries to leave.

This is why recognising coercive control is important for your safety. It will help you to understand what's going on and make better choices.

What the law says

Coercive control is a crime. If you think you're experiencing it, you can report it to the police or get a court order to protect yourself or both.

You don't have to try and get a conviction to get protection. You can get protection through a court order.

If found guilty in a criminal trial, a convicted person could spend up to 5 years in prison or pay a fine or both.

They could also be convicted and sentenced for other connected crimes, such as assault (for physical attacks), sexual assault, or criminal damage.

Getting a conviction

For your abuser to be convicted of coercive control:

  • their behaviour must have had a serious effect on you
  • they must have done it repeatedly (at least two times) or continuously
  • they must have known or should have known it would have a serious effect on you
  • they must be 'personally connected' to you – that means as a partner, ex or a relative

If the abuser isn't personally connected – such as a neighbour, friend, stranger or colleague – you may be able to get protection under Harassment laws instead.

A serious effect could be something that caused you:

  • to fear violence at least twice
  • serious alarm or distress that makes you change your day-to-day life

Changes to your day-to-day life could include:

  • how or when you see friends or family
  • how and when you work or study
  • a decline in your physical or mental health
  • how you live at home, such as having to protect yourself or your children

Someone can only be convicted of coercive or controlling behaviour happening after 29 December 2015, the date when the law came into force.

What should I do?

If you think you're experiencing coercive control, you can report it to the police or get a court order to protect yourself or both.

You can also get support, help and advice from someone who understands and take steps to keep yourself and your children safe.

Keep a record

If you can, keeping a record of your partner's abusive, controlling and coercive behaviour could be useful evidence should you ever have to go to the police or the courts.

As coercive control can involve a pattern of sometimes subtle behaviours over a long time rather than a big obvious incident, it helps to collect information that shows what you've been experiencing. The police have a duty to investigate and gather evidence too, if you report abuse to them.

When you get support, you may want to tell your helpline adviser, legal adviser or the police about the coercive control you've experienced. This helps them to see the whole picture and give you the best advice. What you say could later be used as evidence too.

Can't find what you're looking for? Just ask us.

Get in touch on [email protected]