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

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

Controlling behaviour encompasses a variety of activities intended to make a person feel subordinate or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal benefit, denying them the means needed for independence, resistance, and escape, and regulating their daily behaviour.

This type of behaviour can take many forms and it may not be immediately obvious to those outside a relationship that this is happening, and to those in a relationship because it can happen over extended periods of time it may not be apparent what is happening to them.

In this article we’ll take a look at what some of the warning signs of controlling and coercive behaviour are so that you will be able to look for them within your own relationship or help others if you think they are in a controlling relationship.

What is “Coercion”?

According to the dictionary, coercion is the use of force (or the threat of the use of force) to get someone to do something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Coercion can range from the threat of violence to a specific person if money isn’t handed over, to the threat of self-harm if a person threatens to leave a relationship.

Coercion comes in many forms and some are easier to notice than others but it’s important to remember that if something makes you uncomfortable, if you’re not happy with a situation or you don’t feel safe that you reach out to someone you trust for support with what you’re going through.

What Is Controlling And Coercive Behaviour?

Coercive behaviour is any assault, threat, humiliation, intimidation, or other abuse used to hurt, punish, or terrify the victim. It can also refer to a series of such behaviours on one that happens on its own on multiple occasions.

Controlling or coercive behaviour is not linked to a particular instance of abuse. It is a pattern of behaviour that occurs over time for one person to exercise power, control, or coercion over another.

This kind of conduct constitutes severe psychological and emotional abuse. It is acknowledged that the damage brought on by coercion or control may be more severe than the damage brought on by a single act of physical aggression.

Types Of Coercion Or Controlling Behaviour

This list isn’t exhaustive but it will give you some idea of what to be on the lookout for in your own relationships or those of others:

  • Isolating the victim from their family and friends
  • Tracking the victim’s time and who they are socialising with
  • Telling the victim what they can wear or where they can go
  • Monitoring the victim online or utilising spyware
  • Frequently putting the victim down and making them feel worthless
  • Taking control of the victim’s finances, including their wages
  • Preventing the victim from going to work or using any form of transportation
  • Threatening to hurt or kill the victim and their family
  • Forcing the victim to have sexual intercourse
  • Controlling the victim’s contraception
  • Making the victim engage in sex with others or creating pornography without their consent
  • Damaging the victim’s property and belongings

Domestic Abuse

While many think of domestic abuse as the only form of controlling behaviour, as we have seen above coercion can take many forms.

Coercion will usually start out with small steps gradually increasing in intensity while the perpetrator gains more control (and therefore confidence) over their victims. This means it’s more difficult to spot coercive behaviour until it begins to escalate.

It’s important to note that not all coercion ends in domestic violence but as we mentioned there is usually a pattern of escalation which can unfortunately lead to physical, rather than only mental/emotional, violence.

Domestic violence can take the shape of controlling or coercive behaviour. Domestic violence is when a close family member or friend hurts you physically, socially, mentally, financially, or emotionally.

No matter a person’s age, sex, gender, colour, wealth, or sexual orientation, domestic abuse exists throughout society.

Domestic violence cases are delicate and complex, and Myerson’s Family Law experts are aware of this and are here for any legal advice you may require.

Types Of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence can take many different forms, including, but not limited to:

  • Physical (beating, pushing, strangling).
  • Sexual (forcing sex, controlling, or withholding contraception).
  • Financial (managing money, preventing one from working, requiring one to justify spending).
  • Emotional – verbal threats, repeated insults, humiliation, and jealous behaviour.

Remember, anyone can be a victim of coercive control and domestic violence: women, men, straight people, gay people, trans people – ANYONE.

Is Controlling And Coercive Behaviour Illegal?

It is a crime in the UK for someone to subject you to coercive and controlling behaviour. The maximum term for this criminal offence is five years in prison and a fine. In the US, the law varies by State but most have expanded their domestic violence statutes to include coercive and controlling behaviour.

Coercive or controlling behaviour must be repetitive or ongoing and significantly impact the victim for the behaviour to constitute an offence. The victim must have been made to fear that violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or they must have been caused serious concern or distress, which has significantly affected the victim’s ordinary day-to-day duties.

The abuser must act so that it is clear from their actions that they either know or should know that the victim will suffer a serious consequence.

A coercive control offence can only be committed by someone closely associated with you. If you share an intimate personal relationship with your abuser, if you are no longer in a relationship but continue to live together, or if you are related to them, you are personally attached to them.

You can report this abuse to the police if you experience it. If the situation is urgent the emergency number to reach the police (for example 999 in the UK or 911 in the US).

If there is no immediate danger, you can call or go to your neighbourhood police station to speak with the authorities.

You might not even be aware of controlling or coercive behaviour if you are or have been a victim. You must get help if you ever feel threatened or intimidated.

How Can Coercive And Controlling Behaviour Be Evidenced?

Police can gather information and investigate reports of coercive or controlling behaviour. By offering some or all the following, you might be able to help the police:

  • Emails
  • Phone records
  • Bank statements demonstrating financial control
  • A victim’s diary
  • Signs of isolation
  • GPS tracking devices installed on mobile devices, tablets, and vehicles
  • Text messages

Help From The Family Courts

If you believe domestic abuse is endangering you or your children, the expert family lawyers at Myerson (or a local lawyer near you) can help you obtain legal protection from the Family Court.

You can apply for injunctions to protect yourself against abuse, such as non-molestation and occupation orders.

A non-molestation order prevents someone connected to you from interacting with you, harassing you, or threatening you with violence. Depending on where you reside you may also seek out a restraining order (TRO) which will prevent contact between yourself and your abuser.

The necessity to protect your health, safety, and well-being, as well as the well-being of any children you may have, must be considered by the court along with any other relevant facts.

An arrest by the police is permitted if a non-molestation order is violated, which is a criminal offence.

An occupation order governs who is allowed to live in the family home. These orders may be issued when there is a considerable risk of danger to you or any relevant children. An occupation order could direct someone to leave the house or bar them from a certain location inside or close to the house.

We have provided links below to several national and local organisations that can help.

You can find more information in the UK here:

United States:

Please let us know in the comments below if you know of any charities in your country that can help victims of coercive control, domestic violence or know of someone who is.

About The Author
Sarah is a senior associate in the family law team. Sarah advises on a wide range of family matters including divorce, dissolution of civil partnerships, financial settlements, nuptial agreements, disputes regarding children and domestic violence. Sarah is a member of Resolution and has achieved specialist accreditation in respect of domestic abuse and children matters.
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