How to identify perpetrators of domestic abuse and coercive control

Much practice and research is focused on working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, rather than on perpetrators

broken eggshells
People who experience domestic abuse can feel as though they are walking on eggshells. Photo: avelina_boyko/Fotolia

An in-depth guide for Community Care Inform Children and Adults provides information and guidance about working with perpetrators, how perpetrator programmes work and techniques to engage perpetrators. The guides are written by Professor Nicole Westmarland, director of Durham university’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse. Community Care Inform subscribers can read the guide on Inform Adults and Inform Children. Here, we present a few key points from the piece.

Domestic abuse was a feature of more than half of serious case reviews carried out between 2011 and 2014. It is an issue that social workers in any service area may encounter, from pre-birth assessments to work with older people. But much practice and research is focused on working with the victims and survivors of domestic abuse, not the perpetrators. This was also highlighted in a recent report by inspectorates including Ofsted, which found that social services and partner agencies are not focusing enough on perpetrators.

Identifying the perpetrator

To identify who is doing what to whom, with what consequences and in what context, in order to understand who is the perpetrator and who is the victim and tailor responses appropriately, practitioners need to look at as many of the following as possible:

  • injuries and whether they could have been caused in self-defence;
  • fear and coercive control;
  • a history of violence and threats;
  • the context in which incidents took place.

Useful questions to ask to find out this sort of information include:

  • Are you afraid of what your partner will do to you or the children if you take certain decisions or do certain things?
  • Do you feel free to live your life in the way you choose?
  • Do you feel like you are frequently ‘walking on eggshells’?
  • Do you change what you do because you are fearful of your partner’s reactions to you?
  • Do you have equal access to finances?
  • Have you been injured? Can you tell me more about this?
  • Have you ever felt you had to use violence to defend yourself or your children? Can you tell me more about this?

Seeing the larger picture, not just ‘the incident’

Research with men who have used violence and abuse against a partner shows that they often talk about domestic abuse as though it was ‘a one off’, or that a single act of physical violence is disconnected to the use of power, coercion and control within their relationships more generally. Domestic abuse is never a single, one-off ‘incident’ and practitioners shouldn’t use this language because it can have a reinforcing message. Remember that the ‘incident’ which has made them come to your attention is likely to be one of many. Simply remembering this and not focusing solely on ‘the incident’ can help you contextualise any assessments, interventions and/or support. Questions that might be asked of victims and/or children to piece this larger picture together include: What was happening before this happened? Is this the worst thing he’s done or has there been worse? How often do you feel afraid?

When talking to men, it is important to remember that they may try to minimise their actions by focusing only on the ‘incident’ for which they have come to social services’ attention. Hearn (1998) notes that men seek to represent themselves as ‘not violent men’, their actions as being ‘out of character’: the violence is presented as ‘incidental’ to their lives.

Understanding coercive control

It is linked to this larger picture and not just ‘the incident’ where a more nuanced understanding of domestic abuse is important. The concept of ‘coercive control’ – now a criminal offence – can be useful in getting a deeper understanding of partner violence. Stark’s (2009) concept of ‘coercive control’ emerged out of accounts from female victims and how their day-to-day lives were controlled by their partners. It was the ‘everydayness’ that was the most restrictive and impactful on their lives – their freedom to be who they wanted to be and live their lives in the way they wanted to that was narrowed because of the potential for violence and abuse.

Following this, Kelly and Westmarland (2016) argue that ‘seeing a survivor as someone who is being controlled, rather than abused, may enable practitioners and informal network members to better understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence, to not expect that they “should just leave”.’

For information and support about working with perpetrators and referring to perpetrator programmes, contact the Respect Phoneline.


Hearn, J (1998)
The Violences of Men

Kelly, L and Westmarland, N (2016)
Naming and defining ‘Domestic Violence’ – lessons from research with violent men
Feminist Review, Volume 112, Issue 1, pp113-27

Stark, E (2009)
Coercive Control – How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life
Oxford University Press

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5 Responses to How to identify perpetrators of domestic abuse and coercive control

  1. Social worker October 2, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    What about the research into men as victims? I believe we are missing a lot of research, resources and voices of the men who are victims of domestic abuse but never recognised or heard.

  2. Forensic Social Worker October 3, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    While recognising the vast majoirty of recorded DV is perpertatrated by men- I think it is very unhelpful to frame this in a single gender split – this only adds to the isolation and silencing of male victims

    All domestic vioence and coercive control is abhorrent.

  3. Jane Monckton Smith October 4, 2017 at 7:23 am #

    I am a homicide researcher and I do case work. It is a sad fact that it is predominantly women who will be killed as a result of domestic abuse and Coercive Control. It is also evidenced that it is women who wil suffer the most injurious and long term life changing abuse. From this perspective and the sheer weight of numbers there is a focus on female victims. It is also true that people in the LGBTQ community suffer levels of abuse comparable to women. This needs recognition. Men suffering domestic abuse should have access to services and help, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But the debate on the deaths of women in this category should not be overshadowed by anything at all. Homicide is a significant problem for women in this context. We should have all debates and consider all victims whatever demographic, but we absolutely must not minimise the rates of murder happening predominantly to women.

  4. dermot brady October 4, 2017 at 11:14 am #

    Gender symmetry debates seem to have some other consequences too. I have no doubt (having worked in the area for many years) that it is predominantly men being abusive to women (particularly where lethal and serious violence, sexual violence, and abuse that leads to longer term psychological and emotional problems are concerned) , but in social work we simply don’t know enough about what comes through the door. There is clearly LGBTQ abuse, but elder abuse, child and adolescent violence to parents, and debates and research about other forms of abuse are sometimes overshadowed by the gender symmetry arguments. There is really very little intervention for men either as perpetrators or victims and we particularly fail to focus on their roles as fathers and as parents. The Community Care inform model is actually quite flawed in many respects and does not tell us a lot about what you might actually do to help people change their behaviour.

  5. Abuse victim October 6, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

    This is a seriously tricky issue all round. There are naturally going to be multiple problems when it comes to identifying perpetrators of domestic abuse and coercive control, not least because this is a subject that society finds difficult and uncomfortable to talk about. Abuse is not openly spoken of in “polite” circles, and it is rarely something that is spoken about in day-to-day conversation. I mean, could you imagine going to lunch even with your close friends, and talking about domestic violence or abuse? Sadly, I cannot imagine that it is a topic which many people feel comfortable being open about. Perhaps because many will likely not have experienced violence, but also because those who have may find it painful or intimidating to speak out. As a result, the topic remains “off limits” when it comes to frank and open discussion. Alas, any topic that is rendered “taboo” in this way is likely to become increasingly problematic because the air of secrecy that surrounds it renders it yet more difficult to discuss and to understand.

    Topics that are difficult for society to accept and discuss become matters that are akin to the proverbial “elephant in the room”. We know they exist, but fail to admit and confront this fact. When this happens, all manner of incorrect beliefs and assumptions may be permitted to flourish concerning the subject – and this is something we see in respect of domestic violence and coercive control. Furthermore, irrelevant and tangential debates may spring up, which draw much-needed attention away from the genuine topic that ought to be focussed-upon. such debates may result from the proliferation of false beliefs and assumptions; or, worse, they may be deliberately fabricated by individuals or groups who wish to divert the focus of attention (perhaps in order that they can get away with wrongdoing). In respect of domestic violence and coercive control, all such problems are occurring. This is set against a somewhat disreputable backdrop in which the history of services that may be called upon to investigate and to prevent abuse may well harbour (or have harboured) abusers.

    The above comments are a perfect example of confabulating debates which have drawn credibility and attention away from true discussions concerning the identification of perpetrators of domestic abuse and coercive control. Just WHY is it that we are seeing people arguing the toss in respect of gender? Just WHY are people arguing over definitions of perpetrator and victim? When we start to engage in such activities, we totally lose sight of what we should actually be doing – which is identifying perpetrators, providing interventions to prevent perpetrators reoffending, providing interventions to reduce the risk of domestic violence and coercive control happening at all, and providing interventions to assist the recovery of targets of abuse and violence.

    Ought we not to recognise that perpetrators of domestic violence and coercive control may come in all shapes, sizes and colours? That they can be male or female, gay or straight, transgender, fat or thin, black, white, Asian, mixed-race, young or old…Just as all humans are different, so we must accept that all perpetrators will, as a consequence, be different. They will reflect the general human population in terms of gender, sexuality, race and so forth. That is NOT to say that perpetrators will not have some things in common, but I’ll get to this later…

    Don’t get me wrong… I understand why gender debates may have arisen, but the desire to buy into such debates is not a helpful one. It may well be that what we currently see in respect of perpetrator and victim demographics is as much a result of societal GENDER STEREOTYPING as it is the true reality of what is occurring. Think about it! We live in a society in which gender stereotypes exist – males are typically supposed to be brave, dominant, tough, strong and macho. Females are supposed to be more delicate, submissive, nurturing and subordinate. If we buy into such gender stereotypes then we also start to subscribe to beliefs about “typical” male and female behaviours and traits – such as believing that it is more acceptable for men to be aggressive, to fight, to shout, to swear, to drive fast cars, to have big muscles… Or believing that it is preferable if women are buxom, softly spoken, motherly, wide-hipped… Gender stereotyping is both pernicious and toxic, in that it has the potential to insidiously affect and change the way in which societies, and individuals, view people. Furthermore, it may be used as a sort of “shorthand” to describe people in very generalised (and sometimes inaccurate) terms, which may lead to the making of “snap judgments” as opposed to people taking time to get to know each-other. Stereotypes of any form are harmful in this way, in that they encourage lazy thinking, snap judgments, and stifle deeper, more meaningful interactions and relationships.

    Yes, it is true that current statistics suggest that females are more at risk of being the victims of domestic violence and coercive control than males; and that males are more likely to be perpetrators. However, it is prudent to look behind such statistics is it not, and to cross-reference them with what we know about society, including its stereotyping. If we acknowledge gender stereotypes of males and females, then it makes sense to understand that some people may wholeheartedly buy into them. When people do this, they may well begin to “normalize” and to rationalise behaviours that they believe to be associated with “maleness” or “femaleness” as a result of the stereotypes. So, a male who buys into an extreme male stereotype may well come to believe that aggression, domination, loudness, fighting, brashness… is acceptable. The female who buys into an extreme female stereotype may come to believe that “femininity” equates with being submissive, delicate, overtly sexual (i.e. looking like a Glamour Model or Reality TV character)… Whilst buying into gender stereotypes is not likely to be the only reason for the current domestic violence demographics, it certainly goes some way to explaining them. This is because females who are expected by society to be subservient, overtly sexual, fragile, and little more than “decorative” are forced into a very constraining mould. Their “femininity” demands that they should not be dominant, forceful, aggressive, loud, etc… as these are “male” traits. It may well be, then, that their extreme “femininity” with its submissive but sexual overtones results in rendering them ideal victims for aggressors and also sexual predators (just look at the disgusting objectification of women by the Porn industry). Males, by contrast, who buy into being forceful, dominant, aggressive and suchlike may well then fit the profile of a likely perpetrator, because they have learned to equate physical, emotional, and possibly sexual, dominance with “maleness”. Flip this on its head, and males who believe that to be male one must be brash, bold, tough, rough… are highly unlikely to come forwards and report having been abused or coercively controlled. It’s just “not male”! Yes – gender stereotypes are a recipe for disaster. As is the Porn industry, which is ever so guilty of stereotyping to the extreme.

    A still worse problem that has detracted from healthy, beneficial debate about domestic violence, coercive control and perpetrators or victims is the fact that from the late 1950s onwards, a number of very high profile “child care experts” devised “theories” and “syndromes” which actually did a huge amount of harm to child protection and domestic violence interventions and services. How and why such individuals were permitted to train, practice and register with professional bodies remains shrouded in secrecy. Yet these individuals were allowed to have a huge amount of influence within the health and care professions, within education, within policing, within the justice and court system. Many of said individuals were regarded historically as “influential figures” in their chosen fields; their chosen professions invariably brought them into contact with dysfunctional families, little children, and vulnerable youngsters in care. Disturbingly, at least one of the individuals concerned was convicted of paedophilia, and several had formed a network of paedophiles who worked together both to abuse children, to prevent abusers being prosecuted, and to subvert child protection legislation and services. We are talking, here, about people who wanted the legal age of consent reduced, or even removed. At least one is known to have written in support of paedophilia… Most frighteningly of all, members of this paedophile network are still active today, and many remain within the care, health, education and other child-related professions both in the U.K. and abroad – most notably the U.S. and Australia.

    The individuals in question were behind two so-called “syndromes” which came to prominence from the 1960s onwards. The first is “PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME” in which it is believed that one parent (usually the mother) acting in a divorce case works to force a child, or children, to hate and alienate the other parent (usually the father). The theory assumes that children in divorce cases who shows signs of being alienated from one, or both, parents have been deliberately made to do so by their parents. This fails to allow for the fact that a child who shows signs of alienation from one, or both, parents may actually be alienated from them due to ABUSE. Children who have genuinely been abused by a parent, or both parents, may well demonstrate ambivalence, hostility, anger, regret, blame, guilt and any number of alienating emotions towards the abusive parent. This can be the same for children who have genuinely witnessed domestic violence, or have experienced coercive control. The disturbing problem with “PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME” is that it presupposes that a child’s alienation from one or other parent is a result of parental “brainwashing” of the child, as opposed to a result of harmful behaviours towards the child that might constitute abuse or domestic violence.
    Such presupposition is concerning, in that it restricts further investigation, and any meaningful dialogue about what actually is the cause of a child’s hostility towards or/and alienation from a parent.

    The other, equally worrying, “syndrome” is “FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME” which again is based upon a presupposition that when a child (or adult) reports abuse, the report is not true, but rather is a result of “brainwashing”. In “FALSE MEMORY SYNDROME”, the belief is that
    health, care, child protection or criminal justice workers falsely implant inaccurate memories of non-existent abuse in a child’s head as a result of unprofessional or poor-quality questioning, interviewing or investigations. The child is then supposed to believe that these memories are true as a result of reinforcement – the reinforcement of such memories coming as a result of any abuse investigation. Again, it is the presupposition that a child (or adult) cannot be truthful when remembering past abuse, and that long forgotten or repressed memories of abuse cannot exist and be real, which is particularly disturbing. If we presuppose that the victim of abuse is lying, confabulating, suffering from “brainwashing”, or has otherwise been somehow induced to recall memories that did not actually exist, then how can we possibly take any allegation of abuse or domestic violence seriously? How can we investigate it impartially?

    If one considers that both “false memory syndrome” and “parental alienation syndrome” were terms coined by, and were advocated by, a group of individuals who contained known paedophiles and paedophile sympathisers, then surely it makes sense to ask why credibility has been afforded to such beliefs. Why such beliefs have been allowed to take root in the care and health professions, criminal justice system, education system and suchlike. Might it not be argued that any “syndrome” which infers that a person alleging abuse is lying, faking, or otherwise recollecting an event that did not exist, is a “syndrome” that can be used by abusers to hide real, genuine abuse? Particularly in light of the fact that known paedophiles were understood to have advocated and propagated such theories?

    A subject such as domestic violence and coercive control is likely to be, and to remain, a problematic subject whilst those involved in its investigation and resolution continue to accept “theories” and “syndromes” which basically do little other than make victims out to be liars, and cast doubt upon their credibility. One would not place a bank robber in charge of the Bank of England, so why is it that theories favoured by known abusers and paedophiles have been permitted to enter the child protection and domestic violence resolution services? Surely, it must be obvious that abusers wish to be able to abuse, and paedophiles wish to be able to abuse children – therefore, one should question why individuals who espouse abusive and paedophilic beliefs are writing papers about “theories” and “syndromes” which mark victims of abuse as liars or confabulators.

    Because problems such as the above have been permitted to mushroom, genuine and beneficial work regarding domestic violence and coercive control has suffered. Irrespective of gender, it is true that interventions for perpetrators are limited, and that many fail in their objective of gaining a better understanding of why abusers abuse. It could be argued that a lack of any real understanding of the dynamics of abuse and coercive control also means that interventions for victims (of either gender) are also not the best they could be.

    Perhaps a lack of truly multidisciplinary approach is what hampers most? The article makes a very pertinent observation – that “it is linked to the larger picture and not just the incident where a more nuanced understanding of domestic abuse is important”. Viewing any act of abuse or domestic violence as a “one off” is likely a huge mistake, in that such acts rarely, if ever, occur in isolation. As the old saying goes “no man (or woman) is an island” – meaning that we do not live, or act, in a vacuum. We interact with others, and with our environment. Both perpetrators and victims have life stories; they are products of nature and nurture.

    What is required is a better understanding of how nature and nurture influence both perpetrators and victims (an example is given when I talk about gender stereotypes and their role, above). We should appreciate that all humans have genes, personality traits and other inherent features which represent nature; but also life experiences, upbringing, relationships, environment, which represent nurture. Nature and nurture have a symbiotic relationship, acting together, upon each-other and influencing outcomes for each and every human. Might it be that both perpetrators and victims are likely to show particular combinations of nature and nurture which influence whether they become a victim, or a perpetrator? So, for example, perpetrators may be more likely to have certain personality traits, life experiences or upbringings in common. Ditto victims.

    If we accept the current notion that domestic violence and coercive control are about abuses of power, then could we hypothesize that perpetrators are more likely to be power-hungry, or desirous of superficial status-symbols such as popularity, superiority or similar? Might their desire for popularity or superiority, power or status lead them to abuse others? If we accept that abusers hurt and harm people, then might it be useful to look out for traits in them such as cruelty, coldness, callousness, lack of empathy… because a person would need to possess such traits (or at least be able to affect them) in order to get away with being an abuser and not feel guilt or shame. If we accept that abusers need, or want, to control then might this suggest they have personalities which are intolerant, fussy, nit-picking, judgmental, bossy or domineering? Were such traits to be found common in abusers, then could this suggest that they also have environmental or upbringing issues in common? For example, a child who is raised by parents who are racists may be more likely to become a racist. A child who lives in a household where their family shout and argue a lot may be more likely to grow up thinking shouting and arguing are “normal” parts of family life.

    Likewise with victims. Could it be that victims are people who have grown up for a long time fulfilling a victim or scapegoat role? So that, even in their family of birth, they were likely to be abused or victimized, and they just continued this pattern into adulthood because they believed it “normal”. Perhaps victims have particular personality traits peculiar to victimhood – such as being tolerant (so more likely to put up with abuse), being submissive (so less likely to overthrow an abuser), being shy (so they have few close associates to tell of the abuse and find it hard to open up to people), innocent or naïve (so that they are easily intimidated, or make the mistake of taking people at “face value” so they are easily manipulated). Perhaps victims may have particular physical traits that make them good targets, such as being small, thin or delicately-built; being physically or mentally disabled; being elderly and frail; being a vulnerable dependent child – all traits that can be exploited to turn a person into a victim.

    Far more work needs to be done in order to make important progress in understanding the issue better. Alas, this will not happen whilst people and societies hold onto inaccurate or outdated beliefs, stereotypes, misguided or deliberately corrupt theories. It will not happen whilst abusers continue to infiltrate a system designed to prevent abuse. It will not happen whilst the voices of genuine victims of abuse are silenced, and whilst the voices of those who seek to bring perpetrators of abuse to justice are silenced. It’s time the system started afresh when it comes to domestic violence, abuse and coercive control. A firm line must be drawn under the scandals of the past, and those individuals who sought to propagate unhealthy ideologies should be removed from post (if they remain working) and forgotten about – along with their beliefs. Furthermore, individuals who seek to speak out about this, and who point out that attempts have been made to corrupt the system, should not face intimidation, threats, harassment, stalking, bullying, loss of career, reputation and social life. These “whistleblowers” should be respected as people who are trying to do the right thing. Without “whistleblowers” corruption and incompetence remain, putting service users at risk. Why should professionals, or lay members of the public, who seek to expose abusers, criminals and paedophiles be punished whilst the guilty parties get off scot free? THAT surely is evidence of a system which is not working.