Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse
Coercive Controlling Behaviour
Coercive control is a wide reaching form of abuse and, as control is at the heart of all domestic abuse, it overlaps with many other categories, especially sexual abuse and financial abuse. In early research with survivors they talked about how difficult it was to describe the ways they felt abuse affected them. Evan Stark’s 2007 book* outlined the ways in which men can ‘entrap’ women using controlling and threatening behaviour. Controlling behaviour often creeps unnoticed into a relationship, as initially it can appear to be caring and romantic but gradually changes into patterns of increasing control and an unhealthy loss of the woman’s freedom. Control is established using threats to harm the woman if she does not comply, or making the atmosphere at home unbearable.
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.
When she finally got away from her husband, Yasmin discovered that she officially ‘did not exist’ as everything, including child benefit, was in his name.
More about the England law, and more about the … until I left my partner I never knew I can get a child benefit or I am register with my children as a Mother, yes or no. So when I called the first time [unclear] people, they … the first thing they said is ‘You don’t exist in our papers.’
Yes. Mm. You don’t exist. Wow.
And he make sure he give me that reminder, ‘Oh if you leave me you will end up begging on the streets. And when you’re on the street you have to sell your body for either…’
Right. I guess you thought he was right?
You did, yeah. Yeah.
I thought then I might have to sell my body too many peoples…
… now it’s only one.
Yes, yes. Yes.
So he controlled me … my mind … my body, my finance …
… my social life, everything. My emotions, everything.
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 withholding money for phone credit. Charlotte felt herself ‘slowly shutting down… disappearing’.
Charlotte described the ‘insidious drip, drip dripping’ of her partner’s control, which he was careful to balance with enough ‘niceness’ to keep everyone thinking he was alright (read by a professional).
He was looking through our phones. He made me go through my Facebook account and he wanted to count how many pictures of him were on my Facebook page. And then we had to sit down and compare that with all of my friends, how many pictures of my friends’ husbands were on their Facebook pages compared with how many were on mine. Yeah, taking the girls’ phones. He smashed my eldest daughter’s. I can’t even remember what he said that she had done wrong. She hadn’t texted him, or something, to say when she was coming back. Something like that. I can’t remember. And he grabbed her by the neck, he had her by the kind of scruff of the neck in one hand and he had her phone in the other hand and he forced her head down while she had to watch him smash her phone against the banisters. And then he told her to go and get her laptop because he was going to break that too. and then when she brought that back up - and I was just standing by watching this awful thing happening, knowing if I tried to step in and do anything it would make it worse, so I just had to stand by and watch it – then she had to thank him for not smashing her laptop. And he said that he had, he had chosen not to do that, so she had to thank him for that. And there were just lots and lots of incidents like that. He just was going crazy.
Was it a daily kind of occurrence or?
No, no not daily. Always enough niceness to keep everyone thinking that he was alright and he was OK. So it was always a very careful balancing act between nice things and fun things and spontaneous things,
With the outbursts and the that kind of subtle insidious drip, drip, dripping of not being good enough
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’.
Melanie described her experience of psychological abuse and controlling behaviour which led to her having a breakdown.
Well this relationship [clears throat] I didn’t even realise it was abusive because I didn’t understand that this form of abuse is possible.
And it wasn’t physical abuse, it was more psychological abuse. And obviously now I look back, it was a lot of raping as well.
But in this relationship it was more like moving things, breaking things, always with me, very controlling with their wording.
Silently controlling. Yeah, it’s just more or less all of that really. And I didn’t even think I was in an abusive situation for a long time. I knew something was wrong because I felt on edge and I felt scared a lot of the time.
Hmm. Felt scared?
But I didn’t know, yeah, I didn’t realise that this was a form of abuse. That he had control of my finances and things like that.
How long were you together?
Since 2005 until 2012.
And when did it dawn on you, when did you realise this is abuse?
When his father died, I think in 2000… and I think it was 2011 or the beginning of 2012, and I knew that I was scared all the time. I knew I was walking on eggshells. I knew that when he was downstairs he would, I was scared to come downstairs. I knew that at that point I kind of woke up to catch him doing things to me. And felt like I couldn’t question him because if I questioned him he would always shout me down.
And made me feel like a child. So, yeah, I think that’s when I realised when something was wrong, definitely wrong.
It had been going on for quite a number of years from …
Oh, it been going on for a number of years. I think toward when his dad died, I think that’s where I was just so tired, so beaten down, so worn out that I, something in me clicked and something made me start thinking about what was going on, what is actually happening here.
And I thought that was it and I couldn’t take it anymore because I was having a breakdown at the stage. I was…
... having a breakdown and he would understand other people’s point of views but never mine. If I had a, if I had a feeling about anything it was almost like, ‘you’re being silly’. I wasn’t allowed to have any emotion, no feeling, no nothing, but everybody else around me could.
Could you give me an example of the sort of rules that he used to set for you?
There was never a specific rule. It was changing all the time. If I cooked something that he loved today, next week he didn’t like it.
If I bought something in the shopping because we would go shopping, it wasn’t just me that’d go shopping, he would come with me. I’d buy it this week and then next week he wouldn’t like it. Or if he was going to the supermarket for example to buy maybe crisps for the kids and he knew the crisps that the kids liked because he’s in the house all the time, he would see the crisps. He would buy the total opposite. So the kids wouldn’t want to eat them then. He would buy things that would sit in the cupboards for ages what I’d never seen him eat before. So it was confusing. I was constantly confused because I didn’t know, I thought I knew this person but then they were changing before me constantly. So there was no rule. I think his rule was whatever he felt like on the day that would be his rule.
And what would happen if you tried to go against a rule?
His was more sulking, slamming things, not speaking to me for days on end. But then would get in bed and cuddle me, would get in bed and hold my wrist. It almost felt like he was keeping me captive because he would squeeze my wrists and hold me like that while I slept. If I got up out of the bed he would jump up out of the bed. So it was constantly, I didn’t know whether I was going or coming because like he wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. If I’d constantly say to him, “What’s the matter, what, have I done something, what the matter?” “Oh nothing”. “But you haven’t spoke to me for days”.
Kate described a ‘daily barrage of negativity’ where she and her children lived ‘on edge’ wondering what would happen next.
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.
Last reviewed February 2020.