You’re probably familiar with some forms of domestic violence, such as physical or verbal abuse. There's a more subtle type of abusive behavior that's equally harmful.
Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instill fear. The abuser will use tactics, such as limiting access to money or monitoring all communication, as a controlling effort.
While this form of abuse is illegal in some countries, including the United Kingdom, since 2015, it’s not considered illegal in the United States unless a crime has been committed.
Anyone can experience coercive control, but it's often grounded in gender-based privilege. Between 60 and 80 percent of women seeking assistance for abuse have experienced coercive control.
Here's a look at 12 major signs of coercive control, along with some resources that can help you get out of a bad situation.
A controlling partner will try to cut you off from friends and family or limit contact with them so you don’t receive the support you need, says clinical psychologist Cali Estes, PhD.
Here are a few ways they do this:
- suggesting shared phone and social media accounts for convenience
- moving you far away from your family so that it’s hard to visit them
- fabricating lies about you to others
- monitoring all your phone calls with your family and cutting the line off if anyone tries to intervene
- convincing you that your family hates you and doesn't want to talk to you
“Abusers pursue coercive control through attempts to make themselves omnipresent,” says Wendy L. Patrick, PhD, a career trial attorney and expert in criminal law.
They do this by wiring your house with cameras or recording devices, sometimes using two-way surveillance to speak to you at home during the day.
“This invasive surveillance often extends to private areas, such as the bedroom and even the bathroom,” notes Patrick, “adding an element of humiliation to what is already a clear boundary violation.”
All of this allows them an added element of control and also serves as a reminder to you that they're watching.
Someone exerting coercive control might try to control your freedom of movement and independence.
Some methods include:
- not allowing you to go to work or school
- restricting your access to transportation
- stalking your every move when you're out
- taking your phone and changing all your passwords
“The abuser must always be right, and they will force the victim to acknowledge this,” says Estes. They'll manipulate, lie, and gaslight to get their way and convince you that you’re wrong.
Say your partner comes home from work, expecting dinner to be served. They said they wanted steak before they left. When you serve dinner, they might throw it on the floor, scream, and yell that they wanted burgers, claiming that you're too stupid to follow simple directions.
You then find yourself questioning your own memory, apologizing, and re-making dinner.
Malicious put-downs, name-calling, and frequent criticisms are all forms of bullying behavior.
They’re designed to make you feel unimportant and deficient, says Melissa Hamilton, PhD, a criminologist and expert in domestic abuse.
Controlling finances is a way of restricting your freedom and ability to leave the relationship.
Some ways they’ll try to exert financial control include:
- placing you on a strict budget that barely covers the essentials, such as food or clothes
- limiting your access to bank accounts.
- hiding financial resources
- preventing you from having a credit card
- rigorously monitoring what you spend
Regardless of the type of relationship you have, your partner may try to make a distinction between who functions as the man and the woman in the relationship.
They’ll attempt to justify that women are homemakers and mothers, while men are the breadwinners. Using this argument, they may coerce you into taking care of all the cleaning, cooking, and childcare.
If you have children, either with the abuser or someone else, they may try to weaponize the children against you by telling them you're a bad parent or belittling you in front of them.
This attitude can create a rift in the relationship between you and your kids, and may make you feel powerless.
They'll monitor and control how much you eat, sleep, or time you spend in the bathroom.
Your abuser may require you to count calories after every meal or adhere to a strict exercise regimen. They may also control which medications you’re allowed to take and whether you go for medical care or not.
You may feel as though you’re always walking on eggshells and that your body is no longer your own.
Jealously complaining about the amount of time you spend with your family and friends, both on and offline, is a way for them to phase out and minimize your contact with the outside world.
They might also do this in an effort to make you feel guilty.
Abusers might make demands about the amount of times you have sex each week and the kinds of activities you perform. They may also demand to take sexual pictures or videos of you or refuse to wear a condom.
“The victims may come to an ‘understanding’ that if they do not comply with their perpetrators’ demands or desires,” Hamilton says, “then they may face significant consequences.”
According to Hamilton, if physical, emotional, or financial threats don’t work as desired, your abuser may try to use threats against others in an attempt to control you. For example, your kids or pets may be at risk.
This can look like:
- making violent threats against them
- threatening to call social services and say you're neglecting or abusing your children when you aren't
- intimidating you by threatening to make important decisions about your kids without your consent
- threatening to kidnap your children or get rid of your pet
Coercive control is a pernicious form of domestic abuse that entraps you in a hostage-like situation. Regardless of the history with your abuser, even if it included some happy moments, you don't deserve this treatment.
Getting out of an abusive relationship can be complex, even more so when children are involved. But with a bit of planning, you can make a safe exit from the situation.
Here’s what you can do:
- Maintain communication with your support systems whenever possible. This is important regardless of your abuser’s displeasure, says Patrick. You should also make sure family and friends have all of your contact information and check in on a regular basis.
- Call a domestic violence hotline regularly. Keep track of where your nearest public phone is and periodically weigh your options with a professional. Our resource guide can provide you with more options.
- Practice how to get out safely, and practice often. If you have kids, teach your kids to identify a safe place, such as a friend’s house or the library, where they can go to for help and how to call the police.
- Have a safety plan. “When deciding to leave, victims should have a plan regarding where to go and who to stay with,” Patrick adds, “recognizing that the initial period of separation might be the most dangerous in terms of an abuser attempting to reconcile — through both legal and illegal conduct.”
If you’re in immediate danger
Call 911 or your local emergency number if you're able to.
Some cities have introduced the ability to text 911. Ask your local law enforcement about whether they've rolled out this program. You can also just send the text — you'll get a bounce-back notification if the system isn't available in your area.
If you can't call or text 911, try to physically remove yourself by getting to a neighbor's house or nearby business.