Understanding coercive control: a form of domestic abuse

05 March 2024

It is estimated that there are 2.3 million victims of domestic abuse a year in the UK.*

Domestic abuse can take many forms, not just physical abuse but emotional and psychological, too. Coercive control is perhaps one of the most damaging forms of manipulation and mistreatment. 

Coercive control is defined in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 as involving psychological manipulation, humiliation, and an erosion of an individual's identity.

Karen Gray, an associate in the family law team at Higgs, sheds light on this important and sadly all too common issue and emphasises the importance of recognising and addressing it.

Defining coercive control

As it's a form of manipulation, it can be hard to recognise coercive control; it is not always as obvious as physical harm because it tends to be psychological and emotional abuse. 

Karen explains that this form of abuse occurs when an individual exerts control using many tactics, such as isolating their victim from family and friends. The abuser may dictate what the victim wears, monitor their social media activities, and invade their privacy by checking their phone. This coercive behaviour extends to baseless accusations of infidelity, attempts to turn children against the victim, and threats to other family members. 

Coercive control is recognised as a severe form of abuse and, therefore, established as a criminal offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015 carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. 

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"Coercive control is an act, or a pattern of acts, of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation that abusers use to harm, punish or frighten survivors. It doesn’t relate to a single incident – it is a purposeful pattern of behaviour." 

Refuge 2024. 

Recognising the signs

In the thick of a relationship, victims of coercive control often find themselves entangled in a web of manipulation, making it crucial to recognise the signs early on. Isolation from loved ones, monitoring and control of personal choices, and baseless accusations are common red flags. As the abuser systematically strips away the victim's autonomy, the victim may feel a profound sense of loss of identity. It is essential for individuals experiencing such abuse to acknowledge these signs and seek help and support.

Isolation as a tactic

A common and effective tactic used by those exerting coercive control is isolating the victim from their support network. By severing ties with family and friends, the abuser gains unchecked influence over the victim's thoughts and actions. This isolation not only perpetuates the victim's emotional dependence on the abuser but also makes it harder for them to seek help or escape the abusive relationship. Karen stresses the importance of recognising this tactic and understanding that reaching out for support is crucial to breaking free.

The impact on identity

Coercive control takes a toll on the victim's sense of self. Through relentless manipulation and humiliation, the abuser aims to dismantle the victim's identity, leaving them emotionally vulnerable and psychologically scarred. Understanding that this erosion of identity is a hallmark of coercive control is the first step toward breaking free from its grip. Victims must be encouraged to reclaim their self-worth and seek the support necessary to rebuild their lives.

Seeking help and support

For those grappling with coercive control, reaching out for help is paramount. Karen urges individuals who believe they are suffering from this form of abuse to contact professionals who can offer assistance. 

Seeking support is not a sign of weakness but a courageous step towards reclaiming one's life.

*Domestic Abuse Act 2021: overarching factsheet. 

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