What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse in which a person attempts to exert an unreasonable, oppressive amount of control over their partner’s life. They may, for example:

  • Impose rules about where the victim can go and who they can talk to.
  • Insist the victim can only wear certain clothes or eat certain foods.
  • Constantly monitor their partner’s movements, phoning and texting them with demands for updates on their whereabouts.
  • Monitor and restrict the victim’s activities online.
  • Restrict access to money or medical treatment.
  • Try to cut the victim off from their friends and family.

Emotional abuse of various kinds is also commonplace, grinding down the recipient’s self-confidence and ability to resist. Examples of this could include:

  • Insulting and humiliating the victim.
  • Making threats or behaving in an intimidating manner.
  • ‘Gaslighting’ – encouraging their partner to doubt their memories and perceptions by, for example, subtly or blatantly belittling their feelings, denying that certain things occurred, or making misleading statements. The curious name is a reference to a 1938 play called ‘Gas Light’, which depicted this kind of behaviour.

Is coercive control illegal?

Yes, it is now a criminal offence, but it did not become so until as recently as 2015. The Serious Crime Act of that year made a number of changes to the law, including the introduction, in section 27, of a new offence: ‘Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship’.

To be at risk of prosecution, the perpetrator must “repeatedly or continuously” engage in acts that they “know or ought to know” will have a “serious effect” on a person with whom they are “personally connected” – so the alleged victim must be a family member or someone they are in “an intimate personal relationship” with – or previously were.

The coercive behaviour must have caused the victim “to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against them” or else “serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities”. Conviction could result in a large fine or imprisonment for as long as five years – and perhaps both.

It is worth remembering that this law is gender neutral. Although coercive control is often stereotyped as something done by men to women, women have been convicted of this behaviour too.

Is coercive control grounds for divorce?

It is indeed. Under current legislation, in order to apply for divorce it is necessary to cite one of five “facts”. These are:

  • Adultery.
  • Desertion.
  • Two years’ separation, as long as your spouse consents to divorce.
  • Five years’ separation, even if your spouse does not consent.
  • Your spouse has behaved “in such a way that you cannot reasonably be expected to live with them”.

The latter fact, more commonly known simply as “unreasonable behaviour”, is by far the most commonly cited ground and coercive control would certainly qualify as unreasonable behaviour, even if your partner has not yet been convicted of the offence in court.

From late 2021 there will be a major change to this decades-old system. When the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 comes into force, it will completely remove the need to cite any of these past-their-sell-by-date reasons. Instead, couples on the verge of going their separate ways will simply need to make a formal declaration that the marriage has irretrievably broken down – and very few family courts are likely to question such a declaration if one spouse has engaged in abusive, controlling behaviour.

Contact us here at Major Family Law today for advice on all aspects of divorce and separation.

Image by fatbwoy via Flickr (Creative Commons)