Coercive Control: What It Is and How It Impacts Domestic Abuse Survivors

Coercive Control: What It Is and How It Impacts Domestic Abuse Survivors

Domestic abuse takes many forms. But in nearly all cases, there is a psychological or emotional component. This “coercive control” can often lead to devastating consequences – and can sometimes be a precursor to physical violence.

What is coercive control? How can you identify it? And what can you do if you or a loved one is in an abusive relationship? 

What is Coercive Control?

Not all abuse is physical. Perpetrators use a variety of tactics to assert power and control over their victims, including psychological and emotional abuse. 

Coercive control is one type of psychological and emotional abuse that instills fear and allows abusers to slowly shift the balance of power in the relationship. 

Dr. Evan Stark coined the term “coercive control” through his domestic violence research. It describes any patterns of behaviors designed to erode a partner’s autonomy and self-esteem. In his book, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life, Dr. Stark outlines how psychological and emotional abuse strips women of their human rights. 

Survivors who experience coercive control often experience depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. These symptoms can continue long after the relationship ends.

Examples of Coercive Control

Coercive control encompasses many different non-physical behaviors that perpetrators use to overpower their partners. 

Any type of manipulation, intimidation, threats, or humiliation can be classified as coercive control. Sometimes, these behaviors seem innocent, like wanting to know where a partner is, calling or texting often, or making seemingly innocuous comments about a partner’s appearance or habits. But over time, these behaviors often become much more overt and harmful.

Examples of coercive control include:

  • Gaslighting
  • Economic abuse, such as controlling a partner’s spending, refusing to give access to finances, or not allowing a partner to make financial decisions. Financial insecurity often leaves a victim feeling trapped in a relationship, with no means to support herself otherwise. 
  • Stalking
  • Isolating the partner from their friends and family, not allowing them to spend time with loved ones alone, or preventing the partner from going to school or work.
  • Insulting or talking down to a partner. Any comments meant to demean the other person or harm their self-esteem can be considered coercive control. 
  • Monitoring phone calls, text messages, or online content.
  • Controlling aspects of a partner’s daily habits, like what she eats, how she dresses, when she sleeps, and when she leaves the house.
  • Pressuring or guilting a partner into unwanted sexual activity.
  • Manipulation or threats of self-harm designed to make the victim feel guilty, even if they have done nothing wrong.
  • Threats against the victim, including threats of physical violence against her, the children, pets, or other loved ones. Threats can also be non-physical, like threatening to expose a secret, release intimate pictures, or otherwise harm a partner’s reputation.

Some countries, including England and Wales, have made coercive control illegal, allowing survivors to take legal action based on these behaviors alone. However, most U.S. states do not recognize coercive control as domestic abuse, meaning victims cannot seek protective orders until the abuse escalates.

Coercive Control and Physical Violence

While coercive control doesn’t always lead to physical violence, victims of physical violence often report experiencing some form of coercive control first. 

Even when coercive control doesn’t escalate to violence, it is a form of abuse in and of itself. Psychological and emotional abuse are still abuse. The effects can be long-lasting, even if a survivor leaves the relationship.

Any form of coercive control is cause for concern. Because this behavior can escalate to physical violence, it should be taken very seriously.

How to Get Help

If you or someone you know are living with a psychologically or emotionally abusive partner, seek help. No one deserves to be mistreated. 

Even though most law enforcement agencies cannot arrest someone for exerting coercive control, there are other ways to report the abuse and safely exit the situation.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a confidential resource designed to educate survivors and connect them with the resources they need to thrive. Visit, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or text “START” to 88788 to connect with a trusted advocate.

Click here to learn more about reporting domestic abuse safely.
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