Woman Hiding Behind a Smiley Face Picture, Behind Bars - Coercive Control: 7 Reasons Why Women Don't Leave - Sandra Harewood Counselling

Coercive Control: 7 Reasons Why Women Don’t Leave


When Sally Challen walked free from the Old Bailey in London last Friday, many saw this as a landmark decision for how the legal system treats domestic abuse. European countries, including England and Wales, are taking the lead on redefining domestic abuse.  And slowly there has been a build of awareness about a particular aspect of this, i.e. coercive control.

Things historically considered as ‘normal’ in family life are now rightly recognised as abusive behaviour.  Society has conditioned us to think that abuse is only physical. Abuse is that, but it also covers a whole range of things where the scars are invisible.

Time Lost

Sally Challen does not have to face a retrial after prosecutors accepted her manslaughter plea for killing her abusive husband.  How tragic it is that it took the actual loss of life, to recognise the abuse.  This abuse almost cost Sally Challen her life, and in many ways like other abused women, she has experienced tremendous loss.

Time is the most valuable thing that a man can spend. Diogene

She served nearly a decade in prison.  Ten years is a long time.  What has happened in your life in the past ten years?  Birthdays, Christmas’, family celebrations, losses and holidays I imagine, in amongst the ordinariness of day to day life.  Or perhaps ten years of living with coercive control.

Coercive Control: Covert Abuse

Many women experience coercive control, but they don’t have a name for the experience.  What they do know is how they feel.  They feel trapped, anxious, isolated, confused, lonely, fearful, not in control, desperate, guilty and shame.

And I hear clients say so often questioning themselves “Why can’t I just leave?”  In Sally Challen’s case, she spent 31 years in this marriage, left only to return to attempt a reconciliation.  That’s a lot of birthdays spent in an abusive relationship; a lot of valuable time spent.

When women come to terms with what is happening, some of the most hurtful things they hear is “If you’re not happy, why don’t you just leave?” or “Why didn’t she leave sooner?”

On average, it takes women seven attempts before they finally leave an abusive relationship for good.

So Sally Challen is not alone.  Why do women stay?

Why Doesn’t She Leave?

To the outsider, the answer seems so simple.  Leave.  But it’s not that easy. With a controlling partner, there are invisible barriers to women leaving and barriers to fully disconnecting once they have left.

Here are 7 reasons why women don’t leave:

1.  Not recognising the coercive control.

Many women don’t recognise the control. They accept difficult dynamics in the relationship as part of the ordinary highs and lows of any relationship.  If she experienced childhood emotional neglect or was raised by a controlling or narcissistic parent(s) what’s going on in the adult relationship might feel familiar and ordinary.

Children who suffer neglect often don’t realise the neglect.  But the child grows up wondering about their self-worth and value. The pattern of neglect is then unconciously replicated in their adult intimate relationships because this is the platform on which relationships are based. This is what a ‘normal’ relationship looks and feels like.  It is their norm.

When Gaslighting is used to manipulate the victim to believe that abusive behaviour isn’t happening, isn’t that bad or is normal, this reinforces the victims own internalised beliefs.

2. Minimising the coercive control

When they do begin to wake up and see things differently, they might recognise the control but reduce it and deny what is happening.  You might hear her say “I know he’s controlling, but he doesn’t mean it.” or “That’s how his father and brothers behave; that’s what men do in his family.” or “He had a difficult childhood, I understand why he is controlling, I love him, that’s all that matters.”.  

It may well also be that when they turn to friends and family, they, in turn, minimise the controlling behaviour.  They acknowledge the action but expect the victim to tolerate, manage or capitulate to it.  They might say “It’s not that bad.”  This can cause the victim to second-guess herself and question her own newly awakened instincts keeping her in the relationship.

3.  Trauma Bonding or Stockholm Syndrome.

Trauma bonding is when the victim feels a close attachment to an abusive or controlling person.

We experience trauma when our sense of safety and survival are threatened.  Then high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are released into the body.  Naturally, we then want to be soothed.  At such times we turn to the person seen as the caregiver in our life. This is someone who provides support, protection, and care.

When we do that, oxytocin, commonly called the ‘love hormone’ is produced by the hypothalamus and released from the brain. At the same time, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in response to receiving affection.  Both chemicals, therefore, change our moods.

All of this means that biologically there is a deepening of the feeling of comfort and attachment with the caregiver.  In adult relationships, this ‘caregiver’ is often our intimate love partner.

Trauma bonds occur when the person we consider our significant other is also the one perpetrating trauma and threatening our safety through abusive behaviour.  As we are programmed from birth to turn to an attachment figure when threatened, we instinctively turn to our romantic partners when abuse occurs.  We do this even if they are the ones who are being abusive.  This connection leads to us feeling bonded to them.

So, she stays because her body is telling her to. They biologically feel strongly connected to the abuser and have a hard time imagining life without them.

4. The abuse cycle

Linked to trauma bonding is the Cycle of Abuse.  The model was developed in 1979 by Lenore E. Walker to explain patterns of behaviour in an abusive relationship.

Although one phase of the cycle refers explicitly to an evident act of abuse, each part is equally important and in and of itself abusive. It is not unusual for acts of care to mask controlling behaviour. Typically the cycle starts with a build-up of tension, followed by overt abuse, reconnection and a period of calm.

The cycle describes what is happening in the relationship to trigger and sustain trauma bonding. She stays because she thinks things will get better, and because of the cycle of abuse periodically they do.

5.  Betrayal

The control is often invisible to onlookers. Others may consider the couple to be happy, but, behind closed doors, things can be very different.

Controlling personalities, particularly those who have narcissistic traits, are skilled at presenting a persona which is charming, helpful and courteous.  The illusion is subtle and convincing.  But A. H Almaas says narcissists fear being found phoney.

Fakeness: A singularly defining manifestation of narcissism is the feeling of being fake, unreal, lacking authenticity.

During the relationship, it’s not unusual because of fear, shame or denial for the victim to also invest in maintaining the illusion.  When she starts to present her truth, people close to her find this challenging.  They don’t believe her and even think she is over dramatic.  This doubt leaves her feeling betrayed, isolated and without the support to make such significant changes in her life.

6. Coercive control & Mental Health

Research by Birmingham University has shown that female survivors of domestic abuse are three times more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and severe mental illness.

Sally Challen has a diagnosed adjustment disorder.  Others experience Complex PTSD.  Previous studies have also shown the survivors undertake more unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking and excessive drinking.

What all this means is that the individual’s inner resources, confidence and capacity to leave are diminished. Ironically she may become more dependant on the controlling partner.

7.  Coercive control & Fear

When you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, there is a lot tied up with it.  This includes identity, security, familiarity, future hopes and dreams.  When the relationship ends, all that is lost.  The future looks uncertain.  Paradoxically, the certainty of what is known, although uncomfortable, seems like the better option than starting over again.

Then there is the real fear of punishment, violence or retaliation.  If you’re living with someone whose behaviour is unpredictable, the thought of leaving is scary. There is a fear of what the partner will do.  Violence reinforces control.

Women also worry about the impact of leaving on children and fearful about how it will disrupt their children’s lives.  The fear of losing contact with a child is real for many women.  Child alienation, which, when a result of psychological manipulation is child abuse, is not uncommon.

The Importance of Empathy

Coercive control is invariable subtle. Inevitably, there’s a complex mix of tactics used to make the control work.  And as you can see, there is an even more complex mix of reasons why women stay.  It’s not easy to leave when you don’t know what’s going on and the abuse is normalised.

The person perpetrating the control lacks empathy.  As we collectively come to terms with this form of abuse, I hope that there will be more empathy for survivors, as there was for Sally Challen. With compassion comes the opportunity for understanding and healing from the devastating impact of coercive control.

Instead, we might ask how it served the abuser to stay.

Over to You

Do you experience coercive control in your relationship?  If you want a safe space to understand, talk and figure out what’s going on, get in touch and book your first counselling appointment.

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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* Domestic abuse affects men and women.  This post refers to women as in my counselling practice, I work predominately with women and specialise in women’s issues.  It is important to note that if you are in a dangerous situation or relationship, please act in the way that best ensures your safety. Some places can offer you specialist support to deal with what you’re experiencing, or help you to find a way out if you want that: please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

© Sandra Harewood 2019

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore and discover creative solutions to their difficulties and create a great relationship.