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What is domestic abuse and coercive control?

Coercive control underpins domestic abuse and describes a range or pattern of behaviours that enable a perpetrator to maintain or regain control of a partner, ex-partner or family member.

What is domestic abuse?

The Home Office definition (March 2013) of domestic violence and abuse is:

"any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.

It can encompass, but isn't limited to, the following types of abuse:

  • Financial
  • Sexual
  • Physical
  • Emotional; and
  • Psychological abuse

'Controlling behaviour' is defined as a range of acts that are intended to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support; exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain; depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape; and regulating their everyday behaviour.

'Coercive behaviour' is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation, intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

This definition includes so-called forced marriage and 'honour' based violence and female genital mutilation (FGM). It is made clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control underpins domestic abuse and describes a range or pattern of behaviours that enable a perpetrator to maintain or regain control of a partner, ex-partner, child or family member.

Examples of coercive control might include:

  • Controlling or observing victim's daily activities, including: being made to account for their time; restricting access to money; restricting their movements (including being locked in the property).
  • Isolating the victim from family/friends; intercepting messages or phone calls.
  • Constant criticism of victim's role as a partner/spouse/parent.
  • Threats of suicide/homicide/familicide.
  • Preventing the victim from taking medication/accessing care (especially relevant for victims with disabilities).
  • Preventing the victim from working or monitoring them at work
  • Using children to control their partner, e.g. threats to take the children.
  • Extreme dominance; a sense of 'entitlement' to partner/partner's services, obedience etc. - no matter what.
  • Being overly possession or showing extreme jealousy ("If I can't have you, no one can"), giving the victim cause to believe they will act on this.
  • Damage to property, including to pets.
  • Threats to expose sensitive information (e.g. sexual activity) or make false allegations to family members, religious or local community including via photos or the internet.
  • Involvement of wider family members/community; crimes in the name of 'honour'.
  • Manipulation of information given to professionals or manipulating the scene, such as getting into 'character' before the police arrive, or clearing up any signs of damage - which reinforces the victim's fear that they won't be believed so victims often feel their only option it to retract and appear to be compliant to their abuser.

Coercive control is often a complex pattern of overlapping and repeated abuse perpetrated within a context of power and control. Without the inclusion of coercive control in the definition of domestic violence and abuse, there may be occasions where domestic violence and abuse could be regarded as an isolated incident.

A coercive or controlling behaviour offence came into force in December 2015. It carries a maximum 5 years' imprisonment, a fine or both. Victims who experience coercive and controlling behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, can bring their perpetrators to justice.

This development recognises the power and control dynamics that underpin domestic abuse and the offence closes a gap in the law around patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour that occurs during a relationship between intimate partners, former partners who still live together or family members.

External Links

Sunderland Safeguarding Children Board Procedures on Domestic Violence and Abuse

Sunderland Safeguarding Adults Board Procedures on Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Adults, including Forced Marriage

Women’s Aid

Safe Lives

Home Office - Domestic Violence and Abuse

Serious Crime Act 2015

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