Coercive Controlling Behaviour
Coercive Control became a criminal offence in the UK in 2015, which enables the police and courts to look for patterns of controlling and coercive behaviours rather than specific incidents of abuse or violence. The examples below include a wide range of ways that coercive control operates in relationships.
Techniques of coercive control
Women described being controlled by verbal abuse, threats of physical and sexual violence or harm to them or their children if they did not comply with their partner’s wishes. Their experience of outbursts or verbal, physical, sexual or other forms of violence meant they took these threats seriously. Women talked about partners constantly monitored their behaviour, checking on their activities and accusing them of having affairs if they ever went out of the house unaccompanied. Men checked their partner’s mobile phones, emails and Facebook contacts, sent constant angry threatening texts, or turned up at their workplace, in order to humiliate them.
Some partners used mind games, humiliation and ‘gaslighting’, a technique of psychological manipulation that makes the person doubt their own sanity. As a result, women were manipulated into believing they could not manage life on their own and became increasingly dependent on their abusive partner. Yasmin said her husband ‘controlled everything’ and said she would end up ‘begging on the streets’ if she left him. Some women described how their partners tried to get them addicted to alcohol, drugs or online gambling, to stop them noticing the abusive behaviour. Tina’s partner forced her to gamble online while he saw other women.
Coercive control developed gradually
The majority of women said that at the beginning, they loved their partner. Many referred to him as their ‘Prince Charming’. Initially their partner’s behaviour could be seen as loving, for example wanting to spend all their time together, but gradually their partner became more controlling. Women said they found it difficult to put their finger on exactly what was wrong, as the individual actions themselves could be part of any ‘normal’ relationship, or even trivial. For example, Jessica was criticised for ‘not cutting the cheese straight’. Sara’s partner kept telling her a dishwasher would not fit in the kitchen even though she presented the measurements that showed it would. Over time, however, these comments formed a pattern of increasing control. Women described their behaviour, activities and access to friends and family being increasingly controlled so that their life revolved more and more around their partner.
Women described how their partner would ‘punish’ them and threaten more serious harm to her or the children if they did not do as they wanted. Charlotte and Nessa both described how their partners became more and more controlling, cutting off their access to friends by withhold money for phone credit. Charlotte felt herself ‘slowly shutting down… disappearing’. Nessa’s partner threatened her with a knife against her throat when she tried to visit her terminally ill father. Often partners expected women to conform to ever-changing rules of behaviour. As Irina said, ‘One day I’m his princess… the next day I’m a fucking bitch’. Jacqui described how ‘You start being afraid just to be who you are, you try and become the person that you know they want you to be’. Women described how they constantly tried to stop their partner becoming angry by always being careful of their behaviour.
Charlotte described never really able to ‘breathe out …You’re just walking on eggshells the whole time … at any point you could do something that was unacceptable but you didn’t know what that might be … the day before it might have been fine but today it’s not fine’. Most women described living in fear and trying to do as their partner wished in order to avoid further abuse. They felt ‘brainwashed’, and many became severely depressed, anxious and confused as their partner would not take any responsibility for his behaviour, saying it was ‘all in their mind’. Sara’s friend said she could see her ‘slowly dying inside’. Kate described how her husband’s controlling behaviour left her ‘feeling trapped... you’ve got no autonomy, you can’t make decisions, you can’t organise anything … you just can’t act without their permission’. Surveillance and monitoring women’s activities
Women described how their partners controlled them by not letting them have any money, cutting them off from family and friends, controlling what they wore or how they cooked, checking their mobile phones, having jealous rages if they wanted to see their friends and monitoring their movements. Many partners also controlled the sexual side of the relationship, insisting on sex whenever they wanted it, regardless of the woman’s feelings. Control was often covered up to make it look caring, as with Tasha’s partner (for more see ‘Sexual Violence and Abuse’ and ‘Financial Abuse’). Women described not being ‘allowed’ to leave the house other than to take their children to play-group or school and all outings were timed and reinforced with threats. Ana was always fearful of outbursts of anger that would last for days if she took too long collecting the children from school of she wore clothes that her partner didn’t like. Tina’s partner put trackers and cameras on her car, to monitor her movements. Home became a ‘prison’
Women described how their lives were so controlled that their home became ‘a prison’, and their role was to ‘service’ their partner’s needs. Victoria described how:
‘In the summer I was heavily pregnant and he wouldn’t let me open the windows in the house. And I remember banging on the front door. I felt like I was in a prison, just, “I’ve just got to get out of here.” and I think somewhere he kind of liked that. He must have liked that power’.
Many women ended up with little freedom of movement, living in a ‘bubble’ with their partner, isolated from the outside world. Outings to the shops or the bank were timed to the precise minute, their partner ‘going ballistic’ when they got back. Even if they were ‘on time’, women were accused of having an affair. Jane’s partner controlled the finances of their ‘joint’ business, and also controlled Jane’s time:
‘You know, like going to the bank, if I was longer than 30 minutes, you know, because that would be the time that was taken to get up there, get parked, wait in the queue and come back, if I was longer than 30 minutes I had an affair with the bank manager, you know, stupid, something stupid like that.’
Women described becoming increasingly isolated from family and friends. Yasmin and Ana’s husbands both moved them away from areas near their families. Chloe and Charlotte's partners manipulated their feeling towards their family and friends so they no longer saw them. Some of the women we talked to described how their partner’s ‘façade’ of being a ’nice guy’ and giving ‘reasonable explanations for their behaviour’, would slip over time and the abuse would become more blatant in the home. Chloe was in love with her partner but as soon as they moved in together, his ‘masks came off’ and he controlled every aspect of her life. There were locks and bolts on every door and she felt increasingly trapped as her partner timed her if she went to the toilet, had a bath or left the house. Sophie’s partner said she had a ‘duty’ to look after him and bullied her into being his ‘service provider’. All her movements were monitored and timed. Controlling food and drink
Another form of control was through food and drink. Many women ended up on a very poor diet. Philippa’s partner used the kitchen for drinking alcohol. Philippa avoided going in there as he would verbally abuse her and ‘throw things’ at her. Some women said their partners put pressure on them to drink alcohol or take drugs. Ella was pressurised into ‘sniffing coke’ along with her partner. Melanie was plied with drugs, ‘weed’ and alcohol to keep her ‘in her place’. Controlling women’s appearance
Women described being frequently ‘put down’ and humiliated by their partners for their appearance, leaving them feeling unattractive and bad about themselves. They were called ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’, which made them more dependent on their partners and more likely to blame themselves when the relationship got difficult. This led them to feel they must stay with their partner as no-one else would want them. In order to please their partner some women tried to dress in a way that he preferred and they lost the ability to make their own choices. Lolita and Anna’s partners both belittled them constantly, ‘breaking them down’ to make them more compliant. Controlling sexual activity - Sex for favours
Sex was used as a form of control. Women were told that sex was their ‘duty’ and were forced to comply whenever their partner wanted, often against their will (see ‘Sexual violence and abuse’). Controlling behaviour using sex became the norm for some of these women. Several described how they were regularly forced to have sex before being allowed money to feed their children or pay for clothes. Some women described how a lack of interest in sex was interpreted as them being unfaithful and women were verbally abused, called ‘a whore’ or ‘a slag’ by their partners. Julia’s partner would argue with her for hours because she did not want sex as often as he did, especially after childbirth. He made lists to show her, that read ‘you’re a bad friend, a bad mother, …a bad partner … you do this, you do that.’
In addition to disagreements about sex, some women talked about partners also controlling their fertility by hiding contraceptive pills or forcing a woman to remove her implant.
Verbal abuse was a common response to a woman trying to question her partner or going out of the house on her own. Women described how they would often be blamed for the outburst. Much of the verbal abuse consisted of accusing women of sleeping with other men, but it also included insults about a woman’s ethnic origin, her appearance, or her family members. Sara remembered feeling horrified when her new husband said to her, before she left the house ‘remember you’re married’, implying she was not to be trusted. Nessa said her partner would make insulting comments about the children and ‘put her down’ about her looks and her ethnicity. Ella’s and Liz’s partners would call them insulting names if they went out alone or challenged their partners' decisions. Ana and Alonya, both migrant women on spousal visas, endured regular verbal abuse from their husbands, so that they both started to believe they were ‘horrible’, ‘bad’ people. Ana had a baby with her partner and they returned to her home town in Europe to get married. On the eve of the wedding, her partner shouted abuse at her for chatting to her local friends, so she went into her wedding day ‘feeling like a zombie’. Although men generally abused their partners in private, sometimes a friend or family member would see it. Threats to harm women and their children
Abusive partners used threats as a means of exercising control, making women respond to their demands out of fear of an escalation of abuse. These threats carried a very real fear and danger for the women, since they were based on abuse and harm to which they had already been subjected. (See ‘Physical violence and impact on women’s health’.) Linda’s partner had previously destroyed important papers from her work, cut up all her clothes and physically assaulted her, threatening further damage if she sought help. The seriousness of his threats was revealed when Linda returned home after staying with family for a few days. Her partner had left, smashing up the family home behind him. Tanya’s and Tina’s partners kept them in the relationship with threats of serious harm if they tried to leave, threats which were reinforced with frightening behaviour. Several women said their partners had threatened them with a knife, holding it to their neck and sometimes drawing blood, particularly if women had tried to challenge them, had threatened to call the police or to leave.
Mind games, gaslighting and exploiting illness
Many women who experienced abuse became physically ill or suffered from depression and anxiety. They described their partners being un-sympathetic or using their vulnerability against them (see ‘Emotional-psychological abuse and impact on self-esteem’, ‘Physical violence and impact on women’s health’). Jessica, who suffers from fibromyalgia, felt that her partner made the most of her vulnerability to exercise further control. Some partners played into women’s fears of becoming mentally ill and considered by professionals to be unfit to care for their children.
Min had a deep-rooted fear, following her sister’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, that she, too might one day become mentally ill. Her partner played on this, as she describes here:
‘It’s when people say things that are quite innocuous, that make you doubt yourself. And it starts off as a small seed, but once you start doubting yourself they’ve got something, they’ve got a foothold to feed off’. Many women felt they were losing their sanity, because their partner would tell them something and then deny it or say one thing and do the opposite (see ‘Impact on women’s mental health’). Two women described how their partners invented a cancer diagnosis make sure their partner stayed to look after them. Frequently, men denied having an affair despite evidence to the contrary or blamed the woman for not trusting him, saying it was ‘all in her mind’. They would also twist women’s words to make them appear stupid. How women reacted to controlling behaviour
Women described feeling unworthy, stupid, sometimes desperate to change their partner’s behaviour by changing their own. Some women described their mind being ‘broken’, their thought patterns so altered that they could no longer believe in themselves. They tried hard to please their partner in order to stop the abuse, like Philippa who would cry desperately ‘what have I done wrong?’ and Charlotte who said ‘yes I’m sorry, you’re right, I’ve done something wrong, I’ll try and change and be better’. Kate wanted to ‘mend’ the relationship. She tried to rationalise and reason with her husband but he could never accept that he had done anything wrong. Women described at times standing up to their partner and challenging him but this invariably led to an escalation of abuse. Yasmin refused sex and then fled for help to her sister’s house, when her partner put knives to her throat. Although her family persuaded her to return, for Yasmin this was a prelude to leaving permanently.
*Stark, E. (2007) Coercive Control. Oxford University Press: Oxford.