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“He used to hide either  5, 6 or 7 marked pound coins around the house - only he knew how many - and if I hadn’t got the right amount in my hand when he came home from work then he knew I hadn’t done enough  thorough cleaning and I would suffer.”

“It wasn’t just that I was walking on eggshells … I was making too much noise doing so.”

“He used to make me parade around the house naked in front of the children.  They saw my bruises, he wanted them to see what he had done.  I was so embarrassed and so was my teenage son.”

“Quite simply I lost the ability to choose.”

Coercive control comes in many guises. The new law making the coercive control of another in an intimate or family relationship illegal is due to come into force shortly. An important question we should all be asking is “am I ready as a professional to recognise the offence and support someone experiencing it?”

You’ll need to be familiar with the legislation if you want to support your client in reporting the matter to the police. The legislation has sections covering who can be a victim and who can be an offender. It covers how those people may be related and what their living circumstances are. It states what coercive and controlling behaviour looks like and the effects it has to have had to be an offence. It gives defences to the offence and states which type of indictment the offender must be convicted via to receive the maximum punishment of 5 years imprisonment.

Also, how will you find out if this offence is occurring in a household?

  • Firstly it will be important to look and listen. Listen and look out for signs of a generalised sense of fear. A generalised sense of fear comes from feeling like everything one does and every decision one makes will have a negative outcome and likely violent or abusive repercussions. This disables victims from making everyday choices and completing everyday tasks and creates doubt in their ability to do almost anything well or even adequately.
  • Secondly look out for manipulation by the perpetrator of the victim, children, bystanders and professionals alike. The perpetrator may pose as the victim, they may accuse the victim of substance misuse or of having mental health issues.
  • Thirdly look for patterns of behaviour which seem to erode a victim’s personality, dignity, autonomy and character. Look for unusual signs between the victim and their perpetrator - signs which, though subtle, cause the victim to act immediately and appear anxious and fearful. This might be a look, a gesture or in fact anything which may be unnoticed by others but will be a sign for the victim and/or children to obey.
  • Lastly ask the right question. Asking “what happened?” is unlikely to unlock the victim enough to tell you about the coercive control they are suffering. Events such as enforced prostitution or walking around the home backwards, eating from a dog’s bowl, punishing a child on behalf of the perpetrator (these are all real narratives from victims) will not be disclosed by asking a “what happened” question. It’s important to ask lifestyle questions such as “what’s life like for  you?”, “tell me what’s the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning?” and “tell me about what you do in this relationship that you would not normally choose to do but are too scared not to?” These will illicit lifestyle answers which will help you uncover abuse like coercive control.

It’s really important not to show judgement in your reactions to a victim’s disclosures. It can be extremely difficult and frightening for victims of this kind of abuse to say out loud what’s going on at home. To admit that the first thing they think about when they wake up is how scared they are that having sex with other men at their partner’s insistence will leave them with sexual health problems. Or to describe their anxiety about how to tell the other mums in the playgrounds that they can’t stop and chat as they’re being timed when out of the house - and that they’re being forced to hold the stopwatch themselves. All of this is so hard to talk about.

We will at last be able to hold perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour accountable for their actions. So come on, let’s be ready when the law comes into force.