Coercive control, controlling behaviour & psychological abuse – advice for all

Psychological abuse is common, but too few people understand the definition of this well enough to spot it at an early stage and therefore prevent this from becoming worse. Without the visible signs of physical abuse, psychological abuse can stay hidden for years.

Psychological abuse may start small at first and build into something that can be frightening and threatening – signs and symptoms include:

It is important to remember that any of these examples of psychological abuse can happen to anyone, no matter what their gender, age or circumstance.

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to undermine a person’s self-esteem or sense of self and restrict or remove their liberty or freedom. It describes a variety of controlling acts including manipulation, intimidation, sexual coercion, gaslighting (a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory and sanity).

Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour. The offence carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and a fine. The legislation closes a gap around patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in relationships between:

This does not relate to a single incident. It is a pattern of behaviour that takes place over time, in order for one person to exert power, control or coercion over another. The perpetrator knows, or ought to know, that the behaviour will have a serious effect on the victim.

To contact your local domestic abuse unit call GMP on 101 – in an emergency where there is an immediate threat to life or property always call 999.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is exerted by a range of individual behaviours that can add up to a cumulative effect. A pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour can be well established before a single incident is reported. In many cases the conduct might seem innocent – especially if considered in isolation of other incidents – and a victim may not be aware of, or be ready to acknowledge, abusive behaviour. The consideration of the cumulative impact of controlling or coercive behaviour and the pattern of behaviour within the context of the relationship is crucial.

Further assistance can be obtained from the Statutory Guidance published by the Home Office pursuant to section 77(1) of the Serious Crime Act 2015.  Building on examples within the Statutory Guidance, relevant behaviour of the perpetrator can include:

  • isolating a person from their friends and family
  • depriving them of their basic needs
  • monitoring their time
  • monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
  • taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
  • depriving them access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
  • repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
  • enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
  • forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
  • financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
  • control ability to go to school or place of study
  • taking wages, benefits or allowances
  • threats to hurt or kill
  • threats to harm a child
  • threats to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone)
  • threats to hurt or physically harming a family pet
  • assault
  • criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods)
  • preventing a person from having access to transport or from working
  • preventing a person from being able to attend school, college or university
  • family ‘dishonour’
  • reputational damage
  • disclosure of sexual orientation
  • disclosure of HIV status or other medical condition without consent
  • limiting access to family, friends and finances.

This is not an exhaustive list and a perpetrator will often tailor their conduct to their victim, and that this conduct can vary to a high degree from one person to the next.

Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship

Coercive control has been described by many experts as the most damaging and risky form of abuse, whereby victims describe losing a sense of themselves and becoming trapped in a false sense of reality.

This type of abuse is less likely to be reported to the police as victims often feel they won’t be believed and prefer to lean on friends and families .

The statutory guidance framework Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship is published by the Home Office on their website at www.gov.uk.

The guidance states that controlling or coercive behaviour should be dealt with as part of adult and/or child safeguarding and public protection procedures.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships (section 76). The new offence closed a gap in the law around patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour in an ongoing relationship between intimate partners or family members. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment, a fine or both.

The legislation means that victims who are subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour can bring their perpetrators to justice, with incidents that stop short of serious physical violence but amount to extreme psychological and emotional abuse will now be recognised as a crime within the domestic abuse framework. For the first time perpetrators who control their partners through threats or by restricting their personal or financial freedom could face prison in the same way as those who are violent towards them.

Behaviour included under the new legislation includes (but is not limited to):

  • isolating someone from their family and friends
  • monitoring someone via online communication tools such as social media
  • taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
  • depriving them of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
  • repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
  • enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise the victim
  • forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
  • preventing a person from having access to transport or from working.

There is a growing awareness around the signs of coercive control – the emotional and psychological abuse of a partner, through threats and restrictions, as well as physical violence. This raised profile has resulted in a number of stories (real and fictional) in the media as discussed in this selection of articles:

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and de-legitimise the victim’s belief.

Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred; up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

Some physically abusive spouses may gaslight their partners by flatly denying that they have been violent. Gaslighting may occur in parent–child relationships, with either parent, child, or both lying to the other and attempting to undermine perceptions. It can also occur in other types of relationship.

An abuser’s ultimate goal is to make their victim second-guess their every choice and question their sanity, making them more dependent on the abuser. A tactic which further degrades a target’s self-esteem is for the abuser to ignore, then attend to, then ignore the victim again, so that the victim lowers their personal bar for what constitutes affection and perceives themselves as less worthy of affection.

There are two characteristics of gaslighting:

  1. the abuser wants full control of feelings, thoughts, or actions of the victim; and
  2. the abuser discreetly emotionally abuses the victim in hostile, abusive, or coercive ways.

Warning signs of gaslighting include:

  • withholding information from the victim
  • countering information to fit the abuser’s perspective
  • discounting information
  • verbal abuse, often in the form of ‘jokes’
  • blocking and diverting the victim’s attention from outside sources
  • trivialising the victim’s worth
  • undermining a victim by gradually weakening them and their thought process.

The three most common methods of gaslighting are:

  1. Hiding: the abuser may hide things from the victim and cover up what they have done. Instead of feeling ashamed, the abuser may convince the victim to doubt their own beliefs about the situation and turn the blame on themselves.
  2. Changing: the abuser feels the need to change something about the victim. Whether it be the way the victim dresses or acts, they want the victim to mould into their fantasy. If the victim does not comply, the abuser may convince the victim that he or she is in fact not good enough.
  3. Control: the abuser may want to fully control and have power over the victim. In doing so, the abuser will try to seclude them from other friends and family so only they can influence the victim’s thoughts and actions. The abuser gets pleasure from knowing the victim is being fully controlled by them.

The act of gaslighting is not specifically tied to being sexist, although women tend to be more frequent targets of gaslighting compared to men who more often engage in gaslighting, as a result of social conditioning that says “it’s part of the structure of sexism that women are supposed to be less confident, to doubt their views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions, more than men. And gaslighting is aimed at undermining someone’s views, beliefs, reactions, and perceptions. The sexist norm of self-doubt, in all its forms, prepares us for just that.”

Seeking Help

Psychological abuse can be damaging and often taps into earlier patterns in a person’s life. It is important to seek help and support to prevent the abuse from becoming entrenched.

  • Acknowledging that a relationship is abusive can be a useful call to action – visit the website www.counselling-directory.org.uk  for more advice on where to find help.

Barriers to seeking help may arise from the emotional and psychological impact of violence and abuse, as well as practical, social or cultural reasons. Many are also similar to those preventing people from seeking help about other safeguarding issues. They may include:

  • fear of the abuser and/or what they will do
  • lack of knowledge/access to support services
  • lack of resources, financial or otherwise
  • love, loyalty or emotional attachment towards the abuser
  • feelings of shame or failure
  • pressure from family/children/community/ friends
  • religious or cultural expectations.

Sources of Help:

  • Adult Safeguarding and Domestic Abuse: Guide to Support Practitioners published by the LGA/ADASS  on their website at www.local.gov.uk
  • Controlling Behaviour in Relationships Young Adults  a guide about talking to young people about healthy relationships published by Women’s Aid on their website at www.womensaid.org.uk

You may also find help in our mental health resource and domestic violence & abuse resource.

Gathering evidence 

Gathering evidence should focus on the wider pattern of behaviour and on the cumulative impact on a person. It should also be noted that a victim may not know the full extent of a perpetrator’s conduct therefore all potential lines of enquiry should be explored.

The Statutory Guidance outlines a non-exhaustive list of the types of evidence that could be used to prove the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour; the following list including and builds on the examples provided in the Statutory Guidance:

  • copies of emails and text messages
  • phone records
  • evidence of abuse over the internet, digital technology and social media platforms
  • photographs of injuries
  • records of interaction with services such as support services
  • medical records
  • witness testimony, for example the family and friends of the victim may be able to give evidence about the effect and impact of isolation of the victim from them
  • bank records to show financial control
  • previous threats made to children or other family members
  • diary kept by the victim
  • evidence of isolation such as lack of contact between family and friends, victim withdrawing from activities such as clubs, perpetrator accompanying victim to medical appointments
  • GPS tracking devices installed on mobile phones, tablets, vehicles etc.,
  • where the perpetrator has a carer responsibility, the care plan might be useful as it details what funds should be used for.

Practitioners should advise a victim on how to keep information in relation to incidents and themselves safe. In addition, they should also signpost the victim to specialist domestic abuse services such as the 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge on 0808 2000247).

Stalking and Harassment

It is important to understand the difference between the offences of controlling or coercive behaviour and those involving stalking and harassment.

Like controlling or coercive behaviour, offences of stalking and harassment can involve a course of conduct or pattern of behaviour which causes someone to fear that violence will be used against them on at least two occasions, or which causes them serious alarm or distress to the extent it has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities. Indeed the behaviour displayed under each of these offences might be exactly the same.

The offence of controlling or coercive behaviour has been introduced specifically to capture abuse in an ongoing relationship where the parties are personally connected (as defined in section 76(2) of the Serious Crimes Act 2015).

Where there is an ongoing relationship then the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour should be considered. Stalking and harassment offences may be appropriate if the victim and the perpetrator were previously in a relationship but no longer live together. These offences can also be in relation to activity that takes place between people who do not know each other and may never even have met one another.

There may be instances where the relationship status of the victim and perpetrator change a number of times  – it is the status of the relationship at the time the offending behaviour takes place which is relevant.

Find out more in our stalking and harassment resource.

Guidance for practitioners

SafeLives have published guidance for multi-agency forums on coercive control available from their website at www.safelives.org.uk

Whilst this guidance offers practical tips and advice for MARAC professionals working with cases involving coercive control, there is a role for all agencies to identify coercive control. Compared to victims of stalking and harassment or physical abuse, those experiencing coercive control are less likely to report it to the police, instead preferring to speak to family/friends, health professionals or work colleagues.

Research in Practice for Adults (RiPfA)  have developed a website for social workers and other health and social care practitioners to expand their knowledge and skills in working with situations of coercive control. This resource can be found on the RiPfA website at coercivecontrol.ripfa.org.uk

Resources include:

  • a set of case studies with learning activities which can be adapted and used in a CPD programme
  • tools for professional development
  • tools for supporting effective, reflective practice
  • background reading and information.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have published Legal Guidance which builds on Statutory Guidance on the investigation of the offences of controlling or coercive behaviour on their website at www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/controlling-or-coercive-behaviour-intimate-or-family-relationship

Other relevant CPS Legal Guidance might also need to be considered such as:

  • Rape and Sexual Offences
  • Honour-Based Violence and Forced Marriage
  • Hate Crime related guidance.

Derbyshire Safeguarding Adults Board have produced an excellent set of infographics that can be downloaded from their website at www.derbyshiresab.org.uk/safeguarding-topics/domestic-abuse

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