Our society has a very black-and-white idea of what domestic abuse looks like. Usually the idea is that an abusive relationship must have physical violence. However, abuse is a multi-headed beast that can look very different case to case. And when your partner is withholding resources, exercising extreme control over your life, trying to isolate you from others — it can be just as harmful and toxic as any other form of abuse.
There are many techniques that abusers use to enact control over their partners, ultimately with the goal of removing their partner’s autonomy, independence, and ability to leave.
Coercive control can lead to recipients questioning their memories, their ability to define themselves, even parts of their identity. Lies and deceit started by the abuser may lead to others questioning the victim, which can end up with them experiencing further isolation and questioning. Even if a single physical blow isn’t dealt, the ramifications for survivors can be just as devastating as physically abusive relationships.
The bad news is that these types of abusive relationships are frequently overlooked in the criminal justice system and when we talk about abuse in our culture because to many people, mental health is still considered secondary to physical health instead of one of our basic needs.
The good news is that there are signs of abusive behavior established by survivors and professionals alike so you can keep an eye out for them to help feel assured that a relationship that you’re entering is healthy, kind, and equal.
Before we dive in, first thing’s first - what exactly is coercive control?
Coercive control is when a pattern of controlling behaviors develops, resulting in a relationship where a partner has an unequal amount of power over the other(s).
While it can loom large in the relationship, coercive control can be subtle and complex, and sometimes can develop over time without the recipient even realizing it until it’s a very serious problem. Coercive control gives one partner power over the other, stifling their independence.
Sometimes it can lead to physical abuse, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way it can cause deep psychological trauma.
Coercive control is a very common form of abuse in abusive relationships. According to a 2015 study conducted by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, victims of coercive control in the United States include 36.6 million women and 33.1 million men.
It’s also important to remember that coercive control is not limited to romantic relationships — it can happen in any kind of emotionally intimate relationship including friendships, within families, and even with coworkers and bosses.
So now that we understand how big of a problem coercive control is, let’s go over some red flags that we can keep an eye out for.
It’s easy to think of coercive control in the abstract, but let’s look at what coercive control might look like in real life. Here are some of the signs of coercive control:
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that results in the recipient questioning something that they would otherwise be very certain of - this can include the validity of their emotions and responses, traits that they define themselves with, even memories of past events.
It establishes the other person as the greater expert in what their partner is feeling, and reduces their ability to be independent. Gaslighting can start small, with phrases that seem innocent but actually are establishing this uneven power dynamic.
If you’re interested in gaslighting and what it can look like, check out our article for more information.
Isolation is another manipulative technique that often builds slowly over time. Often an abuser will use guilt to keep their partner from spending time with friends or family. They might avoid meeting other people in your life without a particular reason, and eventually try to extend that to you not seeing them either. This tactic might extend to your online life as well, limiting and controlling what you’re doing on social media and forums.
In developed cases, the abuser might insist that they move far away, where visiting loved ones can be difficult and the abuser might end up completely cutting off ties with the outside world.
Maintaining relationships with friends and only cutting off contact when you have clear purpose and intent to do so can help keep you aware of whether your social landscape is changing organically, or if it’s because of a manipulative presence.
Controlling abusers will regularly and consistently keep a tab on their partner, both in real life and in the online world. Abusers will express a need to know everything that’s going on in their partner’s life, where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing, and who was around. If someone finds themselves deleting messages and content because they know their partner is going to monitor their phone at some point, they may be experiencing abuse.
Unfortunately, technology advances have made this easier than ever - in extreme cases, partners may use spyware and hacking to see what their partner is doing. For more information on this, check out our piece on stalkerware and spying.
A key element for abuse that controls is when an abuser diminishes and degrades their partner’s sense of independence and self-esteem. Name-calling can manifest in different contexts - sometimes during a heated argument, other times in a teasing tone.
Regardless of the situation, if the name is degrading, the act is abusive. There’s never a good reason for someone to call their partner an insulting name, even in an argument, and the consequences of verbal abuse have a direct toll on a recipient’s mental well-being.
Humiliating is a powerful form of emotional abuse that can cause shame and low self-esteem. Someone who feels the need to humiliate their partner - sometimes under the guise of a joke, sometimes more direct and aggressive - is someone who is trying to belittle their partner, often so they don’t leave due to other abusive behaviors.
In this society, one of the most necessary elements to full autonomy and independence is financial freedom, and whoever and whatever controls your finances also controls part of that freedom. Sometimes financial abuse means an abuser constantly monitoring their partner’s bank account and keeping them on an allowance. Sometimes it means interrupting their career growth by interfering with their workplace or even manipulating them into providing free labor to their own business or enterprise. It can also look like an abuser forcing their partner to agree to power-of-attorney so that the abuser can control legal matters as well.
If a relationship develops to the point where two people decide to join their resources and work together financially, it can be perfectly natural for both parties to express expectations of what that might look like. But if one party is enjoying an unequal share of power or is trying to control every aspect of income that doesn’t belong to them, it’s likely financial abuse.
For more information on financial abuse, check out our Financial Abuse quiz.
Body autonomy is one of the most necessary parts of someone’s human rights. An abuser trying to control their partner’s body autonomy can look like them trying to make birth control decisions for them and other medical decisions. They might try to project their own religious or spiritual beliefs on birth control, might try to control their partner’s fertility control to keep them in the relationship, and other forms of manipulative tactics to keep their partner’s body autonomy under their control.
When we have children or own a pet, we become caretakers of beings who are much more vulnerable and dependent. This can put us in a point of vulnerability if an abuser decides to threaten children or pets, and it can feel like the only option left is to put ourselves on the firing line instead. Abusers know this and will use this tactic to keep their partners under their control, by threatening more vulnerable parties with violence or taking them away.
This is one of the biggest red flags that exist, and if someone in a relationship experiences this, it’s absolutely time to get help.
Sexual coercion is when an abuser will use the manipulation tactics under their belt to force a partner into having unwanted sexual contact with them, and is a form of rape.
Sometimes an abuser will threaten their partner, sometimes using peer pressure and blackmail. Abusers will also use constant pressure to try to goad someone into saying ‘yes’ just to get it to end. In any case, if someone is ignoring someone saying ‘no’ or is disregarding someone’s reluctance to have sex, and they are only using their words to get what they want, they are using coercive tactics to have sex and it counts as rape.
Hostile language and promises of violence are part of abuse escalation that can lead to horrible consequences. This can either be another example of coercive behavior employed by the abuser or it can also be the bridge of an abusive relationship that isn’t physically violent to one that is.
Where you live determines whether or not coercive control is illegal. In the United States, there are no existing federal laws that protect citizens from coercive control. There are states that have laws that make it illegal - California and Hawaii both have laws on the books that outlaw coercive control, and New York, Maryland, and South Carolina have similar laws in the works.
Europe, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France already have laws established to make it illegal.
The laws in different states and countries vary in terms of seriousness, procedure, and how inclusive the laws are. Plus, laws may change over time, and even as work is done to expand the definition of abuse, requirements may change, usually against the interests of victims.
For example, currently in California, a victim need only provide one example of abuse, however, there was not a definition of coercive control. Now there’s a new bill - SB 1141 - that brings coercive control under the definition of a form of abuse. However, due to the wording of the new law, survivors will have to provide a repeating pattern of abuse and malicious intent instead of a single incident.
Who is protected also varies by location and is rarely comprehensive. For example, in France, “psychological abuse within marriage” is a criminal offense, but initially, those who are unmarried receive no protection. Over the years, laws have been amended to include “a spouse, partner, or cohabitant” which has greatly expanded protection to many people, while still leaving non-romantic intimate relationships potentially out in the cold.
The legality of coercive control is a complex and undecided concept that is still evolving all over the world. Too many times, domestic abuse in the court system is perceived as a matter of counting bruises but not recognizing mental scars. Fortunately, there are other resources out there to help people exit their abusive relationship.
If you find yourself trapped in a coercive relationship, you may find that leaving it is easier said than done thanks to the layers of lies and deceit that the abuser has created.
One of the most important things that you can do is reach out and communicate to any support system that you have, whenever you can. This can include friends, family, coworkers, or members of your spiritual community. Make sure that people know where you are and check in with them, to maintain that outside link.
Practicing an exit strategy is another important step to escaping. Leaving behind an abuser often doesn't happen in one fell swoop, especially if there are children or pets involved. Know exactly what you would take and have a plan, find temporary safe spots for yourself and any vulnerable parties, and practice how this would work, so that if the situation suddenly turns violent, you and your family can leave safely. We’ve put together a piece on creating a safety plan to help you leave as safe as possible.
Call The National Domestic Violence Hotline (which is available 24 hours a day!) This hotline will connect you to an advocate who will offer support, provide empathy, and come up with your own exit strategy. It’s a free, confidential 24/7 resource that can help people escape their abusive relationships.
Because often in these relationships internet usage is surveyed by the abuser, there is a phone number - 800.799.SAFE (7233) - that you can call if there is a public phone at a library or local business that you can use. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also recommends that anyone currently in an abusive relationship wipe their browser history of anything related to getting help, don’t save any of these phone numbers on your personal device, and use incognito mode on your browser to help avoid abusers from catching on. If you know that your internet is safe (by using someone else’s Wifi and device, somewhere where the abuser can’t reach), there are also live chats that you can use if you prefer that method.
Recognizing the signs of coercive behavior is something anyone should learn how to do, even if you aren’t a part of the relationship that you’re concerned about. If a friend mentions toxic behavior and you worry that they may unknowingly be in an abusive relationship, maintaining contact, checking in regularly, and keeping them informed of the signs can help them escape a lot of trauma and pain.
Resources to know:
NDHV - The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Casa de Esperanza - Linea de Crisis 24-horas
RAINN - The National Sexual Assault Hotline
833-723-3833 (833-SAFE-833) - international and toll-free
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