It was in the news recently that the adult son of Sally Challen managed to have his mother’s case reviewed. After lengthy consideration she was released from prison. She was serving a life sentence for the pre-meditated murder of her husband. She bludgeoned him with a hammer twenty times as he was sat at the table eating bacon and eggs. It subsequently took a suicide prevention team several hours to talk her back from the cliff edge at Beachy Head. According to their son she had suffered years and years of systematic humiliating psychological abuse and control. Coercive control became a criminal offence four years after her trial as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015.

In all the time that I have been involved in safeguarding I have encountered all the kinds of abuse listed in the Care Act 2014 Guidance and coercive control has been prominent among them. It is only with the advent of the Serious Crimes Act and the Care Act and the accompanying upgrade in the adult safeguarding model that the term ‘coercive control’ has entered the public consciousness. It is a very useful term, particularly for the police and those of us in health and social care who work to protect children and adults.

Hidden category of abuse

Prior to its inception as a defined category of abuse it was a hard one to pin down. Of course there is nothing new about what it is, but it’s lack of a name or definition helped to keep it hidden. And hidden it often is; relationships are private, we are not supposed to know what goes on behind closed doors. It is a feature of coercive control that both parties present a normal, even, happy and successful partnership to the outside world. That is the power of the coercion that goes on, it is a self-perpetuating form of abuse because so much of the controlling behaviour is about preparing and maintaining the internal environment of the relationship so that the controlee has no power to question it and/or feels he or she has no credibility in order to reach out to outsiders for help.

So what exactly is coercive control?

Firstly it can occur in any kind of relationship; familial, fraternal, professional or intimate. There are commonly power imbalances within all relationships, usually for normal or practical reasons; one would expect a boss to be more experienced, skilled and knowledgeable than their employee therefore the boss would be expected to have more power and control in that relationship. Within families or couples there are still similar imbalances and one person naturally confers some level of authority to another if that other person is better at dealing with that aspect of life for example one party is better at organising household expenditure so therefor controls the budget. But those arrangements are usually reciprocal, mutually beneficial and most importantly agreed by both parties without any pressure or excessive submission by one or the other. Coercive control is the systematic psychological subjugation of another person. It rarely turns into physical violence but the threat maybe there along with other implied drastic consequences such as the termination of the relationship, homelessness, public humiliation or removal of access to the children.


A common element of this abusive behaviour was demonstrated in the George Cukor directed thriller ‘Gaslight’ of 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman; a woman’s confidence and sense of agency is undermined by the new man in her life as he manipulates her and those around her into believing she was ill and lacking mental capacity. The film depicted it so well that the term ‘gaslighting’ is used by the police and safeguarding agencies to this day to describe this kind of activity. Other prominent features include the control of the other person’s finances, severely restricting their choices and freedoms. Preventing the victim from seeing their friends and family, at the same time demeaning and devaluing all other relationships. Belittling the victim, criticising the way they dress, the way they talk and deciding for them how they should go about these things. The abuser will have a paranoid level of vigilance focused on the victim’s behaviour; mobile phones, text messages, emails, bank statements even the car mileage can all be subsumed into the abuser’s jurisdiction and subject to scrutiny.

Not all coercive control takes place in long term relationships

It may be part of the well-practiced modus operandi of individuals who are expected to be influential and who are used to getting their way; again power is the key consideration. Witness the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the behaviour of Jimmy Savile.

It’s not always over when it’s over

I have been involved in some cases where the victim has managed to break free either on their own or with help. But then the controlling behaviour mutates into stalking behaviour. This can be extreme in nature; we’re talking trackers being taped to cars or breaking in and hiding in the victim’s loft to watch over them or turning up at the victim’s place of work.

Coercive control is a complex form of abuse and there are complex reasons as to how it comes about which are to do with the types of personalities involved and the unique dynamics of their relationship but one of the reasons it often persists for so long is that the victim is forced, by their own fear and absence of control, to comply. It is extremely hard for them to see a way out or to feel that they will be believed. The victims in these cases sometimes deny there is a serious problem or they fluctuate as to whether or not they want any help. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 can be brought to bear in some safeguarding cases because an individual’s capacity is compromised if they are subject to fear or coercion. I have known cases where the MCA itself can be abused (see ‘gaslighting’ above) to affect control. I have been involved in two cases where Lasting Powers of Attorney were being abused and we had to take steps to remove the LPAs as part of the safeguarding strategy.

The growth and widening awareness of adult safeguarding and associated processes such as MARAC have provided a lifeline for people, predominantly women, experiencing coercive control. The police and social services are now experienced at disrupting this kind of abuser and enabling their victims to break out of these extremely damaging relationships. If this were the case a few years ago, then perhaps Sally Challen needn’t have resorted to such a drastic solution.

Steve Wilcox
Psychiatry-UK Designated Safeguarding Lead