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Beyond Bruises: Unmasking Coercive Control with Samantha Billingham

To mark the UN 16 Days of Activism, we recently sat down with Samantha Billingham to discuss the signs and impact of coercive control and domestic abuse, and how to support victim-survivors. Sam is a lived-experience activist, speaker and founder of SODA (Survivors of Domestic Abuse) - a support network for victim-survivors. In this interview, Sam opens up about her lived experience of domestic abuse and coercive control, and how she uses her story to empower society's understanding and commitment to tackle domestic abuse in schools, businesses and the community.

Welcome Sam! It is lovely to see you again and thank you so much for speaking with us today. It would be great if you could start by introducing SODA and what your motivation was to setting it up.

Thank you for having me, I'm really excited to be here. I decided to set up SODA in 2009, three years after I escaped a perpetrator I'd existed with for three years. At the time, I didn't realise I was in an abusive relationship. It was only when I found the strength and courage to leave that I realised how controlled I'd been, and how I had tolerated and normalised his behaviour. I thought it happened in all relationships, until I was given a Women's Aid questionnaire where, if you answer five or more questions 'yes', you've been in an abusive relationship. It was at that moment that I crumbled and thought, oh my god, I've been completely controlled.

What stuck out for me was that it was all about controlling and coercive behaviour, it wasn't about physical violence. I was isolated from friends and family, I was sacked from my job because he locked me in the flat and threw my mobile phone out of the seventh floor window. I couldn't go anywhere on my own, except shopping, and when I went shopping I was bombarded with phone calls and text messages. When I went to the toilet he would stand outside the toilet door looking at his watch, timing me. I wasn't allowed in the bathroom on my own. Every aspect of my life was controlled and my movements were constantly monitored.

I was with him for about three years on and off. I left many times but he'd always find me, and when he did there would be a cycle of "you know I'm sorry", "you know I love you" and "it won't happen again", and because I was in love with him I'd always go back. I wanted to be the reason that he changed. I thought having a baby with him would change him - it didn't. My daughter, Tegan, is turning 18 on Saturday and it's going to be an emotional day because she saved my life. She was 10 months old when he split my lip open whilst I was holding her in my arms. For me, that was my biggest wake up call and I knew he wasn't going to change so I had to leave. If I'd not had my daughter I wouldn't be here now because, for me, there was no other real reason to leave at that time.

After I left I became a volunteer at my local Sure Start Centre, who were absolutely amazing, and enrolled Tegan on all the courses they had going on. The volunteer coordinator at the time asked me if I had ever thought about helping other people, other victims. I immediately thought no, I could never do that, but she planted a seed and the more I thought about it the more I realised that I did want to help other people.

My support hadn't been the best. I had an eight-week awareness course of everything I'd been through and that was it. There was no helpline number given to me, no signposting. So I set upu SODA, which stands for Survivors of Domestic Abuse, as an online support group for men, women, anyone who had been affected by domestic abuse, to come together without judgment. For me, I wanted to help them understand that they're not alone, that it's not only happening to them, that there is support out there, and that there is life after domestic abuse.

Following on from SODA, I've done interviews on TV, radio magazines - anything I can to raise awareness because we don't talk about it enough. Also, when we do talk about it, we focus a bit too much on domestic violence and not on coercive and controlling behaviour. So for the last 18 years I've dedicated my life to raising awareness for other people in the hope that, firstly, they don't get into those relationships and, secondly, if they are in an abusive relationship, they understand what is happening to them, that it is not their fault, and that there is support out there for them.

"I wanted to help them understand that they're not alone, that it's not only happening to them, that there is support out there, and that there is life after domestic abuse"

Thank you for sharing your story and I completely agree with you, we don't talk about it enough. I don't think you can talk about it enough because there's so much fear and stigma associated with coming forward, and the best way to tackle that is to keep having open conversations which will then hopefully give people the courage to come forward.

You also mentioned that you want to tackle stereotypes surrounding domestic abuse, in particular that it always has to involve some kind of physical violence. You mentioned coercive and controlling behaviour, however that can be harder to spot. What are some of the signs of coercive and controlling behaviour to look for in your own relationships, and amongst colleagues and friends?

It is really difficult to identify, but now I am out of it and looking in I can see all the signs were absolutely there. For me, it started as soon as I met him. I met him on a Friday night at the local pub and, as soon as I sat down next to him, I opened up. He knew where I lived, he knew I loved my job, he knew I had a great relationship with my Mum, and he knew I had a fantastic social life. When I moved into his flat two weeks after I met him, which again is another massive red flag, the thing he did straight away was to isolate me from my friends and family, I got sacked from my job, and there were always consequences if I phoned my Mum. A lot of people say, “Well, there’s nothing really stopping you from phoning your Mum, is there?”, and to a certain degree that’s true. I could pick up the phone and make a call. However, there was always going to be a consequence and there was always going to be that fear of what he will do to me as a result.

This all happened during the honeymoon period of the relationship, when it’s all new and exciting, which made it difficult to identify. In any normal relationship, at the beginning you want to be with that person and spend all your time with them – that’s normal and natural. At that point I thought he genuinely wanted to spend time and be with me. By the time you realise it’s control and not care, you’re in too deep that you’re isolated from everyone else.

Warning signs might be changes in your friend or colleague’s behaviour. For example, if your friend or colleague is very bubbly and outgoing and that suddenly stops, especially if they’re in a new relationship, that could be an early warning sign to look out for. Another one is communication. If someone is usually always on their phone, and they’re suddenly not answering phone calls or responding to text messages, that could be because their phone is being controlled and monitored by the perpetrator. Another warning sign to look out for is changes in appearance. Very quickly, my appearance changed because he would always mimic or mock what I wore. I stopped wearing all the nice clothes I used to wear, I’d go days without having a wash, brushing my teeth, brushing my hair, because he’d always say, “why are you doing that?” or “who are you going to see?”. With colleagues it could be absences at work. Perhaps they’ve never had a day off, and suddenly they’re taking multiple days off. Or they’ve always been on time, and now they’re late or wanting to stay at work more out of fear of going back home and not knowing what will happen when they get home.

"At that point I thought he genuinely wanted to spend time and be with me. By the time you realise it's control and not care, you're in too deep that you're isolated from everyone else."

Yes exactly, and I think it's so important if you're recognising these signs in a friend or colleague to be patient. Often family, friends and colleagues will become frustrated with someone and they can end up becoming even more isolated. It's too easy to lash out before you understand the full situation.

Yes, to watch someone go through that is horrific. Lots of people ask me, “didn’t your parents know?”, and yes, they did, but don’t forget this person has manipulated and brainwashed me into believing that everyone hates me, that no one is going to listen to me, and no one is going to believe me. When you’re drip fed that on a daily basis, you start to believe it. Then, when someone does want to help you, it can be really hard because you also fear what the consequences of accepting help could be and what’s going to happen. It’s not just about our own safety too, it’s also about the safety of others. If there are verbal threats from the perpetrator that they will kill themselves, or kill you, or they’re going to take your children away, and if they know where your parents, friends and colleagues live, there’s nothing to stop them from going to their house and being abusive to them as well. We don’t just think of ourselves, we think of everyone.

Unfortunately you have to wait until someone is ready to come to you, because when it happened to me I went straight back to him. It is really horrific to watch somebody go through that but you have to let them come to you. It’s all about building trust as well, because the one person claiming to love us has treated us so badly that how can we know that our friends, colleagues and parents aren’t going to do the same.

Absolutely, and the thing with coercive and controlling behaviour is that it is intended to diminish someone's confidence, which leads on to my next question.

As you've said, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding domestic abuse. One that I often see is that coercive and controlling behaviour is not as serious as physical violence, and that there is only a risk to someone's safety if physical violence is involved. Could you talk about why that's not the case, and the impact that controlling behaviour can have on someone's wellbeing?

If I hadn’t survived coercive control, I think I would have that attitude as well. For me, my lived experience has taught me that I would rather have a black eye. I would rather he hit me because, yes it does hurt and it hurts your ego for a bit, but it fades. I left 17 years ago, and coercive control and controlling behaviour still has the biggest impact on my life right now. It’s only within the last 6 months that I’ve learned to make a decision, I’ve learned how to buy my clothes again, I’ve learned to look in a mirror. I wouldn’t look in a mirror for a long time because he always called me ugly, and those put-me-downs have a huge impact on you. It destroys you from the inside out. It destroys your confident and your self-worth. I couldn’t even apply for a job that I knew I could do because he made me feel like I was thick, like I was useless.

"Even though I’ve been out of that relationship for a long time, it still has control on our lives because there are still certain things I won’t do, won’t wear, still certain places I won’t go to, because of his behaviour."

I had an injunction order against him when I first left and he breached the order and turned up at the property. I reported it but the attitude of the police officer was that, because he hadn’t physically hurt me, I was not at risk. But the fear and intimidation of being home alone with my daughter whilst he was just outside the front door was absolutely petrifying because I knew what he was capable of. That fear is just immense, it’s horrific.

That’s why it’s so important that public service providers have that kind of training and understanding too, so that they’re able to protect people and do their job properly.

So it is the UN 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence and the theme this year is investing to prevent violence against women and girls. A lot of the work we do at Thrive is encouraging businesses to do that. So why should employers be investing time and money into tackling topics such as domestic abuse?

When I made my disclosure to my boss, I was instantly sacked. He didn’t listen to me, he didn’t let me finish, he didn’t let me speak, he didn’t let me do anything, he just threw his arms up and said, “I don’t want to know, you’re sacked”. It was horrific, because I loved my job. I was a legal secretary and office manager, I was never late, always worked to the best of my ability, and I was sacked. He lacked an understanding of domestic abuse, and I didn’t really know at the time what was happening so it was difficult for me to have that conversation. But I assumed he would at least listen to me. I think one of the biggest things that employers can do is just listen to their staff. I appreciate that sometimes when we talk about support for staff that businesses may think they can’t afford it, but it can be as simple as taking someone to the staff room and listening to what someone has to say. Sometimes that is all we need.

My boss didn’t realise that, by sacking me, I then had no respite or safe haven to go to. I was literally trapped with my perpetrator for 24 hours a day, and the abuse and controlling behaviour increased significantly. Bosses and companies are in a position where they can do so much and it doesn’t have to be big things. For example, changing our break time for dinner because perpetrators often stalk and harass victims at work. Or, if someone works on reception, getting someone to cover for them. It’s those little things that they can put in place to make a massive difference.

All we ask is that employers acknowledge, address and adapt to the fact that domestic abuse is happening and it does have an impact on their staff. We don’t want them to be counsellors or therapists or get directly involved, we just want them to believe and listen to victim-survivors. I think if my boss had done that, things might’ve been different. I think that I would have had the courage to take a bag to work and leave it there, and it would’ve given me the space to think about how I was going to leave. Often, for those experiencing domestic abuse, we use our workplace as our safe haven.

"All we ask is that employers acknowledge, address and adapt to the fact that domestic abuse is happening and it does have an impact on their staff. We don't want them to be counsellors or therapists, we just want them to believe and listen to victim-survivors. I think if my boss had done that, things might've been different."

Definitely, we say the same thing when we’re talking to businesses. Sometimes they feel pressure to become experts in the topic and it’s just not the case, and it can actually cause more harm than good if you try to get too involved and you don’t have that kind of expertise.

We often find that charities and frontline services struggle to even start the conversation with businesses, to get them to pay attention. Or, sometimes businesses want to address this topic but don’t know where to start. How can we bridge that gap and encourage more collaboration between sectors?

It’s a difficult subject for businesses to talk about, but we have to talk about it because it’s happening. I think a lot of people don’t realise how significant it is. As we’re sitting here talking now, it is happening.

It’s a good question, about how we bridge that gap, because here in the West Midlands we’ve got loads of great things going on but there’s no connection, nobody is working together for the bigger picture.

I’ve started to do a lot more public speaking. The first conference I did was to 300 social workers and I was a keynote speaker. I was so nervous because I’ve never done it before, but once I started sharing my lived experience you could see people in the audience nodding and then at the end we had a Q&A. It was amazing because I understood more about their role and they understood about my lived experience as a victim and what they could do. I think it’s about raising awareness through the lived-experience of survivors who have shared their experience.

I was also at a college last week talking to students, and the guy who had asked me to speak said that sharing my lived experience actually had a bigger impact on the students than getting a charity to set up a table and provide leaflets, because young people weren’t confident enough to go over and approach them. So I think having someone who’s got that lived experience and who’s willing to share their experience has the biggest impact for both victim-survivors and professionals.

It’s interesting to think about working in schools to develop healthy understandings of relationship and consent. Someone from our research hub at the moment is researching the impact that Andrew Tate and the spike in online misogyny is having in schools, do you do a lot of work in schools and have you noticed a similar pattern?

It was the first time I had spoken with young people. They were aged 16-19 years old, and there were two things that I noticed. The first was that they know a lot more than we think. For example, I played a short video that was highlighting coercive control, there was no physical violence, but I hadn’t used the label of coercive and controlling behaviour. At the end when we were asking questions, one girl put her hand up and mentioned coercive control and controlling behaviour. I was surprised that she knew all of that just from watching the video, but actually she was experiencing domestic abuse and coercive control in her relationship because she spoke to me at the end.

The other thing I noticed was how different they view domestic abuse and coercive control. Again, I showed them an image of a woman and she was walking on eggshells to get to the front door to leave her husband. One of the questions I asked was, “what do you think the eggshells signify?”. About 10 minutes later, once I had carried on with my presentation, a young lad put his hand up and said, “the eggshells – I think each one she walks on and steps on is the pain that she’s feeling inside”, and it took me back because I’d never thought of it that way.

However, I do think some are influenced by the likes of Andrew Tate and the media. I do think that has a massive impact on them and it’s hard because Andrew Tate, to some young men, is seen as a hero and someone they look up to and someone they agree with. Then you have the young girls who can see it’s not right and it’s really difficult to try and explain to them that he’s not always right in everything he says.

Overall, however, I found them really engaging and they were really open to have discussions. Unlike a lot of adults who shy away from it, they were really open and honest with everything. You could see there were a few who obviously didn’t want to talk about it, and I had been briefed that there were some young girls actually in abusive relationships which was scary because they were 16, 17 and 18 year olds, they’re so young.

That is scary but it’s good to hear that you had a positive experience overall. I guess there’s two sides to it, and the fact people have access to this kind of content from a really young age is scary. But at the same time, social media can be so good for raising awareness and knowledge of relationships and consent. When I was in school, sex education was quite basic and consent was taught in this very black and white way, we weren’t really taught about relationships and dynamics and things like that. So even in a short space of time I think we’ve come quite a long way.

I do agree, mine was not the best either. We don’t talk about relationships dynamics enough because there’s a misconception that, if my partner ever hits me, I'm leaving straight away, however most of the time that doesn’t happen. In any non-abusive relationship, if you have an argument or disagreement, you don’t just leave. When it happened to me I was in shock, and he did this display of being really shocked and surprised as well and started to cry and apologise. So there’s a cycle where you start to think, perhaps I did something, perhaps it was my fault. It’s not as black and white as people think, and it’s far too easy for us to judge when we’re not in that situation. When you’re in it and in the midst of it, it’s really difficult.

Absolutely. We’re reaching the end of the interview and it would be good to finish on a positive note with some steps that people can take forward. What would you say is best practice for businesses when responding to an employee who has experienced domestic abuse? What action can businesses take so their approach is not only reactive, but they’re also creating an environment where people feel safe to come forward in the first place?

The biggest step is understanding that it does happen in any business. I know a woman whose husband works for a recruitment agency and he’s very high up, and she said to me, “that doesn’t happen in my husband’s business”, but it can happen in any business. Money, professionalism, what you do for a living, how much you earn, is irrelevant. The biggest thing is to acknowledge that it does happen and it is happening to your staff. Amongst your employees, it is highly likely that you’ve got a perpetrator, a survivor and a victim, and businesses should at least acknowledge that.

If someone finds the strength to reach out, take time to listen and don't blame the victim. You can give them a card for ManKind helpline or Women’s Aid helpline numbers. It’s as simple as that. Make the staff room a safe place where they can go and talk, and reassure them that if they need to talk there’s a space for them to do that. Don’t make them feel as though they’re a burden or draining the company because it’s not their fault.

"Money, professionalism, what you do for a living, how much you earn, is irrelevant. The biggest thing is to acknowledge that it does happen and it is happening to your staff."

It is about understanding the impact domestic abuse can have on a person and their work. My boss was far too quick to judge and sack me, whereas if I’d stayed it could’ve made a huge difference because I would’ve had my financial independence as well. Instead, I had no money so I couldn’t leave. You don’t have to get directly involved, just make a safe space somewhere in the office and reassure them that if they need to talk then that’s an option for them.

Thank you so much for joining today Sam and for being so open. It’s been amazing to hear your insights and I think it is so important for people who want to start tackling this issue or are affected by domestic abuse, either directly or indirectly, to hear from someone with lived experience.

To get in touch or find out more about Sam's work to support and empower victim-survivors of domestic abuse, visit or


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