What is coercive control and what to do if you think you're a victim?

ITV Cymru Wales weather presenter Ruth Dodsworth has bravely shared her own story on a number of occasions this year

The issue of coercive control made headlines earlier this year after it emerged that Ruth Dodsworth, an ITV Cymru Wales presenter, had been a victim herself. 

Ruth bravely shared her story on a number of occasions, recounting what happened to her in newspaper interviews and on ITV’s This Morning and Lorraine programmes.

Speaking on Lorraine last month, Ruth said: "I became a possession. It's very dehumanising, it's degrading, it's humiliating, you don't necessarily realise. But absolutely I was a possession."

Ruth explained in that interview how she never really realised she was being subjected to coercive behaviour. 

So what exactly is coercive and controlling behaviour? And what can you do if you think you, or someone you know, could be a victim?

Here, we look at the legislation, its effectiveness so far and we hear from those whose job it is to help victims take their lives back. 

Coercive and controlling behaviour was made a criminal offence in 2015

Coercive control has only been a criminal offence in England and Wales for six years. 

Implemented in law on December 29 2015, the "controlling or coercive behaviour" offence was designed to give people in close relationships - be it familial or romantic - greater legal protection from possessive and threatening behaviour; behaviour that can seriously impact someone's life. 

When the law was introduced, it was done so to "close a gap in the law around patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour during a relationship between intimate partners, former partners who still live together, or family members", according to the Home Office. 

Coercive or controlling behaviour can cover a broad range of incidents or patterns of behaviour, where someone takes deliberate measures to influence, manipulate and seek to take control over someone else's life. 

Although the terms 'coercive' and 'controlling' are generally used as part of the same phrase and legal terminology, they are slightly different. 

Lawmakers define coercive behaviour as "an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation” that is used to "harm, punish or frighten" their victim. 

Whereas controlling behaviour is defined as "a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent on them by isolating them from sources of support."

Ruth was reunited with the detective who managed her case, for a special Wales This Week programme to air on Monday

In Ruth's case, she was subjected to both forms of behaviour. 

Her ex-husband's controlling behaviour included taking her bank card, preventing her from seeing family and friends and fitting a tracking device to her car. 

His coercive behaviour included turning up at Ruth's workplace and even forcing her to spend her lunch hours with him in the car. 

What is important to note is that, since December 29 2015, these acts now constitute criminal behaviour and can be punished accordingly. 

Ruth's ex-husband was jailed for three years for his coercive and controlling behaviour.

Welsh Women's Aid, a charity which works to bring an end to domestic abuse and all forms of violence against women, says coercive control is "an environment" created by someone who knows their victim's vulnerabilities.

Sara Kirkpatrick, CEO of Welsh Women's Aid, said: "Coercively controlling behaviour is customised abuse. And it is not incidents, it is an environment that is created," she said.

"And it is created by someone who knows what the vulnerabilities of their victim are, and chooses to target them. So it's a really, really pervasive experience for someone who's living with it.

Ruth said she had difficulty in realising she was a victim. 

Police forces in Wales, it appears, also have difficulty in bringing charges and securing convictions both for coercive control crimes specifically and, more broadly, domestic abuse offences. 

Freedom of Information (FOI) data obtained by ITV Cymru Wales revealed that there have been almost 40,000 recorded domestic abuse offences this year. Less than a tenth of those resulted in charges.

When asked how many of those were for coercive and controlling behaviour - within the forces that answered that question, the combined figure was just 1%. 

DCI Eve Davis, the force lead on domestic abuse for South Wales Police, said there was more work to be done to improve the legal protection and support for victims. 

"There obviously have been past cases that haven’t been dealt with as well as we would have liked, and we accept that,” she said. 

"But what I would say is we’ve done a lot of training, we’ve got a lot of focus on a local and national level that makes this a priority for UK policing. 

"There’s definitely an improvement to be made where charges need to be brought. I wouldn’t say there is one specific reason why the attrition rates are so low. 

"I think we need to work on supporting victims to come forward, having confidence in the police service to do the right thing, and also engaging with partner agencies like the crown prosecution service who ultimately have the decision as to whether a charge is brought against someone or not.” 

Sara also believes much more work needs to be done to create an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward. 

"In terms of the legal system and particularly the criminal justice system, it is a vital component,” she said. 

"We need survivors to be listened to and be believed, we do need to see an improvement in prosecution and successful prosecution.”

ITV Cymru Wales approached the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for a comment on prosecution rates for coercive and controlling behaviour offences. They told us they do not hold centrally recorded information relating to the specific offence.

So what support is out there for victims and what should you do if you think you may be a victim?

There are many charities and support services in Wales that work to support victims of domestic violence and that includes coercive or controlling behaviour. 

Rachel, an independent domestic abuse adviser, or IDVA, works to help people who are experiencing domestic abuse. 

She has her own personal experiences of coercive control.

"When I made my first disclosure it was like a whirlwind," she says.

"I remember quite clearly how frightening it was. And it's turning something that was horrifically negative at that period of my life and making it positive.

For victims, experiencing coercive control can have a huge impact on their lives. 

"An IDVA service can be a voice of reason. Being subjected to control, anxiety, fear, when that has been part of your life for so long - or even a short term relationship - it impacts you," Rachel explains. 

"It impacts your self-confidence, your self-esteem, your way of thinking, your belief in others, your trust in yourself and your own decision making."

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic abuse you can visit:  

  • The Live Fear Free website or call the helpline on 0808 80 10 800

  • Safer Wales or call them on 029 2022 0033

  • Email The DYN Project at support@dynwales.org or call them on 0808 801 0321

  • Email BAWSO at or call them on 0800 7318147

  • Email Llamau at or call them on 029 2023 9585

  • Email Relate Cymru at or call them on 0300 003 2340

  • Email Deaf Hope at deafhope@deaf-hope.org

You can watch Wales This Week: Tackling Coercive Control on ITV Cymru Wales at 8pm on Monday 6 December. The programme will also be available online shortly after its transmission.