Coercive Control: Signs and How to Deal with It

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive Control is abusive behavior that describes an ongoing pattern of emotional dominance designed to remove the victim’s power, control, and freedom. Coercive Control is a strategic pattern of the ongoing deliberate use of terror that is designed to instill fear and compliance in the victim being controlled.

Is Coercive Control abuse?

Coercive Control tends to worsen over time. It is always emotionally abusive, and may also involve verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, as well. Coercive Control is a form of Domestic Violence.

Why do people abuse others through Coercive Control?

The abusive person will use control and manipulation to purposefully limit the victim’s ability to make their own choices. This gives the abuser the sense of power they need in order to manage their own spiraling anxiety.

Related: Warning Signs of a Manipulative Partner

What are some examples of Coercive Control?

Some examples of coercive control are monitoring what someone else wears, eats, monitoring where they go, how much they work, what they do with their free time, who they can spend their time with, or who they can talk to on social media or in real life.

Coercive Control often centers around how someone spends their time, money, and energy.

How does Coercive Control work?

The abusive partner begins to control more and more of their victim’s time, money, and attention until they have emotionally dominated their target.

A controlled partner should pay attention to these signs:

  • 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

What do Coercive Controllers do to emotionally dominate their partners?

The controlling abuser may start off using cutting and belittling remarks in an attempt to control their partner. The coercive control will then escalate and lead to increasingly controlling behaviors, such as the use the silent treatment, constant criticism, fits of rage, name-calling, slamming doors, screaming, crying, glaring, badmouthing your friends and family and/or their own friends and family, put-downs, saying “I hate you,” all in their attempts to control their partner’s behavior.

Related: 25+ Warning Signs of a Controlling Partner

The abuser will attempt to monitor and control aspects of your health and hygiene, such as when you see your doctor, which medications you take and when, and on your basic bodily needs; such as how much you eat, sleep, or time you spend on the activities you enjoy.

The coercive controller will become irate about what you are allowed and not allowed to talk about, and what you are allowed and not allowed to say. They will punish you for the things you share with others. The coercively controlling partner will often use threats and pressure to get their victim to behave exactly as the controlling partner wishes. Coercive Controllers demand to be seen as right. They will harp on you until you acknowledge them as being right.

They will gaslight you, manipulate you, and control you in order to keep their tight control.

They can not tolerate personal choice and are so narcissistic that they feel they have the right to expect total compliance from their partner. The coercively controlling partner may even try to control their victim from the moment they wake up in the morning, to the moment they walk back through the door from work until they go to bed at night. The abuser may text or call you multiple times a day to monitor you.

They check in throughout the day with specific intentions—to remind you of their omnipresence and to try and keep you in line.

Additionally, abusers who employ coercive control may discourage you from going back to school or to work because they are afraid you will eventually leave them if you share your experience of abuse with others. They may throw your mail away, or delete emails or voicemails in their frantic efforts to keep you from any outside influence. Abusers may try to actually restrict your access to transportation or hide invitations you may receive.

Abusers may also try to control the budget and finances, and may even feel entitled to spend your paycheck or allow you to be the only breadwinner. Many abusive partners may not contribute much, if anything, to the household budget. Coercive controllers are typically taking from you financially and do not contribute their fair share.

They may also expect you to clean and do chores for them, and rarely contribute an equal amount to the partnership. They may limit your access to your own bank accounts, they may hide money, or outright spend your money on their own wants while monitoring every dime that you spend.

What effect does Coercive Control have on the victims?

Victims of coercive control often develop resulting anxiety. It is as if they have been kidnapped by an emotionally controlling terrorist! The victim may fear decision-making, engage in people-pleasing, and walk on eggshells long after their abusive partner is gone.

How can victims of Coercive Control begin to heal?

Victims of coercive control typically benefit from regular psychotherapy with a licensed professional to help them reclaim their lost voice, feel less anxious and more confident in decision-making, and regain their sense of agency and hope in their own lives.

Why is it so difficult to leave a Coercively Controlling relationship?

It can be difficult to leave a coercive control dynamic because when the abusive partner senses you are pulling away, they know to turn on the charm in order to stay in the relationship, where the perks are.

The perks for the coercively controlling abuser may be a place to live, attention, money, sex, gifts, someone to scapegoat, someone to put down in order to feel better about themselves, sympathy, energy, etc. They still want what’s yours.

When coercively controlling partners start to sense that you might leave them, they will turn on the charm like a faucet. They may start behaving in ways that confuse you and even lead you to believe they have changed. They may start complimenting you, acting sweeter, they may lighten up on you and begin to provide you with more sex, attention, gifts, laughs, or ease—everything you’ve been missing in the relationship.

This faucet of good behavior is merely an act, and it will drop once they feel you’ve gotten comfortable with their control and abuse again. They only pretend to have changed. They only wish to secure their good favor, so they don’t lose control of you and your supply.

How do you leave a partner who is a Coercive Controller?

Coercively controlling abusers will try to isolate you from outside support, such as your family and friends, or from your therapist. However, in order to leave a controlling abuser, you need to get outside support.

Begin to reach out to old friends and family members, and talk about what is actually happening in your life, share your real concerns. Get outside feedback. Know that Controllers will try to pick fights with anyone who demonstrates concern about their behavior. They will expect you to be on their side, no matter what.

The abuser will likely monitor your phone calls or even your emails. They may try to control what you are allowed to say in person and punish you if you ever veer off from their approved script. In order to escape this level of unhealthy control, you must reach out to an outside person.

Tell close friends and family what is really going on behind closed doors. See a licensed psychotherapist who understands domestic abuse and can help you create a Safety Plan. Call a Domestic Violence Hotline.

Don’t simply ask why the abusive person keeps hurting you; focus on the deeper, more complex issue of why you keep letting them. Early trauma may be making you more susceptible to this kind of abuse.

Why is Coercive Control so damaging?

Coercive control will rob you of your sense of reality and your sense of worth. You need support from an outside perspective to help you see what is happening to you because the coercive control has skewed your perceptions of what is normal and acceptable.

With coercive control, the abusive partner doesn’t start out telling you what to do in every arena right off of the bat. The demands for control happen slowly, degree by degree, over time. You can hardly notice it until you feel like you are suffocating and have lost control of your own life.

You must get out as early as possible from this coercive control dynamic because the longer you stay, the more difficult it is to leave.

As the coercively controlling relationship progresses, you will experience more and more gaslighting, control, and abuse. This will skew your own perceptions, and the controlling behavior will seem more normal to you over time. It works in the same fashion as a cult, as it isolates you further the longer you remain inside the dysfunctional bubble.

Speaking to outside people about what is happening in your relationship is essential in order to strengthen your perspective. 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. In this regard, they are not wrong.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

As you found this post useful...

Share it on social media!

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?

Photo of author

Website: Create Your Life Studio

Christine Scott-Hudson, MA MFT ATR, is the Creative Mastermind behind Create Your Life Studio, a private psychotherapy practice and art therapy studio in Santa Barbara, California.

Christine is a Licensed Psychotherapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Art Therapist, and Certified Somatic Therapist. She is a Creative Wellness Expert and has written for over 300 psychology articles. She is also the author of the books, "150 Holiday Self-Care Activities," "Italian Christmas Cookies," and "I LOVE MYSELF; Affirmations For A Happy Life."

Her motto is: "Know your worth. Know your value. Create your life."

Christine helps women and girls discover their real worth and value through psychotherapy, creative expression, and the healing power of art.