Sometimes abusive tactics in a relationship are subtle and difficult to identify, but insults, manipulation, and intimidation can all be part of what’s known as coercive control.
“Coercive” is a term that implies the use of threats or force. In a relationship setting, coercive control can refer to any pattern of oppressive, dominating behavior that uses harm to steer your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
While coercive control is often seen through forms of emotional abuse in intimate partner settings, it can also involve the use of physical force.
Both men and women may experience coercive control, though research from 2015 suggests it affects women more frequently. Understanding the signs of coercive control may help you cope.
The red flag of coercive control
Christine Scott-Hudson, a licensed psychotherapist from Santa Barbara, California, suggests being on the lookout for one of coercive control’s major warning signs: the loss of ownership.
“[…] Your money is no longer yours; your time is no longer yours; your space is no longer yours; your body is no longer yours. You begin to have less and less say over your life, your time, and how you spend it,” she indicates.
- 1. Assault
Physical violence is one of the most extreme versions of coercive control. It uses physical pain to control your behavior and instill obedience.
Physical violence can involve children and pets and may present as:
use of weapons
exposure to dangerous situations (e.g., reckless driving)
Threats are declarations of impending consequences intended to create fear. Threats may involve harming things you care about.
Examples of threats can include:
“That better not stay that way, or you’ll regret it.”
“The next time you do that, the dog is going to the shelter.”
“You’re going to be sorry you did that.”
- 3. Insults or humiliation
Insults and humiliation can break down your self-esteem. You may begin to believe you can’t function without your partner or deserve their abuse.
Insults and humiliation can look like the following:
making jokes at your expense
calling you names
regularly making critical comments about your appearance
- 4. Isolation
Isolating you can prevent you from verifying with others that relationship behaviors may be abusive. It may keep you from leaving and possibly force you to rely solely on your partner for support.
Isolation tactics can involve:
making excuses why you can’t attend family events or social functions
using guilt to get you to stay at home
making fun of your interests to discourage you
- 5. Activity monitoring
When someone is monitoring what you do throughout the day, it’s a way for them to subtly remind you they’re always around, judging your behaviors.
Activity monitoring can include:
whole-home surveillance technology (including private areas like the bathroom)
checking your internet usage and browser history
using tracking technology on your phone or car
- 6. Financial control
When your financial moves are scrutinized, controlled, or limited, it can create a situation where you depend on your partner for basic needs. You may also lack access to resources to leave your situation.
being restricted to an allowance
insisting on sharing financial account information
running up debt under your name
- 7. Sexual coercion
Sexual coercion occurs when you feel pressured, manipulated, or tricked into a sexual interaction.
Examples of sexual coercion include:
making you feel obligated to engage in sex
offering a reward for sex
threatening consequences if you don’t engage in a sexual act
- 8. Removing autonomy
When someone takes away your freedom of personal choice, it’s a form of control that dismisses your feelings and can make you feel inferior.
Signs of autonomy removal can include:
insisting you use certain products (e.g., shampoo, body spray, soap, hygiene items)
replacing your things with versions they feel are superior
regulating your sleep, eating, or bathroom activities
How to deal with coercive control
When coercive control becomes a pattern of behavior, it’s considered abuse. You never have to accept abuse in a relationship. Help is always available.
Scott-Hudson recommends talking with trusted people outside of your relationship about what’s happening as a way to help strengthen your perspective and remove doubt.
“There is a good reason you are forbidden to discuss the relationship with your friends and family — because the abuser understands that their own behavior is wrong and is afraid you will leave them if you get feedback and support,” she says.
If you’re seeking help to leave your abuser, help is available. You don’t have to do this alone.
According to Dr. David Tzall, a licensed psychologist from New York City, there are professional organizations available that can help you get away as you may not be able to on your own.
Consider working with a professional agency that can help you create an exit strategy that’s safe for you. It may involve access to money, accommodations, transport, and the placement of legal protections.
Seeking couples’ therapy
You never have to stay in a situation of abuse. You have the choice to leave or seek support from a therapists, such as a couple’s therapist, a certified sex therapist, or a therapist who specializes in emotionally focused therapy(EFT).
If you want to salvage the relationship and your partner is committed to improvement, couple’s therapy may offer helpful options. Consider visiting Psych Central’s resource pages to find online services for a couple’s therapist or sex therapist.
“A person might have grown up in a traumatic and dangerous home,” points out Tzall. “They may have seen coercion as an adaptive quality to achieve most of their needs. They, in turn, will use coercion unbeknownst to them. They may not feel it is coercive because it was what was modeled to them and what they always saw.”
Coercive control is an umbrella term for abusive behaviors using harm to force you to behave in a certain way.
Though often thought of as a precursor to physical violence, coercive control can include physical tactics like assault.
While some relationships may find couples’ therapy beneficial, it’s often necessary to leave a situation of abuse.
If you’re concerned about coercive control, need help leaving an abusive situation, or would like more information, help is always available through local and national agencies.