Is this coercive control?

Valentine’s Day is widely renowned as a day of romance and love. However, for some it can bring anxiety and abuse. This campaign has been developed to explore what the term ‘Intimate Partner Violence” encompasses.

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The Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline receives an increased number of calls around holiday periods and with Valentine’s Day, February is no different. Valentine’s Day can be a beautiful celebration of love, however this period can also bring tension and amplify existing issues in relationships. Expectations and societal pressures may intensify, making it crucial to ensure those most vulnerable to intimate partner violence are aware of the support available and can access it. 

Over the previous three years, the Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline has seen a spike in calls, with the number of calls doubling in the days following Valentine’s. In 2021 calls doubled to 50 a day.

But why might this be? 

What is Intimate Partner Violence?


Intimate Partner Violence encompasses all domestic abuse within a romantic relationship. The issue with this phrase is that many people see “Violence” and think that it only refers to physical abuse, however it is important to recognise that domestic abuse is far more than physical violence.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland define domestic abuse as threatening, controlling, coercive behaviour which is physical, psychological, virtual, verbal, sexual, financial or emotional.

This campaign aims to highlight the more covert forms of abuse that occur within relationships and how they feed into the wider cycle of abuse. The behaviours within a relationship that people don’t immediately label as “violence” but know that sometimes it just doesn’t feel right.

The Cycle of Abuse

The cycle of abuse is a complex and recurring pattern that features in many abusive relationships. It typically unfolds in a series of stages, beginning with a build-up of tension within the relationship.

The Tension Phase

In the tension phase, external stressors (e.g., financial problems, issues at work, etc.) can cause the abuser’s anger to grow due to a sense of losing control. None of these external stressors, or any other excuse, can ever justify abuse. The abused partner will often try to seek ways to alleviate the tension to prevent an abusive episode from happening. It is common for the person at risk to feel anxious, overly alert, or to “walk on eggshells” around their partner, hoping they won’t do anything to “set their partner off.”

Indicators of the tension phase may be:

  • Aggression
  • Impatience
  • ‘Short Fuse’

The Incident

Eventually, the built up tension and anger will result in a snap from the abuser. They will engage in more visible and direct forms of abuse such as:

  • Insulting/ namecalling their partner
  • Threatening to hurt their partner or someone close to them/ pets
  • Emotionally manipulating their partner and denying any wrong-doing (gaslighting: see below)
  • Committing physical or sexual acts of violence against their partner

The Reconciliation Phase

The reconciliation phase begins once some time has passed after the incident when the tension has begun to decrease. In many cases the abuser will try to make things right by offering gifts and being overly affectionate to their partner; also known as love boming. Love bombing is an abuse tactic wherein one person showers the other with affection, compliments, gifts and attention in order to gain their trust and ultimately control them.

Love bombing signifies what is known within the cycle of abuse as the ‘hook of hope‘. When the person who is experiencing abuse begins to feel the extra love and affection from their partner, it releases dopamine and oxytocin within their brain that causes them to feel relief and joy. This re-grooms them into the relationship as they feel closer to their partner and as if things are back to ‘normal’.

The Honeymoon Phase

After the re-grooming of the victim back into the relationship, there is a period of calm, often leading the victim to believe that their partner has changed and things will be different. Often in this period, those who are experiencing abuse will minimise their experience and question if the incident of abuse was truly as bad as they remember. An abusive partner may attempt to justify the abuse by blaming their behaviour on external factors such as stress from work.

The abuser may outwardly deny the abuse occurred or the seriousness of it or imply that the victim was at fault for angering them in the first place. In most cases the abuser will show remorse and may promise that it will never happen again. They will seemingly attempt to be more loving and understanding, which is why this is known as the honeymoon phase. This phase is often short-lived as the cycle begins again with tensions beginning to increase.

How they may be feeling

Those experiencing abuse might be experiencing shame or mistakenly blaming themself for the abuse, due to gaslighting, a tactic often used by abusers. Gaslighting is commonly used by abusers to make sure their victim doubts their own experience and perception of reality. As a result, the abusive partner has a lot of power (and we know that abuse is about power and control). Gaslighting can take the form of outright lying, manipulation, scapegoating or coercion and can sound like phrases such as:

“You’re crazy – that never happened.”
“Are you sure? You tend to have a bad memory.”
“It’s all in your head.”

Generally, gaslighting happens very gradually in a relationship; in fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem harmless at first. Over time, however, these abusive patterns continue, and as a result, a victim can become confused, anxious, isolated, and depressed. Altogether, they can lose all sense of what is actually happening. Then they start relying on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.

First Responses Matter

If someone you know is facing abuse, it’s probable that the abuser will attempt to isolate them from friends and family. It’s crucial to reassure them that you’re there for support and to maintain communication if it’s feasible and safe to do so. If they open up about the abuse, that’s a sign that they trust you. It’s incredibly difficult for someone to open up about abuse, the emotional toll it takes may mean they are not in the headspace for solutions or to be questioned. Below are some appropriate responses to ensure the person who is disclosing feel safe and listened to:

“Thank you for telling me.”
“This is not your fault.”
“I believe you.”
“How can I best support you right now?”
“Would you like me to recommend some support services that I’m aware of?”
“I can support you to make a referral/ contact a helpline/family/friends if you would like?”

It is incredibly important that you express empathy to the individual disclosing to you and not tell them how you think they should be feeling. Don’t ask probing questions or suggest that their actions may have been what led to the abuse occurring; this is known as victim blaming. Victim blaming is any response that explicitly states or implies that the victim is to blame for the abuse they have experienced and it can sound like:

“Were you drinking/taking drugs?”
“Why didn’t you say no/shout/tell?”
“Why are you still with them? Why did you go back?”
“Why haven’t you reported it yet? They’ll be able to do this to someone else!”

It’s essential to understand that domestic abuse is solely the responsibility of the abuser. Nothing a victim does do justifies the abuse. Recognise that their self-esteem may be low, so uplifting them and emphasising their strength is important.

Although some of these responses may have good intentions, the best response to someone disclosing their abuse will always be one of compassion and understanding. If you need advice on supporting someone you know who is experiencing abuse, our call operators are on hand to assist you. The Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline is not just for those directly experiencing abuse, but also those around them.

Supporting them to leave an abusive situation.

On average, it takes someone 7 attempts to leave an abusive relationship [source]. Within the cycle of abuse, an abuser will regroom their victim and create a “Hook of Hope” that will help keep them within the relationship. These situations are never black and white and many victims may still feel complicated emotions of love for their abuser. We must never judge someone who is finding it difficult to leave an abusive situation.

Signposting them to support resources is an important way to empower them to reach out for help from trained professionals equipped to comprehend the complexities of the situation and assist a victim to work through it. The Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline operates 24/7, providing free, confidential and professional support. Our call operators can help advise you or those experiencing abuse on the best course of action for their specific circumstances. We work with other agencies to ensure the right support is there for anyone who contacts us.

The Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline, hosted by Nexus, operates 24/7 and can be reached on 0808 802 1414. Support is also available via email at and online at to ‘Live Chat’ with an advisor. If you are in immediate danger, please call the Police Service of Northern Ireland on 999.

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