Coercive Control: When Is It More Than Just a "Bad Relationship"

Coercive control is a pervasive and insidious form of domestic abuse that often goes unnoticed and unpunished. It is a pattern of behaviors designed to isolate, manipulate, and dominate a victim through a combination of psychological, emotional, financial, and physical tactics. Unlike physical violence, which leaves visible scars, coercive control inflicts deep psychological wounds that can be just as devastating. It's a slow burn, a gradual erosion of a person's autonomy, self-worth, and identity.

What Does Coercive Control Look Like?

Coercive control isn't a single action but a web of behaviors woven together to entrap and dominate a victim. Here are the 5 key elements, illustrated with real-life examples:

1. Isolation: Cutting Off Ties with Friends and Family

  • Example: A partner might insist that their loved one moved countries or states for them and spend all their time with them, discouraging social gatherings or family visits. They might criticize friends or family, making the victim feel guilty for wanting to see them. They might make comments about using their partner’s phone, implying that they should only want to be with their significant other. Over time, the victim becomes increasingly isolated and dependent on the coercive controller for social connection.
  • Real-Life Case: In the UK, Sally Challen was convicted of murdering her husband after years of emotional abuse and isolation. He controlled her friendships, finances, and even monitored her car mileage. This isolation amplified the abuse's impact and eroded her support network.

2. Financial Control: Dictating Spending, Denying Access to Money, or Sabotaging Employment

  • Example: A partner might gradually take control of all finances, giving their loved one an "allowance" or forcing them to justify every purchase. They might sabotage job interviews or make it difficult for their partner to work, creating financial dependence. They might use the “baby trap” tactic of messing with the partner’s contraception so that the partner gets pregnant and cannot work, etc.
  • Real-Life Case: The famous Andrew Tate case where he (allegedly) taught other men how to sex-traffic and exploit young women they’re dating, pretending to be in a relationship, propositioning a business, gradually selling their bodies, and taking half or all of their money. In another case, in Canada, a woman was forced to quit her job and hand over her entire salary to her partner. He controlled all spending, leaving her with no access to money and no way to leave the relationship.

3. Emotional Manipulation: Gaslighting, Belittling, and Constant Criticism

  • Example: A partner might deny or minimize their hurtful actions, making the victim doubt their own perceptions. They might constantly criticize their partner's appearance, intelligence, or choices, eroding their self-esteem. They might utilize their partner’s empathy to evoke feelings of sorry, pity, or guilt whenever the victim exercises autonomy, expresses their needs, or sets boundaries. The victim eventually feels like there is nothing they can do right or know what's really going on. The goal-post keeps moving.
  • Real-Life Case: One survivor described her ex-partner's gaslighting as a "fog of confusion." He would deny saying things he had clearly said, blame her for his outbursts, and twist events to make her feel responsible for his abusive behavior. The movie “Gaslight” depicts the dynamic after which it was eventually named.

4. Monitoring: Tracking Whereabouts, Checking Phones, Controlling Social Media

  • Example: A partner might demand access to their loved one's phone, emails, and social media accounts. They might track their movements using GPS or insist on knowing their whereabouts at all times. This creates a sense of constant surveillance and limits personal freedom.
  • Real-Life Case: In the US, a man used spyware to monitor his girlfriend's phone without her knowledge. He tracked her location, read her messages, and even listened to her calls, creating a chilling atmosphere of control. The Manosphere, an online community known for its misogynistic views, often perpetuates the idea that a woman's use of social media is a sign of disloyalty, justifying controlling behavior.

5. Threats and Intimidation: Instilling Fear Through Implied or Direct Threats

  • Example: A partner might threaten to harm themselves or their loved one if the victim tries to leave. They might make veiled threats about ruining their reputation or taking away their children. Threats to take his own life if the partner leaves are very common. This creates a climate of fear and makes it difficult for the victim to escape.
  • Real-Life Case: In a high-profile Australian case, a man threatened to release intimate photos of his ex-partner if she didn't comply with his demands. This form of "revenge porn" is a powerful tool of coercion and intimidation. In another case, R. L. Hubbert, the founder of Scientology, reportedly used threats of suicide to manipulate his wife.

Gradual isolation, financial control, emotional manipulation, tracking and intimiation taken together, create a prison without bars, chipping away at the victim's self-esteem, autonomy, and sense of reality.

How Coercive Control Relates to Trauma

For individuals with complex or developmental trauma, coercive control can be particularly damaging. Trauma survivors often struggle with issues of trust, boundaries, and self-worth, making them vulnerable to the manipulative tactics of coercive controllers. The abuser exploit vulnerabilities to exert control. Coercive control can also retraumatize survivors creating a vicious cycle where the trauma of the past makes one more susceptible to abuse in the present, and the abuse in the present exacerbates the trauma of the past. Here are 4 specific outcomes of coercive control that can happen for victims with a history of complex trauma:

  • Retraumatization: The tactics used in coercive control can mirror past trauma, triggering flashbacks, anxiety, and depression. It’s the familiar pain and confusion that victims tend to endure and justify just like they used to while growing up.
  • Shattered Trust: Survivors of trauma often struggle with trust. Once the trust is developed within the relationshop, it is so precious that the victim turns a blind eye to any behaviors that might threaten it. It is called betrayal blindness. Coercive controller exploits this vulnerability by love-bombing after every form of abuse establishing a repetative cycle, and making it impossible to leave without destroying partner’s trust in themselves and the world.
  • Amplified Isolation: Trauma survivors already feel isolated due to their difficulty in trusting people and their unique experiences that are uncommon or misunderstood by the wider society. The coercive controller uses that to cut them off further from support systems that could help.
  • Erosion of Self-Worth: Trauma leaves deep scars on self-esteem. Coercive controller exacerbates these feelings of worthlessness, making victims believe they deserve the abuse.

The combination of coercive control and unresolved trauma can lead to a devastating cycle of abuse, making it incredibly difficult for victims to know what is really going on, leave and heal. On average, it takes 7 attempts for domestic violence victims to leave their abusive partner.

Is Coercive Control a Crime Under European Law?

The legal landscape surrounding coercive control is evolving, with growing recognition of its devastating impact. While there's no single European law that explicitly criminalizes coercive control, several countries have taken significant steps to address this issue. For instance, England and Wales made coercive control a specific criminal offense in 2015, recognizing it as a form of domestic abuse. Similarly, Ireland and Scotland have also enacted laws criminalizing coercive control.

In other European countries, while coercive control may not be a standalone offense, it can be prosecuted under existing laws, such as harassment, stalking, or domestic violence. However, the lack of a specific offense often makes it difficult to prosecute these cases effectively, as the cumulative impact of coercive control may not be fully recognized.

Victims' Rights and Support

Victims of coercive control have the right to be safe and free from abuse. They have the right to access support services, such as counseling, legal aid, and emergency shelter. In countries where coercive control is criminalized, victims can report the abuse to the police and seek legal protection.

It's important to note that leaving a coercive relationship can be dangerous. Abusers often escalate their behavior when they feel they are losing control. Therefore, it's crucial for victims to seek professional help and develop a safety plan before leaving.

It's More Than Just a "Bad Relationship"

Coercive control is a serious form of abuse that can have long-lasting consequences. Recognizing the subtle signs and understanding its impact is crucial in protecting victims and holding perpetrators accountable. While the legal landscape is still evolving, the growing recognition of coercive control as a crime is a positive step toward addressing this hidden form of abuse. It’s important to understand that coercive relationship is not “just a bad relationship,” it’s not a shared responsibility or a conflict. It is a one-sided power dynamic where the abuser deliberately strips away their partner's autonomy and agency through manipulation, isolation,and exploitation.

Let's break the silence around coercive control and empower survivors to reclaim their lives.

Disclaimer: I wrote this blog with an assistance of AI technology. It is intended for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal or professional advice. The information presented here is based on current understanding and research on coercive control. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please seek help from a qualified professional or domestic violence organization in your area.

Written by
Jura Glo

With over ten years of experience guiding individuals and couples worldwide, I specialize in supporting those impacted by complex trauma.  

My personal experience navigating cults, institutional betrayal, and manipulative individuals has given me a unique understanding of the psychological and emotional impact of these dynamics.

This translates into my work and writing, where I help my clients identify core issues and co-create solutions within a safe, balanced and supportive environment.

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