Domestic abuse can often involve physical violence, where an abuser harms someone leaving visible marks and scars. But abuse can also be physiological – something that is referred to as coercive and controlling behaviour. This type of abuse leaves no marks or scars but can cause victims to lose their freedom and experience fear on a daily basis.

Sometimes, abuse within a relationship may start with controlling behaviour and then later become physical.

There is a growing awareness around the effects of coercive and controlling behaviour – defined as the ongoing emotional and psychological abuse of a partner or close family member through threats and/or restrictions. Some examples of these behaviours are listed belowif you recognise any, there are a number of people who can offer you advice and support on what to do next.

In December 2014, the government announced new laws to help police and other agencies take action against perpetrators who control or coerce their partner, ex parent or close family member.

This page outlines how new legislation in this area works, how you can spot the signs of coercive or controlling behaviour in a relationship and where help and support is available.

What types of behaviour are associated with coercion or control?

The types of behaviour associated with coercion or control might include:

  • isolating a person from their friends, family, colleagues
  • monitoring their time, e.g. stalking their movements or controlling how they spend their time
  • monitoring social media accounts or using spyware to track their mobile phone and other devices
  • restricting access to communication, e.g. changing passwords on tablets and online accounts
  • making unreasonable demands
  • taking control over aspects of a person’s 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, telling them they are worthless
  • taking control of that person’s own finances, giving them an ‘allowance’ or forcing them to take on debts
  • taking food away or limiting their food, this can be connected to saying they are overweight
  • making threats or using intimidation if a person’s behaviour, or choices, isn’t to their liking; being threatened or intimidated into changing it. This can include sex too
  • criminal damage to property, such as destruction of household goods and valuable personal items, including texts and emails
  • preventing them from having access to transport or from working.

Coercive or controlling behaviour does not relate to a single incident – it is a purposeful pattern of incidents which takes place over time in order for one individual to exert power, control or coercion over another.

How healthy is your realtionship? Take our quiz.

Signs of an unhealthy and controlling relationship

You can’t do the things you want to do

In a healthy relationship, there’s an acceptance from both people that an important part of a relationship is the need for independence, as well as doing things together, such as having your own interests or separate friends.

If you feel like you’re not able to have these things, or have needed to give up things that are important to you in order to please your partner or to avoid their bad behaviour, this may be a sign of an abusive relationship.

Your unhappiness doesn’t matter, or they contribute to it

Often abusers are unwilling to listen to why you’re unhappy or will tell you that it doesn’t matter. He or she may also put you down, say you you’re stupid and unattractive or that no one else will love you.

This is emotional abuse and can affect your confidence and self-esteem. If you’re not allowed to do the things you want, or feel isolated from family and friends, talk to someone who can help.

They blame you for their behaviour

There is no excuse for domestic abuse but often abusers will blame other things, or even the victim themselves.

For example, they might say it’s because they had too much to drink or had taken drugs, and this is the reason why they are being abusive. They may also try to diminish your reaction to what’s happening – saying you deserved it or that because they didn’t hit you, it’s not abuse. They may even pretend it didn’t happen.

For this reason, it can take a long time for some people to recognise they are experiencing domestic abuse.

The truth is, there is no excuse for domestic abuse and it’s never the victim’s fault.  The abuser is responsible for the way they choose to behave.

You are not alone

You can call the police for help on 101 if you feel you are a victim of coercive control. Police call handlers are experienced in supporting people and understand how difficult these situations can be.

You can also contact the police online by completing a secure Report a Crime or Incident Form.

Your report will be dealt with by a police officer who has had specialist training in dealing with domestic abuse – you can expect to be treated professionally and feel supported.

You may also receive support from a specialist Victim and Witness Care Officer through the Lighthouse Victim and Witness Care programme. They will offer you advice and with your permission, make referrals to local organisations and agencies who can offer you further help and support.

You may also be offered support from an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor.

We do understand it can be difficult to talk about things. However, you don’t have to suffer in silence. If you don’t feel able to speak with police, there are a number of other specialist agencies who are ready to take your call.

Advice for family and friends

Many people who’ve experienced domestic abuse say they didn’t recognise they were in an abusive relationship until they were out of it.

If you think a friend, relative, neighbour or colleague may be in an abusive relationship, either physical or physiological, our help guide has detailed advice on the things you can do which can provide emotional and practical support for that person.

Download the Domestic Abuse: Friends and Family Help Guide

Reporting you concerns is important too as your information could be vital in ensuring we know about the crimes being committed, so action can be taken to keep that person safe.

Even if it’s something small – it could be nothing, but it might mean everything.

To report concerns, you can contact Crimestoppers anonymously, who will pass on your concerns to an appropriate organisation. You don’t have to give any of your personal details and calls are never traced.

Contact independent charity Crimestoppers 24/7 on Freephone 0800 555 111.

You can also contact the police directly by calling 101 or make a report online. If someone is in danger or it is an emergency, always call 999.