Coercive control is an insidious type of abuse that is so subtle, women often don’t realise they are in an abusive relationship until it’s too late. An abuser who uses coercive control is careful and calculating in the way that he methodically gains control over his partner. It is one of the most dangerous forms of abuse, with one study showing that of all intimate partner homicides in NSW between 2008-2016, 99% (111/112) of the homicides were preceded by coercive control. It is also one of the most damaging types of abuse, with some victim-survivors being left with long term psychological damage. We’ll take a look at signs of coercive control in a relationship and the long-term impacts below.
An abuser who uses coercive control wants to have absolute power over the victim. The first step is to isolate her from her support systems such as family, friends and work colleagues. If someone starts making negative comments about friends or family early in the relationship, this could be the first red flag.
An abuser will often deliberately make things difficult between a victim and their family or friends. He will create issues when it comes to socialising by insinuating that it’s the friends and family who have a problem with him, making her feel as if he has to be protected from these difficult situations. Eventually, he will make socialising so difficult for her that she will choose to stop seeing her friends and family.
The abuser’s intention is to make the victim believe that everyone is against him and that she is his only source of support. As the abuser isolates her from her support systems, she will begin to doubt her own experience and knowledge and fall into the world view that is dictated by the abuser.
Abusers like to be in control at all times and one way to do this is by tracking her activity. He will monitor where she’s going, who she’s with and how long she’ll be gone for. The abuser will monitor phone calls and unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly common for abusers to install cameras and tracking technology on victims’ phones and in their cars.
He will do this to cement his control over and the isolation of his victim. If she knows that he will cause a problem because of a place she visited or a person that she spoke to, she will stop doing it. Another advantage for the abuser is that she will feel intimidated and constantly on edge and it’s easier for him to manipulate someone who is fearful.
When he starts to control the reasons she can leave the house, his intention is to break his victim’s identity. She is no longer allowed to do the things that made her happy; she has to be at his beck and call at all times. He wants to shrink her world down to revolve around him and his needs- this way he becomes the biggest, most important and most powerful force in her life. An abuser thrives on power and control and this is how he secures and maintains it.
Gaslighting is a very dangerous form of emotional abuse. It’s a subtle and insidious form of family violence that causes the victim to question her own emotions, judgements and even her sanity.
An abuser will use many forms of manipulation to make her feel that everything wrong in the relationship is her fault- like she is the one who is causing all of the problems. He will make her doubt her own version of reality in order to keep her unbalanced and to further cement his position as the all-powerful force in her world.
Gaslighting can cause serious long term psychological damage. Many victims are left feeling confused, ashamed, terrified and unable to trust their own reality. Gaslighting over a prolonged period of time can leave victims suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.
If his criticism gains momentum and he is constantly putting his partner down, this is a classic red flag for coercive control. He wants her to lose confidence in herself and doubt her abilities so that she looks to him, and only him, for validation. This gives him more power over her as he decides when and if she is deserving of his validation. It also makes him feel more powerful when he is putting others down.
Controlling the finances in the relationship serves two purposes for the abuser. One is that he has complete control over how all the money is spent to the point where she has to account for every cent she spends. It’s common for abusers to ask to see all receipts to balance them against spending from the bank account. Other abusers give a weekly allowance to fund the household expenses which is often inadequate and forces her to go without things for herself so that he and the children have their needs met. The other purpose is to prevent her from saving money to escape the relationship. These abusers want to trap their victims so they feel that they have no way out and have to stay where they are no matter what.
While we all have our little quirks when it comes to the way we live, an abuser will run an extremely tight ship and his partner will be afraid of his reaction if she breaks one of his rules. Abusers want everything their way all of the time. It’s common for these rules to be arbitrary and to change with no warning as his intention is to keep her walking on eggshells, keeping his needs at the forefront of her mind at all times. This also serves the purpose, once again, of keeping her unbalanced and fearful and therefore easier to manipulate.
If there are children in the household, a common tactic is one where he will convince the children to reject or disobey her without any legitimate reason. This achieves multiple goals for the abuser- he reinforces his position as the absolute head of the house, he increases her sense of isolation and she is left feeling like she is even more or a problem. This increases her feelings of shame and helplessness, making her more dependant on the abuser.
It might seem caring when a partner takes an interest in her fashion choices or likes to know where she is all the time. But if he tells her how to dress and where to go, this is a sign of coercive control.
Abusers turn their victims into robots. Over time, she becomes so conditioned to his wishes such as what and when and how much she eats, what she wears and when and how long she can sleep for. He has broken her to the point where she can’t think for herself any more and is completely dependant on him to make all of her decisions. She feels that she must have him in her life as she doesn’t know how to live life without him.
Jealousy stems from a sense of ownership. Abusers believe that they own their victims and that they should be the victim’s whole world. If she is getting attention or admiration from somewhere else it’s suddenly not all about the abuser.
He will be hyper-sensitive to any perceived threat to losing his position of power over her. Any interaction with another male, even if she has not initiated it or may even be unaware (someone looking at her for example) can be a source of jealousy and give him grounds to accuse her of leading the person on or even of having an affair with them. This can be very dangerous for the victim and increases her sense of fearfulness when she leaves the house or interacts with others.
11, Preventing the victim from getting help
An abuser may prevent his partner from seeking help when it’s needed, including medical assistance. Someone who uses coercive control enjoys seeing their victim in pain, they see it as a weakness and further proof of their power. He wants to see his victim suffer as much as they can. It’s also another method of exerting control over her.
12, Assuming control over the sexual relationship
It’s common for an abuser of this type to nag his partner for sex, to try and convince her to perform sexual acts that she is uncomfortable with and sadly in many cases, to force her to do so.
He wants control over every aspect of her life and that includes the sexual aspect of the relationship. He says when, where, how and how often. It’s yet another tactic employed to exert power and control. He will not consider whether or not she is consenting- he believes it is his right to do whatever he pleases.
In a coercive relationship, the abuser will often use violent threats to get their own way. This can include threats against his partner, children, other family members or pets.
His intention is to intimidate her and instil fear so that she is compliant and will do whatever he asks to ensure the safety of those around her. Once an abuser sees that this tactic is effective, he will keep using it to ensure his needs are met.
Abusers will use any means to get their own way and to maintain power and control. Often they are warm and engaging at the beginning of a relationship, encouraging the victim to be open and share their secrets. He encourages this by appearing to be trustworthy and genuinely interested in her life. He is actually doing this to find ‘dirt’ on his victim that can then be used at a later stage to further control her- he will threaten to expose her secrets in order to maintain power and control. He may also use nude photos or videos to do the same, threatening to publish them online or send them to her friends or family if she doesn’t comply.
This type of abuse is extremely damaging to a victim’s wellbeing, particularly when it is perpetrated over a long period of time. Her abuser will systematically chip away at her sense of self and her until she is completely dependant on him. She can start to doubt her reality and even her sanity. Many victim-survivors state that the non-physical forms of abuse were the most damaging, especially emotional abuse. These forms of abuse deeply impact on their sense of self and freedom and can continue to impact them for years after separating from their abuser.
Experiencing coercive control is like being held hostage; the victim is captive in an unreal world created by the abuser. He rules this world with confusion, contradiction and fear. The damage he causes to those around him is profound, long-lasting and sometimes irreparable. Women in these relationships are at a high risk of homicide.
You may wish to reflect on your behaviour and check in to see if you are engaging in any of the behaviours listed above. If you are, please consider the short and long-term impacts this is having on those around you- your loved ones. Changing your behaviour is a long-term and challenging journey but it’s one that, if you commit to it, will be life-changing for you and for those who love you. It’s worth making the change.