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What is coercive control?

Discussing what defines abuse when there are no bruises

By Claudia Congrave

*TW: discussion of abuse and toxic relationships*

Last year, the BBC aired a documentary titled ‘Is this Coercive Control?, led by Journalist Ellie Flynn.

The documentary watched over a group of 20 people aged 18-25 with the intent of exploring how much they truly knew about what constitutes ‘coercive control’. With this in mind, the group were made to watch a drama, created by the show, that followed the story of a relationship between two people, Rachel and Alex.

To give you a brief background to the couple, they have been together for just 3 months after their relationship blossomed following Rachel’s move away from her hometown.

Initial scenes of the couple seem harmless enough, with Alex treating Rachel to a romantic dinner to mark their anniversary and also buying her a necklace before dropping the L bomb. Harmless romance- right?


In one scene, we see Rachel and Alex on a night out with some of Rachel’s work colleagues. This is the first instance where Alex’s jealous and vindictive personality is revealed.

After that, well, let’s just say it goes drastically downhill from there.

What unfolds after this short-lived romance is a sequence of events that will all amount to a situation of damaging emotional abuse. What’s more eye opening though is that the group of participants watching the drama are slow to pick up on what’s really going on.

Without giving a play by play of the documentary (which I HIGHLY suggest you watch, by the way), there are so many behaviours that require attention and discussion.

Alex displays many telling signs of emotional and psychological abuse, although they may not always manifest themselves in an obvious way.

By definition, emotional abuse or coercive behaviour are defined as acts or patterns of anything from verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics of intimidation or manipulation, accumulating to abusive behaviours that are intent on harming, punishing or threatening a victim.

In Rachel’s situation, there are many aspects of her life that make her vulnerable and susceptible to this kind of behaviour.

Living in a new country with a limited support network, as well as having a tendency to abuse alcohol. Alex proceeds to use these isolating factors to his advantage and demonstrates a long list of toxic behaviours that constitute as major red flags.

For example;

Marginalising her from friends

-cutting off her networks by not allowing her to see her friends and then changing the numbers in her phone so that she can’t contact them

Controlling what she can and can’t do

-constantly making her feel guilty for going out and leaving her abusive messages that would threaten her of the consequences

Stripping her of her independence

-secretly getting her fired from her job so that she is financially dependent on him, confining her to his house and making sure she misses out on new job possibilities

Filling her with insecurities

-calling her names and making her feel worthless by reiterating that she is useless and can’t do anything right

Altering her personality

-diminishing her self-worth to the point where she subconsciously changes the way she dresses and acts to please him

Blaming her for his actions

-displaying irrational or aggressive behaviour and then placing the blame on her by saying ‘look what you made me do’ and displacing responsibility

Using her vulnerabilities against her

-exploiting her abuse of alcohol and fuelling it to manipulate situations to his benefit

Instilling fear

-using fear as a method of control by constantly threatening of further consequences or displaying what he is capable of (eg: smashing a plate in front of her)

Sadly, the list goes on and these are just a few ways that coercive abuse features within Rachel and Alex’s relationship and, indeed, in the relationships of so many others.

One way in which this kind of behaviour is maintained is through Alex’s ability to dip in and out of the ‘nice guy’ act. In so many instances, Alex swaps in and out of an aggressive rage and back into the romantic partner who dotes on his girlfriend. The praise, the presents, the compliments- these are the rare ‘high moments’ that outshine the extreme lows.

When watching the documentary myself, I was able to identify instantly that the relationship was going in a dangerous direction. Perhaps that’s because I felt like I was watching back so many aspects of a previous toxic relationship of my own. Nevertheless, it shocked me to see that the research group failed to pick up on the warning signs too.

Many of the group suggested that Rachel’s personality was inviting Alex's reactions, referencing situations where Alex verbally abused Rachel and defending them on the grounds that they were ‘merely said in rage’.

“He smashed a few plates and got a bit angry, he’s just trying his best for her.”

"She’s been emotionally unstable since the beginning.”

I became so frustrated at the group’s swiftness to blame Rachel for the abuse she was suffering. Victim blaming the abused and circulating the idea that she must have done something to encourage Alex’s reaction.

Yet, the group’s inability to identify the issue was so indicative of how little we are taught about the definitions of abuse and how to spot them.

A final and pivotal moment in the documentary was when the group were posed with the question:

Did Alex commit a crime by emotionally abusing Rachel?

10% said ‘he’s guilty’

20% said they ‘didn’t know’

70% said no

It might surprise you, or it might not, to learn that coercive control/abuse is indeed a crime in the eyes of UK law. And yet, 90% of the observation group were unclear on this legality.

Due to the ongoing and impactful nature of Alex’s behaviour, he could have been convicted.

However, despite the legality of the situation, it was also stressed that convicting this behaviour is a big legal challenge, largely due to the need for evidence and proof beyond reasonable doubt. And so, the disbelief and victim blaming often trickles through to the courtroom.

Thus, in this instance, Alex was not prosecuted.

I found the whole drama very difficult to watch. Not just because of the events that unfolded, but because of the lack of education within the group around the topic of coercive control.

In the UK, there were 17,616 offences of coercive control recorded by the police in the year ending March 2019, compared with 9,053 in the year ending March 2018 (ONS, 2019).

Clearly, despite the ability to convict these crimes, cases are still on the rise- and these are just the cases that have been reported.

The BBC documentary clearly highlighted a failure of our society to teach people how to differentiate a healthy relationship from a toxic one.

Most potently, it revealed so much about our reluctancy to believe, support and gain justice for the victims.

I think it's about time we educate people on what constitutes abuse when there are no bruises.


*If any of the events mentioned in this article or in the documentary ring true to you, please seek help and advice from the links listed below. You are not alone.*



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