What is coercive control?

16 August 2021

What is coercive control?

Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland (WAFNI) define coercive control as “an intentional pattern of behaviour (often used alongside other forms of abuse) which can include threats, excessive regulation, intimidation, humiliation and enforced isolation. It is designed to punish, dominate, exploit, exhaust, create fear, confusion and increase dependency in a woman (or a woman and her children). Over time it can lead to a complete loss of self.”

Coercive control is a type of domestic abuse which can take many different forms and have devastating – even sometimes fatal – consequences. Acts of coercion and control in an intimate relationship may start small, but can build up until you are totally isolated and dependent on your partner.

It’s so easy to think “that would never happen to me” or “it’s not that common”, but according to the Office for National Statistics, there were just under 25,000 offences of coercive control recorded by police in England & Wales from March 2019 to March 2020 alone. And this doesn’t count all the offences that we know go unreported, or offences in other parts of the UK. This just goes to show that actually, coercive control is common, it’s just not very well understood, especially by younger people, according to this article by the Belfast Telegraph.

That’s why in August, our monthly #SpotlightOn campaign is focussing on coercive control, delving into what it actually means, who it affects and what the signs are. Read on to find out more…

Signs of coercive control

As we mentioned above, there are many different signs of coercive control. You might recognise some of the signs from your own or a loved one’s relationship, but you may not recognise others. That’s okay – this is not a checklist where you have to meet all criteria. Even if you’re only experiencing one or two of the below on a regular basis, we advise you to reach out for support.

  • Isolating you from family & friends – they might tell you your friends don’t really like you, or that your family traditions are silly. Whilst these might seem just like nasty comments, over time you may begin to believe that your friends really don’t like you, and that you don’t want to go to see your family any more. By making you think that you don’t need family or friends, the abuser is isolating you from support systems to gain complete control over you.
  • Taking control of your money and/or access to income – this might be in the form of opening a joint bank account, or telling you you’re useless with money and that they’ll look after your card so you don’t spend too much. Or it could be telling you that you don’t need to work, or even sabotaging your job by calling them behind your back, feeding them lies or telling your colleagues that you don’t like them. By cutting you off from money and your own income, the abuser is forcing you to become dependent on them for food, clothes, a roof over your head, and other basic necessities.
  • Belittling you, making threats, and humiliating you – abusers may try to pass their verbal abuse and manipulation off as a joke or “banter”, but really what they’re doing is cutting down your self-confidence in a bid to make you feel useless, worthless, and totally dependent on them. Even if they don’t follow through on their threats to harm you, those around you or your belongings, it is still coercive control and still abuse. Humiliation and belittling in front of others or alone is also domestic abuse if it is done intentionally and persistently.
  • Gaslighting you – this phrase has become very commonly heard in recent years, but what does it actually mean in the context of coercive control and domestic abuse? Well, if someone gaslights you, it means they are verbally manipulating you to make you question your memory and perception. An example of gaslighting could be; they humiliate you by shouting at you in front of a group of friends, then when you get home and tell them that that was overly-aggressive and they scared you, they say something like “stop exaggerating, I barely raised my voice”, “you’re lying, that didn’t happen”, or “I was just excited, you don’t understand emotions very well”. Gaslighting can be so subtle and hard to recognise, but it can also be extremely dangerous and make you begin to question your whole identity.

To learn more about what coercive control looks like, take a look at this excellent explanatory video created by Ards & North Down PCSP, the South Eastern Sexual and Domestic Violence Partnership and North Down & Ards Women’s Aid.

Coercive control legislation

Here in Northern Ireland, coercive control is currently not a crime like it is everywhere else in the UK. Women’s Aid have campaigned for years for legislation to be brought in to protect victims of coercive control, and this year the Justice Minister promised that this legislation would finally be brought in. Of course, this is excellent and we are thankful that victims of coercive control are finally being recognised and heard, however as of yet the legislation has not been fully passed into law. This was due to happen this November, however has unfortunately been delayed until February 2022.

Once the legislation does come in, it will cover the following in terms of coercive control:

The Domestic Abuse Offence

(1) A person (“Person A”) commits what is called a “domestic abuse offence” if —

  • Person A engages in a course of behaviour that is abusive of another person (“Person B”),
  • Persons A and B are personally connected to each other at the time, and
  • both of the further conditions are met.

(2) The further conditions are—

  • That a reasonable person would consider the course of behaviour to be likely to cause Person B to suffer physical or psychological harm, and
  • That Person A intends the course of behaviour to cause Person B to suffer physical or psychological harm, or is reckless as to whether the course of behaviour causes Person B to suffer physical or psychological harm.

What amounts to abusive behaviour?

Behaviour that is abusive of Person B includes (in particular)—

  • Behaviour directed at Person B that is violent,
  • Behaviour directed at Person B that is threatening,
  • Behaviour directed at Person B, at a child of Person B or at someone else that—

(i) has as its purpose (or among its purposes) one or more of the relevant effects, or

(ii) would be considered by a reasonable person to be likely to have one or more of the relevant effects.

These “relevant effects” mean…

  • Making Person B dependent on, or subordinate to, Person A,
  • Isolating Person B from friends, family members or other sources of social interaction or support,
  • Controlling, regulating or monitoring Person B’s day-to-day activities,
  • Depriving Person B of, or restricting Person B’s, freedom of action,
  • Making Person B feel frightened, humiliated, degraded, punished or intimidated.

You can read the full extent of what the legislation will cover here.

Is your partner exhibiting coercive and controlling behaviour? Here’s what you can do…

If your partner is displaying any of the behaviour above and you’re worried that they’re becoming controlling and coercive, please reach out for support. We can provide advice and help you to create a safety plan, bring you into emergency accommodation if that’s what you need/want, as well as support you emotionally through one-to-one, group and counselling sessions.

No matter what your age, coercive control could affect you. If it is, please don’t suffer in silence – we’re here for you. Give us a call, chat to us online or send us an email:

Phone us – 028 9066 6049

Chat to us – belfastwomensaid.org.uk (click the speech bubble on the right of your screen now)

Email us – support@belfastwomensaid.org.uk


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