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Coercive Control: Shedding Light on Invisible Abuse

“Coercive control” is a common household term in the UK which most of us Americans have never heard of.

It’s beginning to weave its way into law in the United States, where normally domestic abuse cases require evidence of physical violence. Long overdue, now various states are looking to expand the definition and scope of domestic violence within the legal system.

In my home state of Connecticut, Senator Alex Kasser recently proposed “Jennifer’s Law,” which would require courts to consider the nuances of domestic violence first when ruling on what is in the best interest of the child, while also making it easier for victims to obtain restraining orders.

When I was petitioning for an order of protection two years ago, it was denied in Connecticut because there was “no threat of imminent physical harm,” the standard at that time.

Had Jennifer’s Law been in effect, the judge would have taken other evidence into account, including police reports and a long history of stalking and intimidation.

The proposal for Jennifer’s Law includes coercive control, plus “a range of behaviors that include financial abuse, threats of the loss of housing, stalking, and threatening to publish sexualized images of the victim that would now be considered domestic violence or abuse,” according to a Connecticut Insider article by Lisa Backus.

But what exactly is coercive control?

Unlike physical abuse, which leaves bruises and is fairly easy to prove, coercive control cannot generally be traced to a single episode. Instead, according to Women’s Aid, in their article, “What is Coercive Control?,” it is “a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation, and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behavior is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behavior.”

Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., believes that this kind of psychological abuse is done by people who “lack the skills or the confidence to openly discuss, compromise, or handle not getting what they want.” People in toxic relationships are quite familiar with toddler level behavior from grown adults!

The term coercive control was first developed by Evan Stark, who says that it is a “liberty crime.” In the article, “What is Coercive Control?” (yes, this is a different article with the same title,) he claims that violence is used with a number of other tactics so that the perpetrator creates a world where the victim has “every move checked against an unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable rule book.’”

He says, in essence, that a victim becomes brainwashed, and internalizes these ever-changing rules to adapt their behavior to survive.

What is ironic is that coercive control is actually a “violation of the rights and liberties protected by the U.S. Constitution and international human rights convention, including the right to physical security (violence,) to live without fear (intimidation,) to dignity and respect (degradation,) to social intercourse (isolation,) and to autonomy, liberty, and personhood (control.) Over time, victimization and dependence are replaced by domination/subordination, agency, and resistance, ” according to Understanding Domestic Abusers: Coercive Controlling Violence.

You would think that the “land of the free” would have cared more about this issue in the past!

In “The 14 Signs Your Partner is Trying to Control You,” psychologist Dr. Vanessa Moulton says that coercive control not only takes away another person’s freedom, but their “ability to have a positive sense of self and worth. This results in the victim feeling more dependent on the abuser, which then creates an ongoing cycle of controlling abuse.”

According to Laura Richards in her article, “What Exactly is Coercive Control?,” “51% of victims are not even aware that they are being controlled and manipulated.”

One phrase I learned during my domestic violence advocacy training was “frog in the pot” to describe this type of ongoing psychological abuse. If a frog is thrown into boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if it is put into room temperature water, which is slowly brought to the boiling point, it will remain there until it dies, never realizing how bad things have become until it’s too late. This metaphor is used to describe what it is like for a domestic abuse victim, or one under the spell of coercive control.

In the New York Times article, “What defines domestic abuse?,” survivors say “it’s more than assault.” Congresswoman Cori Bush, among others, opens up about her own experience in an abusive relationship, showing that this can indeed happen to the smartest and most successful people. Her story adds fuel to the momentum for lawmakers in several states, including California, Hawaii, New York, and Connecticut, to reshape laws with the hope that victims can be helped to “reclaim their autonomy” before physical danger occurs.

But what does coercive control actually look like?

According to Evan Stark, there are many tactics an abuser uses to entrap their victims, including “mind games, and the micro-regulation of everyday life.”

According to the article, “10 Ways to Spot Coercive Control” from Cosmopolitan magazine, there are several red flags your partner might display, which include the following:

  • Restricting your daily activities
  • Insulting you
  • Making unreasonable demands
  • Intimidation
  • Controlling your money
  • Monitoring what you do with your time
  • Depriving you of food
  • Destroying your possessions

In the Coercive Control Checklist, other tactics also include:

  • Isolating you from friends and family
  • Gaslighting you
  • Constantly criticizing you
  • Making jealous accusations
  • Regulating your sexual relationship
  • Depriving you of access to help, including medical assistance

There are also a number of passive forms of manipulation used in coercive control, detailed beautifully in an article by Bustle, “7 Signs of Coercive Control.” These more subtle types of manipulation include:

  • Your partner claiming to be more knowledgeable
  • Your partner’s endless negativity
  • Your partner relying on you for everything
  • Your constant sense of anxiety and feeling that the relationship could fall apart any second
  • Your own exhaustion

This highlights not only the abuser’s behaviors, but their effects on your own physical and emotional well-being.

The intent of coercive control is to suppress conflict. The power dynamic shifts within a relationship so that the perpetrators utterly dominate the victims, who often say that they feel like they can’t think straight, or even have the ability to make simple decisions.

So what keeps people in these relationships?

Victims of coercive control, like most in abusive relationships, blame themselves for many things and have also internalized the blame placed on them by the abuser.

Many feel that there is no choice but to stay. A common response to trauma, especially when anxious or desperate, is to “freeze or appease.”

Domestic abuse is a very tricky topic, and there are many reasons that people remain in toxic relationships, most of which make no sense to someone unfamiliar with the complexity of what’s involved with getting and staying out.

This, unfortunately, prevents many people from getting the help they need, thinking that no one will understand or sympathize, which, tragically, keeps them tied to the abuser.

How can someone escape coercive control?

You have to first know that someone is wrong, and for me, documenting what’s going is absolutely necessary. Get in the habit of keeping a journal about anything that you feel doesn’t make sense, and make sure it is kept in a safe place.

It’s helpful, too, to have screenshots of text messages, photos, emails – anything that could be useful in the future not only for your own clarity, but possibly in court.

Of course, you also need to seek out help. Contacting your local domestic violence center, or calling The Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 is another great first step in moving you forward.

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6 Responses

  1. Great article but there’s almost nothing to support male victims, especially if the abuser is female. Yet Australia and England are reporting 1 in 5 men and 1 in 3 married men are victims.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the article. Lisa usually responds to blog comments, but given what you said, I thought I’d take this one as the male half of BTGO, and myself a survivor of a 14-year relationship with a severe malignant narcissist.

      I just re-read the article, and I don’t see anything gender-specific one way or the other (let me know if I somehow missed something.) That said, it’s certainly a common misconception that this kind of abuse is something men do to women, not the other way around. The reasons for this are a bit beyond the scope of my response here, but suffice it to say that we know – first-hand! – that abuse is abuse, the perpetrator can be anyone, and the victim can be anyone.

      As Lisa says in the article, “…this can indeed happen to the smartest and most successful people.” Sometimes, when I tell my story to a person who doesn’t know anything about domestic violence, they look at me sideways. I’m 6’3″… a former college football player… a smart, educated, and articulate person. My ex, to the outside world, looks like anything but an abuser; she has the “doe eyes” look down pat.

      Coupled with the gender bias implied in your comment, there’s an added layer of frustration and isolation for male victims of abuse. Men are usually bigger and physically stronger than our female partners. How could we possibly be abuse victims? The shame can be overwhelming.

      While our community here at BTGO certainly skews female, we have plenty of men, and we’re highly sensitive to the fact that men are often targets of abuse. The challenges faced by male victims can have added layers of difficulty.

      It’s a lot to overcome, and the key is having the support of others who “get it.”

  2. I would say I love your comment…but given the sub just that sounds wrong.
    So I will leave my own experience in the hope that men do not feel that this cannot happen to them. It can
    I was bought up by a narcissistic mother. My Dad was a clever articulate if not gentle soul. I witnessed (and also suffered) 16 years of my Dads abuse at the hands of my mother. He adored her and she used that as an advantage against him. He was broken emotionally, financially and spiritually when he finally got out.
    He is with someone now who adores him in the way he deserves. I don’t think he has ever gotten over it.
    I loved my Dad so much but unfortunately he has never really maintained his relationship with me. Partly because he has moved abroad….but I think for years he couldn’t even give emotionally to his daughters.
    I hope the work you do will support men and prevent the guilt and shame that goes with the emotional torture. Because that is what it is and nobody deserves that.
    I seem to have fallen into the same trap as my Dad. I am also reflecting on my own relationship currently, having managed to move him out of my home.
    Thank you for your work and support, Jo x

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jo.

      It’s so common for children of families where one parent was narcissistic to either become narcissistic themselves or to fall prey to narcissists in their own relationships as adults. In my own situation, I have two sons who are now teenagers. I think it’s so important for them to now see me in a healthy relationship after so many years where I was modeling for them that the way their mother treated me was somehow OK… even normal.

      As far as your dad, some people never get over abuse. It’s tragic. If he hasn’t dealt with it, perhaps a good therapist who understands these specific issues could help? Either way, I’m glad to hear that he’s now in a healthy relationship.


  3. I fully agree that when you’re raised with one narcissistic parent, it’s enough to shape your worldview and priorities to become narcissistic. My husband was raised by a narcissistic mother and even as a 43 year old grown up lawyer, he is still controlled by her and works hard and endlessly to make her happy, even if it’s at the cost of our immediate family. My husband is unable fully love me and checks all the boxes on the characteristics of a narcissist and victim of a narcissistic parent. It’s a never ending cycle and I’m worried my kids are perceiving this behaviour and attitudes to be normal.

    1. Hi Louise,

      It’s SUCH a tricky situation. This is one of the top concerns of our audience in our Instagram community, and we discuss it at length…if you’re on social media, check us out there @been_there_got_out for lots on this topic (as I’m SO behind with blogging! But I do post twice a day there, and we just started a TikTok, too, last week).


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