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Domestic Abuse - Controlling Coercive Behaviour

View profile for Kennedy Langley
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Domestic abuse isn’t always physical. Coercive and controlling behaviours a is a deliberate and calculated pattern of behaviour and psychological abuse designed to isolate, manipulate and terrorise a victim.

Recognising Coercive and Controlling Behaviour

Controlling and coercive behaviour is a form of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is not just physical harm inflicted by one party onto another but encompasses a spectrum of behaviours. Abuse can be financial, emotional, physical, sexual or psychological and more often than not, it starts slowly and crescendos, leaving the victim feeling powerless, isolated and lonely. A healthy relationship is one of love, trust and respect, not of domination. Abusers are fuelled by their need to empower and, crucially, to see the effect of that upon others.

Controlling behaviour is a range of acts over everyday life. The perpetrator often portrays their actions as “I am only doing this because I love you”, therefore reinforcing the cycle of dependency.

However, this long-term systematic bulling is ultimately not through a sense of love towards the victim and instead empowers the perpetrator.

If suffered over a long period of time, the abuse can feel normal, and victims can even experience feeling sympathy for the abuser, thus making it harder and harder to leave – or even consider leaving - the relationship.

Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in FPR 2010

The Family Procedure Rules 2010 helpfully sets out the definitions of coercive and controlling behaviour:

  1. Coercive behaviour is characterised by assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation with the objective of these acts being to harm, punish or frighten the victim.
  2. Controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent on the perpetrator.

Examples of coercive and controlling behaviour

Examples of this behaviour can include:

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family;
  • Monitoring or tracking a person via online communication tools or spyware;
  • Taking control over aspects of a person’s everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what they can eat, what they wear and when they can sleep;
  • Mocking a person, repeatedly putting a person down and/or telling them they are worthless;
  • Name calling, swearing or yelling;
  • Constantly reminding a person of their shortcomings;
  • Excluding a person from meaningful events/activities or ignoring them;
  • Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise a person;
  • Making threats to a person whether that be to hurt or kill, including threats to harm a child or another or threats to reveal or publish private information.


Gaslighting is a term that we hear far more often in recent years; however, it is not a new occurrence and falls under the category of coercive control. Gaslighting is when your partner makes you feel that you are losing your mind, your grip on reality and makes you question things that have happened or have been said.

Gaslighting can be so subtle that you may not even be aware it’s happening. Gaslighting is insidious with the gaslighter often training the victim not to question it. This is because successful gaslighting relies on the gaslighter causing you to believe that your own experiences and feelings are wrong.

Gaslighting is a serious form of abuse but is often not recognised until months have passed by.

Some typical examples of Gaslighting include:

  • Asking a partner why they didn’t take the rubbish out as they promised and they say “I never said I’d take it out.”
  • Trying to let your partner know that you have an issue with their behavior, and they turn around to be the victim of your insensitivity.
  • You’re becoming more successful in your career, but your partner finds ways to sabotage your confidence and put down your successes.
  • Trying to let your partner know that something they did upset/hurt you and being  told that you're sensitive, insecure or it was no big deal.
  • Being told by your partner that they only did something because they “love you”.
  • Being told by your partner that nobody will ever lover you but them and/or that you wouldn’t cope without them being there to help you

Recognising and identifying controlling and coercive behaviour in Family Law Proceedings

Sadly, coercive and controlling behaviour is not a new phenomenon. However, there remains a need for increased social awareness of such conduct to ultimately allow victims to recognise such behaviour and obtain the support they need from both the criminal and family courts.

The Family Courts are live to recognising controlling and coercive behaviour which can be identified in all types of family proceedings including injunctive proceedings, or in relation to Children Act proceedings and applications for contact.

Harm to Children Exposed to Abusive Behaviour

The Courts are also alert to the harm that can be caused to children who are exposed to an environment where there is abusive behaviour between adults.

The Courts have recognised that a child can be a victim of domestic abuse in their own right, by virtue of seeing, hearing, or experiencing the effects of, the abusive behaviours between the parents. Such abusive behaviours include coercive and controlling behaviour and remains the case even if the child is too young to be conscious of the behaviour.

This tension often arises where one party as made an application to the Court for contact with the child.

Where the Court is required to decide any question relating to a child’s upbringing, its paramount consideration is what is in the child’s best interests.

Furthermore, there is a statutory presumption that the involvement of a parent in a child's life will further its welfare unless there is evidence to the contrary.

The Courts have therefore had to grapple with the need for children for children to have relationships with both parents following separation, while also ensuring that they are not exposed to harm where coercive and controlling behaviour is identified as an issue.

Where domestic abuse is raised as an issue, the Court must therefore consider whether the statutory presumption in favour of contact applies. To do so, the Court will have regard to any allegation or admission domestic abuse to the child or parent, or any evidence indicating such abuse took place.

Steps to take to protect yourself

As explored above, domestic abuse is often subtle and far too often it is one person’s word against the other. Physical abuse results in bruises you can take photos of. Coercive control is cunning, hidden and questionable. Keeping a record of WhatsApps, emails or a diary is the first step a person can take to build their evidence to take to the police or solicitor.

Sending those messages to a friend or family member to keep them safe is a good idea if you fear your email or mobile are compromised.

Applications you can make to protect yourself

The Family Courts offer protection from coercive and controlling behaviour in the form of non-molestation orders and occupation orders. These are both forms of injunctions and offer different forms of protection:

  • A non-molestation order - prevents your partner, former partner or associated person from being violent or threatening violence towards you or any children. It also prevents intimidation, harassment and pestering (including in-person or remotely by letter, email, phone or social media) so as to ensure your - and your children's – safety.
  • An occupation order - defines who can live in the family home. It can also prevent your abuser from being in the nearby area. You can also get an occupation order if you have left home because of violent behaviour but want to return without your abuser living there.

A breach of a Non-Molestation Order is a criminal offence and a power of arrest is automatically attached. This means that your abuser can be arrested for any breach of the order.

The advantage of a non-molestation order therefore means that its mere existence can reduce or eliminate the abuser’s controlling or coercive behaviour.

There is no court fee required to make the application and Legal Aid is often available.

Next steps

At mfg Solicitors LLP, we are specialists in all areas of Family Law. If you require assistance in navigating contact applications where domestic abuse is an issue, or in applying for a non-molestation order or occupation order, we are here to help.

Please do not hesitate to get in touch with our Family Team by calling 01562 820181 who will be on hand to discuss matters with you. You can also email