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The Sally Challen case: What is coercive control? 

Someone grabbing the wrist of someone else
Image: Pexels

On an ordinary August morning in 2010, retired Surrey car dealer Richard Challen sat down to eat some bacon and eggs prepared for him by his wife, Sally. She then took a hammer and bludgeoned him to death.

Sally Challen was handed a life sentence for what was framed at the time as a savage murder carried out by a scorned woman jealous over her husband’s infidelity. Yet in 2019 she walked free, her conviction quashed, and her actions revealed to have been those of a desperate woman pushed to breaking point by years of insidious psychological torment.

At the time of her conviction, coercive and controlling behaviour was not a criminal offence. That changed in 2015 when Sally was still behind bars. Since then, there’s been increasing awareness that domestic abuse doesn’t always involve physical violence. In fact, serious harm can be inflicted without a finger being laid on the victim.

A consistent pattern of behaviour

A hallmark of coercive control is consistency. Isolated outbursts and arguments don’t fall under the definition. Instead, it amounts to a kind of strategic campaign of psychological warfare mounted by the perpetrator, intending to control and exploit their victim.

For example, Sally had been dominated by Richard from the moment they met when he was 22 and she was just 15. As a friend later recounted, 'She was besotted with him, absolutely desperately in love. She didn’t want to anger or upset him; she just wanted to be loved by him. And from the outside, you could tell that wasn’t going to happen.'

The red flags

There are several tell-tale signs of coercive and controlling behaviour. The abusive partner may isolate you from your friends and family – either in an overt way, by flatly refusing to allow you to socialise, or in a more subtle way, by repeatedly coming up with reasons to block you from making plans until you become detached from a support network.

The abusive partner may be highly possessive, monitoring your daily activities. They may ask where you’re going and where you’ve been as well as setting strict boundaries on what you can and can’t do. They may even put spyware on your phone or rig surveillance cameras around the house.

Humiliation is a particularly toxic aspect of coercive control. The abusive partner may casually insult and demean your physical appearance, eroding your self-esteem and making you ever more dependent on them.

Gaslighting is commonly part of the psychological assault. This is a form of manipulation where you’re made to doubt your perceptions and even your sanity. The abuser may accuse you of imagining things and make you out to be melodramatic or delusional.

The control of finances is one of the most striking red flags. The abusive partner may forbid you from having a bank account or credit card in your name, ensuring your total reliance on them.

Coercive control may escalate to outright threats of violence, and worse. As criminal law expert Professor Marilyn McMahon said in an interview with the Guardian, 'Controlling behaviour is often a precursor to violence and homicide. It is a very potent warning sign but controlling behaviour is also a wrong in itself.'

The Challen case and beyond

Sally Challen’s experiences exemplified coercive control. Richard Challen would dish out insults regularly, criticising her weight, saying she smelled bad and demeaning her in front of friends and family.

He limited their socialising and lay down restrictive rules around the house. As their son later recounted, Richard would also deny his own bad behaviour and gaslight her, telling Sally she was 'mad or drinking too much'. When the couple attempted to reconcile after a break, he even wrote her an email saying he’d only return if she stopped talking to strangers and vowed never to interrupt him when he was speaking.

The case has led to over 3,000 murders being reopened by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. In the words of one CCRC commissioner, 'We are looking at murder cases where coercive control may have had a serious impact on events but wasn’t raised because nobody recognised it or thought of it at the time.'

It may be that there are many, many other Sally Challens out there right now, sitting in prison cells, waiting to have their stories heard.