New show tests whether you can recognise coercive control

Would YOU recognise coercive control? BBC experiment asks panel of under 30s to decide if man who tells his girlfriend to dress more ‘classy’ to help her get a job and smashes plates during a row is guilty of a crime

  • New BBC Three show questions what constitutes coercive control within couple
  • Sees 20 18-30-year-olds observe relationship of Irish couple Alex and Rachael
  • Rachael loses job and Alex invites her to live with him after 3 months of dating
  • The observers analyse their behaviour towards each other and how it changes

Emotional abuse is one of the hardest things to prove in court – but do you think you’d be able to spot the signs of coercive control?

An eye-opening new BBC Three show challenges a group of 20 British people aged 18-30 to see if they can observe a pattern of mentally abusive behaviour within a relationship.

Over the course of two days, the group watch a specially-written drama telling the story of Irish couple Rachael and Alex, which ends with an accusation of coercive control. 

As the story gradually unfolds over six parts, the group are invited to come to their own conclusions about what they see, and decide whether they think what they have witnessed constitutes a crime in the eyes of the law. 

An eye-opening new BBC Three show challenges a group of 20 people aged 18-30 (pictured) to see if they can observe a pattern of abusive behaviour within a relationship

Coercive control, which describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim, has been illegal in England since 2015 and hit the headlines last year following the re-trial of Sally Challen over the killing of her husband Richard in 2010.

Sally, who was only 16 when she met then 22-year-old Richard, successfully quashed her murder conviction on the basis that she had spent decades as a victim of her husband’s coercive and controlling behaviour. 

During the programme, the group watch as Alex marks his and Rachael’s three month anniversary – which is also her birthday – in lavish style, presenting her with an expensive necklace before telling her he loves her for the first time.

Rachael – who hadn’t remembered it was a significant date – replies that she loves him too before the couple go out to a nightclub where they meet up with some of her work colleagues.

Can YOU spot coercive control? The couple’s actions which are brought into question…


Forgets their three-month anniversary

Lies to her boss that she’s at a funeral when she’s on a final warning to go out with mates

Calls him in tears after losing her job and reminds him her landlord is putting up her rent

Snaps at Alex when he says she hasn’t cleaned the kitchen despite living there rent-free

Uses alcohol as a coping mechanism

Criticises him for buying expensive food

Dishonesty. Doesn’t tell him she’s going out or taking out a loan

Calls him boring when he suggests she stop drinking and go to bed before an interview

Fails to turn up for a job interview

Gets into nearly £12,000 of debt.


Buys Rachael an expensive necklace for her birthday and their three-month anniversary – and then tells her he loves her

Gets jealous when Rachael talks to a male colleague in a club

Asks Rachael to move in when she loses her job

Suggests she dress differently and ‘classier’ to help her get a job

Leaves her romantic voicemails and buys flowers

Smashes a plate out of anger during a row and comments on her ‘s*** make-up’

Asks her to start contributing financially when she has no money

Encourages her to celebrate an interview the following day by drinking alcohol.

Over the course of two days, the group (a selection of which are pictured) watch a specially-written drama telling the story of Irish couple Rachael and Alex, which ends with an accusation of coercive control

Alex appears to take issue with Rachael talking to her male colleague, Vish, while Rachael admits she’s had too much to drink – sparking concerns among the group watching that she has an issue with alcohol dependency.

In a later scene the group watches as Rachael, who was on a final warning at her work for misconduct, is fired from her job.

Her boss got wind that she lied about being at a funeral – a suggestion made by Alex after she revealed her friends were in town and wanted to meet her and go out. 

What is coercive control?

Coercive control became a criminal offence in December 2015. It describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. This pattern of behaviour can include manipulation, degradation, gaslighting and also monitoring and controlling the person’s day-to-day life from whether they can see friends and families, to what activities they can undertake and what clothing they can wear.

A 2014 study found that 95 out of 100 domestic abuse survivors reported experiencing coercive control. 

Further studies in 2015 found that women are far more likely than men to be victims of abuse that involves ongoing degradation and frightening threats – two key elements of coercive control. 

Typical red flags include:

  • Your partner bombards you with messages and gets angry when you don’t reply
  • From ‘idolising’ you in the beginning, your partner chips away at your self-esteem by withdrawing affection  
  • Your partner takes everyday decisions are taken out of your hands  
  • Suggests a joint bank account and demand to know what you’ve spent money on  
  • Your partner wants a say over who you are friends with, attempts to control how you look and dress and begins to exert control over what job you do.

With no job and her landlord demanding an increase in her rent, Rachael’s situation looks pretty desperate – until Alex surprises her by asking her to move in rent-free, provided she earn her keep by cooking and cleaning his flat.

The group watching are torn over whether the behaviour from either party is emotionally abusive.

Some feel Rachael is untrustworthy, irrational and manipulative after she lied to her employer and then turned to her boyfriend for help and support, while others are left suspicious by Alex’s motives.

Many of the men watching say they believe Rachael is more of a ‘red flag’ than Alex, and demonstrates she’s ‘flaky’ as a person, while the majority of the women suggest Alex is showing signs of controlling behaviour.  

Things appear to take a darker turn when Alex makes suggestions about what Rachael should wear, implying she dressed inappropriately, and complains she hasn’t done a good enough job of cleaning his flat.

While some of the women watching claim Alex has tipped over into controlling behaviour by telling her to change up her wardrobe, some of female viewers – and a number of the men – argue he was doing it in her best interests, trying to help her dress more ‘professionally’. 

Alex later loses his temper when she goes out to see her old work colleagues without telling him and fails to answer her phone, smashing a plate in anger and calling her a ‘s***’, bringing his girlfriend to tears – before asking her to start paying her way financially. 

In another scene, Alex encourages Rachael to celebrate the fact she has a job interview by drinking Champagne – despite the fact she initially resists because she has to get up early the following morning.

Rachael proceeds to get drunk and opens a second bottle of wine – telling Alex he’s being ‘boring’ when he suggests she go to bed. 

At each stage of the process, the group has the chance to vote on whether they think there is anything wrong with Alex or Rachael’s behaviour, before finally casting their judgement on whether they believe any of their actions constitute the crime of coercive control. 

It becomes clear there are a variety of different perspectives, with some feeling what they are being shown amounts to normal behaviour in a relationship, while others fear a line is being crossed. 

The drama culminates in a dramatic court case – but will Rachael or Alex be found guilty of coercive control?

Is This Coercive Control, presented by journalist Ellie Flynn, is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer from October 27. 

Refuge offers a free 24-hour domestic abuse hotline; call them on 0808 2000 247 or visit

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