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Domestic Violence: Is Non-physical abuse domestic violence?

If you or your children are in immediate danger, please call 999 and ask for the police. You can also call the 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

It is an unfortunate truth that the recent COVID-19 lockdown has made the lives of thousands of domestic violence victims immeasurably more dangerous. It is thought that the number of domestic killings in the UK has nearly doubled during the lockdown; a truly horrifying statistic. In an average week, two women per week are killed in their homes, but in the first four weeks of lockdown, 13 women and four children were killed by men in the home. In this article, we will discuss why non-physical abuse, including in the form of coercion, is classified as domestic violence, and why it can escalate considerably with sometimes tragic consequences.

Protection for immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse/violence

Under UK immigration law, a person who has come to the UK on spouse/partner visa, and has become the victim of domestic violence, may be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR), allowing them to remain permanently in the UK without being subject to immigration control, or being reliant on their partner to stay. Victims of domestic abuse without sufficient financial resources may also be eligible for the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession, which provides three months' leave to remain and allows them to apply for public benefits and funds.

For more information, please read our article, 'All You Need To Know About Domestic Abuse And ILR'.

Is non-physical abuse classified as domestic violence or abuse?

Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 implemented a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. This means that domestic violence or abuse is not restricted to acts of physical violence and/or threats; it can include sexual violence, emotional or psychological abuse, harassment, and coercive and controlling behaviour (including financially controlling behaviour). There is no statutory legal definition of domestic violence, but the cross-governmental definition states that "any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality".

Controlling behaviour is characterised by acts which are intended to make a person feel subordinate or dependent on their partner by:

  • Isolating them from sources of support.
  • Exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain.
  • Depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance, and escape.
  • Regulating their everyday behaviour.

In addition, coercive behaviour is characterised by threats, humiliation, and intimidation or other abuse used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim.

The homicide timeline

It is not the case that perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse are necessarily physically violent at the outset, rather those that go on to kill in the home pass through a number of stages. In August 2019, Dr. Jane Monckton-Smith, a former police officer and forensic criminologist at the University of Gloucester published a research paper entitled, 'Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide' which included the following findings:

Early stages of a relationship

According to Monckton-Smith, relationships that lead to killing typically start in a very different manner to how they later develop. But in many cases, there is a rapid progression to possessiveness and control; as she explains "It appeared that normal romantic expectations and activities were present, but speeded up. In one case, this commitment was achieved before the two had physically met; in another case, the perpetrator moved into the family home on the night they got together. In another case, the victim was pregnant within a month and the two married within six months. There was a tendency noted for perpetrators to use possessive language like "you're mine" and "we'll be together forever", and early declarations of love were also common".


The research showed that as commitment increased, so did control and coercive patterns of behaviour. This included:

  • lack of freedom
  • implementing stalking
  • monitoring
  • distrust
  • accusations of being unfaithful
  • enforcing of rules

In many cases, such behaviour was tolerated with the justification, "it's not worth the trouble, it's better to just do what he wants." During this phase, if a perpetrator became upset, the consequences were not always violent, but the potential for violence was constant, and in some cases, this may include sexual violence.

The duration of this stage can vary immensely, according to the researchers, from a matter of only a few weeks to 50 years.


In the later stages, the researchers found that the level of abuse, control, or stalking would increase, typically as a way to re-establish control and status within the relationship. The perpetrator may use a wider range of tactics such as begging, crying, threats of violence, violence, stalking, or suicide threats.

A change in thinking

Following a period of escalation, if the perpetrator feels a sense of perceived irretrievable loss of control and/or status, it was then that they may have the first thoughts of killing. Of real concern at this point is that according to research, "when people make an emotional decision to kill in this context, and especially where revenge is a motive, they can be rigid in their adherence to their plan".

The final stages are planning and the act of homicide itself.

The importance of taking action

While only very few cases of domestic violence and abuse ever escalate to homicide, non-physical abuse such as control and coercion can lead to the threat of serious physical danger. Immigrants in the UK on a spouse/partner visa who are experiencing control and coercion may be able to secure ILR to remain in the UK without reliance on their partner to do so. Simply knowing that there is no need to stay with an abusive or violent partner in order to remain in the UK will hopefully provide reassurance that it is possible to move on to a brighter future.

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