Coercive Control: When It’s No Longer Just Sticks and Stones

Coercive Control: When It’s No Longer Just Sticks and Stones

Abuse does not always leave its victim covered in bruises. The effects of coercive control and psychological manipulation are covert, but just as insidious.

‘He glared at me, shouting “You’re a leper, you suck people dry. Everyone hates you, your children hate you. You have no friends and you will die alone.” I pleaded with him to stop. I was sobbing, but he just carried on screaming at me, louder and louder.’

The old nursery rhyme, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ may have been good advice in the playground, but is certainly not true of domestic violence where emotional and psychological abuse can be more scarring and harder to recover from than physical abuse. One of the reasons is that the damage is not immediately apparent. Get a black eye and the hurt is there for all to see, but mental scarring has always been much more difficult to define.

Under the Serious Crime Act 2015, the definition of domestic abuse has been widened to include the offence of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’. When this law comes into force, the offence will carry a maximum sentence of 5 years.

What is controlling and coercive behaviour?

The law says that it will be illegal for an intimate partner or family member to repeatedly or continuously engage in behaviour towards another person that has a serious effect. Crucially, it is behaviour the offender knows or ought to have known would have a serious effect. The new offence will have links to harassment, stalking and revenge porn–all of them already illegal–as well as to sexual coercion.

Not One Single Act

Coercive control is a ‘course of conduct’ offence that is not defined by one single criminal act, but rather a number of acts occurring together, forming a pattern. Not all the acts are, of their own, coercive in nature; the act of coercive control is specific to the relationship, but identifying it is not as difficult as it sounds, if you know where to look.

It’s Not About Anger

The important thing to understand with coercive control is that it is largely invisible and has very little to do with anger, therefore anger management will have no effect on an abuser who uses controlling tactics in a relationship. Anger, quite often, is used as a tactic to subjugate, meaning that an abuser will ‘rev himself up’ to project anger in order to intimidate. The abuse happens so gradually that victims of coercive control may not even realise they are being abused.

Low level violence

It is not necessary for abusers to use violence, although some do. The threat of it can be enough to frighten someone into submission. Low level violence that doesn’t mark and therefore leaves no evidence is another tactic. Being pushed into a wall, grabbed by the hair or wrist, maybe even by clothing, doors slammed in the face, being elbowed, rough sex when angry, all feel threatening and act to undermine and dominate.

I Want You All To Myself

The early signs of coercive control can even look like devotion. ‘I just want to be with you’, ‘I really miss you when you see your friends.’ The coercive controller targets single mothers, the newly divorced, widows or those undergoing medical treatment as they are already vulnerable. After a divorce, for example, it can be flattering to be loved so intensely, but it is just one of the ways in which an abuser isolates the victim from family and friends. When the controller becomes more established, he may even forbid his partner’s close friends and family from coming to the house or he may be deliberately rude or flirt inappropriately so that they become uncomfortable and withdraw.

‘Every time one of my friends came round, he would sit next to me on the sofa, clasping my hand and placing it in his lap. He would then keep trying to kiss me in front of my friend which just made the both of us uncomfortable.’

The abuser may not like his partner working or having interests outside of the relationship. He may sabotage any attempts at self-improvement saying ‘Why are you doing this course? You won’t get any clients. You should be concentrating on our relationship.’

He may refuse to have any bills in his name saying ‘In case something happens to me, it’s better if the bills are in your name.’ and he may put the heating on full blast or leave all the lights on knowing you will stress over the bills. When he does offer to put the bills in his name, he will avoid paying them, arranging to have them deferred so the debt piles up without you knowing.

Quite often, a controller will borrow money then refuse to pay it back or buy something (maybe a car) that is meant for the family but then register it as his so, when the relationship breaks down, you are still left with the bills whilst he drives off into the sunset. The added stress only serves further to undermine and subjugate.

Monitoring and Blackmail

The abuser will monitor your texts and emails. It may not even look like monitoring. ‘Here’s my phone, I have nothing to hide, why can’t I look at your phone what are you keeping secret?’

‘He changed my password to ‘I love (his name)’ saying that each time I logged on, I would be reminded of how much I love him.’

He may blackmail his partner with information she doesn’t want in the public domain, for example intimate photos. ‘Revenge porn’ is now illegal, but he may threaten to post the images or show his friends in order to degrade her and further subjugate. He may threaten to tell everyone she has a mental illness when she tries to go to the doctor for antidepressants so she doesn’t go and becomes more vulnerable without support.

Disorientation and Gaslighting

Some abusers deliberately wake up their partners several times during the night so that they become so exhausted they find it difficult to cope. They are then easier to manipulate. He may try and make his partner doubt her own sanity as in the film Gaslighting where a husband deliberately tried to make his wife think she is going crazy by turning the light on and off and then denying it.

Undermining Parenting

Another tactic used by controllers is in reducing the amount of time a mother spends with her children. This can be done by scheduling ‘couple time’ when the children need their mother.

‘He would deliberately keep me in bed when the alarm went off to stop me from getting the children their breakfast. If they tried to come into the bedroom he would scream at them to wait downstairs.’

Many will threaten the mother with social services or the police so she ends up fearing the agencies that are there to protect her.


Living in constant fear and always on eggshells can cause IBS, palpitations, headaches, difficulties in eating and sleeping, anxiety, depression and a complete loss of self-esteem. The abuser knows this and knows that his partner will find it difficult to cope so she will end up reliant on him, which is exactly how he wants it.

A coercively controlling relationship has been described as less about domestic abuse than being in a hostage situation. Criminalising this could not come sooner.

NB: the pronoun ‘He’ has been used for ease and applies to both male and female.

Further Reading:

Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life–Professor Evan Stark

Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in your Intimate Relationship–Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD

The Mind of the Male Intimate Abuser: How He Gets Into Her HeadDon Hennessy

Power and Control. Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers–Sandra Horley

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