There has been a growing awareness of coercive controlling behaviour in recent years. Since 2015 and the introduction of the Serious Crime Act coercive control has been a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment of up to five years. Its profile was raised last year when it featured in the Radio 4 soap, the Archers and this year the former partner of the comedian Seann Walsh who took part in Strictly Come Dancing suggested Mr Walsh had been controlling and had gas lighted her.

So what is coercive controlling behaviour?

It’s where one partner systematically dominates the other. Behaviour can include criticism, isolation, threats, stalking and manipulation. Physical and verbal abuse are often present in coercive control but not always. The victims can feel low self-esteem, self-confidence and anxiety as a result of the controlling behaviour they are being subjected to.

The definition of domestic abuse is broad. It can encompass much more than just physical violence for example emotional abuse or coercive control. It can build up gradually, beginning with behaviour that might appear perfectly acceptable at first, such as a little over-protectiveness of one’s spouse, or being a bit cautious on how the money is spent. Gradually, however, that over-protectiveness can lead to constant monitoring of the spouse’s or partner’s whereabouts, restricting what they can do and controlling the spouse’s spending hence limiting their financial independence. These are just a few examples.

Civil or criminal Route?

Coercive behaviour is now increasingly recognised as a serious form of domestic abuse, in the same way as physical violence. This means that in civil and family courts, safeguards are available for victims in the form of injunctions and also imprisonment if the perpetrator breaks an injunction order.

Domestic abuse can now be tried in the civil and criminal courts. If the victim is seeking an injunction in the family court then it’s a civil matter. If the alleged perpetrator has been charged with an offence under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act, it’s a criminal matter.

The difference however lies in the standard of proof required. The standard of proof in criminal courts is “beyond all reasonable doubt” but a family court has a lower threshold of “the balance of probabilities” i.e. is it more likely than not that the perpetrator has committed the behaviour. The criminal standard of proof is therefore a higher evidential bar. It’s therefore no surprise that section 76 has been used less than had been hoped.

What’s the signs to look out for?

1) It’s more than just one argument

Emotional abuse happens over a sustained period of time, where the perpetrator repeatedly controls their victim.

Emotional abuse happens over a sustained period of time, where the perpetrator repeatedly controls their victim.

“From our point of view, when we are talking about domestic violence it’s not the case that one argument crosses the line and it becomes an abusive relationship,” say Women’s Aid   . “It’s a pattern in the relationship, where one partner is controlling and there’s an ongoing sense of fear.”

2) An abuser wants to scare their victim

“With domestic violence, partners behave in a way that’s designed to intimidate, frighten or coerce their victim’s behaviour,” Women’s Aid point out.

When a victim is frightened of their partner and treads on eggshells out of fear of their reaction, that’s a problem.

“[It’s abuse] if you feel frightened of your partner and you’re worrying about the consequences of what externally might be relatively minor things. If he gets angry at the slightest thing. If you have to do everything his way. If you’re worried and feel like your behaviour will ‘set him off’.”

3) The small things count

Women’s Aid gave one example, where a man told his partner that she had to wrap cheese in a particular way before putting it in the fridge. If she did it wrong, he would scream and shout at her.

“We all have funny little things like that. But the point is she was frightened of his response,” they explain. “He didn’t hit her, but she knew he would see it as a symbol that she didn’t love him and she was trying to wind him up. It seems like a minor thing to you – but it has a big impact to them.”

4) A one-way street

In a healthy relationship, equality is present. If one person has particular needs, they accept that their partner will also have their own needs.

But an abuser will not think about their partner, and generally puts themselves first. “It doesn’t go the other way,” explain Women’s Aid. “There’s no consideration that you’re upset.

“Perpetrators of domestic violence do it because they feel entitled to behave that way. They think their partner is there to meet to their needs and they’re entitled to take whatever they want.”

5) Nothing ever happened

Gaslighting’ is when someone exhibits abusive behaviour and then pretends it didn’t happen – or even switches blame on to the victim. It’s also common among psychological abusers.

“It can be very confusing,” say Women’s Aid. “It can cause serious problems when a woman starts to doubt herself. That’s very difficult to get your head around as a survivor. It takes a woman a long time to recognise that the nice behaviour and abusive behaviour are both a conscious decision on the behalf of the perpetrator.”

6)  Unhappiness doesn’t matter

In a healthy relationship, if one person tells their partner just how unhappy they are with their behaviour, they may be upset, annoyed or both. But they will eventually get over it. An abuser will not react that way.

Say Women’s Aid: “A perpetrator is unwilling ever to listen to why you’re unhappy and will often minimise what has happened. If they’re not willing to do any work towards your relationship that would be really concerning, as would being too scared to talk about it in the first place.

“All of us in relationships mess up sometimes and don’t behave appropriately. If you’re frightened and worried and feel like you have to give up on the things that are important to you in order to make your partner OK, and to avoid his bad behaviour, that’s where the line is.”

7) Controlling in many ways

Women’s Aid explain that control is a significant factor in psychological abuse, and a perpetrator can exact it in a number of ways, such as not letting their partner go out or visit friends and family.

It can also be financial, with a perpetrator controlling their victim’s money, or it can be a case of the abuser not wanting to ever socialise. Control can also extend to the online realm – with tracking software used on smartphones or email and social media accounts hacked.

8) Personal attacks

There doesn’t have to be any physical violence for someone to be guilty of domestic abuse. It’s not just about bruises. Often it can simply involve words, where a perpetrator might make comments designed to emotionally manipulate his victim. Women’s Aid has stated “(It’s abuse)” if he or she puts you down and tells you you’re stupid and unattractive, that no one else will love you. Even if it seems to be done in a kind way, it’s still emotional abuse,”

If you are being subjected to coercive control and would like a civil injunction in the family courts then please get in touch with Townsend Family Law. Our team of solicitors are experienced in obtaining emergency injunction orders for those victims of domestic abuse.  Should you require assistance please telephone us on 01992 892214.

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