Although coercive control became a criminal offence in December 2015, I’ve struggled with the meaning of it.  As it’s been in the news again with Sally Challen’s successful appeal against her conviction for murdering her controlling husband, I decided to revisit it.  I’ve found that the definition of the crime is repeatedly or continuously engaging in behaviour towards another person that is controlling or coercive (my emphasis).   So it seems it’s the shorthand that’s caused my confusion, just as the shorthand ‘unreasonable behaviour’ in divorce petitions confuses people.  (It’s actually behaviour which the other person cannot reasonably be expected to live with.)

Evan Stark first coined the phrase coercive control to help explain that domestic violence is not just about physical abuse. Now that I can see it as two separate types of behaviour I can begin to get my head around it better and understand that (according to Practice Direction 12J which family courts are supposed to follow in children proceedings):

Controlling behaviour is an act or pattern of acts designed 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 and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim.

One of the problems in children proceedings when there is a fact finding hearing is that the victim is often limited to making just five or six separate allegations of abuse.  This makes it hard to describe a pattern of behaviour where each incident could appear trivial on it’s own, so coercive control is still just as hard to prove in the family courts as it is in criminal proceedings.

Enough about the law, what does all this mean in everyday life?  Firstly, as it’s usually a pattern of behaviour rather than actions, it’s much more subtle than, say, punching someone, leaving blood and bruises visible to all.    Although that can happen too, but these abusers are often ‘in your face’, and too clever to leave any evidence.  Which I believe is why rape is a more common form of physical abuse in these cases – the ultimate act of control and coercion, but very hard for a woman to prove.

Although more women than men are said to be victims of coercive control, women can be equally controlling even if not quite so physically intimidating; they may for instance threaten their partner with never seeing their children again.   The aim of the perpetrator of either sex is to take away their partner’s freedom, and to strip away their sense of self.

Other forms of control and coercion include:

  • isolating you from your friends and family, eg by not speaking to you for a week if you go to see them, or limiting the time you’re allowed to spend with them so it becomes easier not to go, and you become dependent on your partner
  • depriving you of your basic needs – I’ve even heard of someone not being allowed to use the toilet
  • constantly checking up on you, monitoring you with online communication tools or hiding a camera in the house, tracking your movements on an iPhone, or stalking you
  • surveillance can continue even when your partner is not present, either by constant phone calls or texts, using children to report back, or by having brainwashed you to continue behaving that way
  • micro-managing your everyday life, such as where you can go, who you can see or speak to, what you can wear, what you can eat, etc
  • questioning your behaviour
  • putting you down in public
  • repeatedly telling you you’re worthless, stupid, unattractive, or that you do everything wrong or badly and would be nothing without your partner as no-one else would love you
  • constantly monitoring and criticising you with every move being checked against an unpredictable, ever-changing, ‘rule-book’,  eg rules about how you cook, house-keep, mother, perform sexually and socialise
  • financial control, such as allowing you little or no money, or demanding that you explain all your expenditure
  • threats to hurt or kill you, your child or pets
  • threats to reveal or publish your private information
  • threats to take you (back) to court
  • damaging your belongings, or house/contents
  • preventing you from having access to transport or from working in certain places
  • mind-games, and gaslighting (when someone behaves abusively and then pretends it didn’t happen, or switches the blame onto the victim)
  • your needs are not discussed (because they are not important)

What does it feel like to be in a controlling or coercive relationship?

  • Walking on eggshells, you have to say or do things in a particular way or your partner will get angry
  • Living in a world of shifting sand or moving goal-posts
  • Being taken hostage – a captive in an unreal world created by your partner
  • Trapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear
  • Adapting your normal behaviour in order to survive
  • Loss of self-confidence and constantly doubting and questioning yourself

When they have children together perpetrators often continue to control their former partners even after the relationship has ended.  We’re now hearing stories of cameras being hidden in children’s bags or teddies to monitor what’s going on at home.

What can you do if you’re in a controlling relationship?

  • Collect as much evidence as you can, even if you don’t have any immediate use for it.  You have no idea how this is going to play out and it might be useful for the police, social services or in the family court.  Or even to convince yourself or someone else it’s all really happening.  So keep a diary and all texts, emails etc, and take notes, photos and videos of everything you possibly can.
  • Recognise that the nice behaviour and the abusive behaviour are both conscious decisions made by your partner, and let go of your guilt.  When they make threats of suicide, taking you back to court etc, don’t react emotionally, however bad you feel.  Just tell them that’s their choice and you’ve nothing to say about it. (Or maybe that you wouldn’t dream of trying to control them by telling them what to do!)
  • Reclaim your headspace.  No-one else has the right to live in your head, so start to catch your thoughts.  It takes a bit of concentration but you will find one thought dominates, eg I’m not good enough, or I can’t do this.  Ask yourself if it’s even your own thought, and then ‘is this thought helping me?’  No matter whether it’s true or not, is it helping you to feel better, and to get to a better place?  If not, ask yourself what would be a more helpful thought, and keep repeating that to yourself.  Or just repeat ‘I am in control’ as a constant mantra.
  • Always respond from your head, not your heart.  And, if it’s not a question, hopefully your head will tell you not to respond at all.
  • Make a plan to take back control of your life, one step at a time.  Where do you want to be in two years’ time?  What needs to happen to get there?  What is the first action you can take towards your new life?
  • Write a list of all the ways your (ex)partner controls you and next to each one put what you can do differently the next time.
  • Get all the support you can, from friends, family, domestic abuse agencies, therapists etc. so that you can start to change your fearful response to threats.  If, for example, you are threatened with court, think and talk through if it would really be so bad.  I can’t pretend family courts are anything but unpredictable and they do often make things worse with bad decisions, but usually an abuser will trip themselves up eventually.  In any event if you agree with them that it’s a good idea to go back to court, they are far less likely to apply!
  • Understand why you find it so hard to leave the relationship.  This is where I start to get out of my depth, being a lawyer and not a psychologist.   Sally Challen’s barrister is reported to have said: “The thing I’ve struggled with when I’ve talked to Sally is that she has said all along: ‘I still love him and I miss him so much.’”  The Guardian report goes on to say “Perhaps this more than anything shows how complete Richard Challen’s hold was. Not one family member, friend or neighbour the Guardian reporter spoke to had anything positive to say about him. It seems the only person grieving him is his devoted wife – serving life for his murder.”

Therapists explain such behaviour with talk of co-dependency, trauma-bonding and Stockholm syndrome, to name but three terms I have only a hazy understanding of.   So I’m sending out an invitation to any therapist reading this to write a guest blog to help us all understand why Sally Challen couldn’t leave.  And hopefully it might enable someone else to leave before they get to the point of murdering their partner.

If you’re in or have left a controlling relationship and need help with any legal issues, please do get in touch.