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.


Lisa shared this article with us and it is extremely timely considering Tracy recently discussed this very topic in her interview with Amy Redford for her 9-part docuseries, “The Narcissist Trap.” Thank you, Lisa!



Lisa Johnson is the co-founder of Been There Got Out, a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate, educator, professional writer, and founder of the Legal Abuse Support Group. She has been representing herself in family and the appellate court (pro se), which is a job unto itself, and her interviews with experts are prominent on social media, making a leading go-to resource for high-conflict divorce information worldwide.

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