Coercive control can be difficult to identify and you might have been in a relationship for years without being fully aware that you are being coercively controlled. It’s easy to know when you are physically abused – you have bruises and injuries as evidence. Coercive control is more subtle. You might be aware that something feels off but you have most likely allowed your self-doubt to win.
Psychological domestic abuse is hard to identify. It is often only after the accumulation of many, subtle and separate behaviours that domestic abuse can be identified
The behaviours are so subtly nuanced, so varying and, very often, so seemingly innocuous, that it is tempting to dismiss them as insignificant and harmless.
A new relationship starts off filled with promise and happiness. You feel giddy and in love. A new love interest can be very charming in the beginning. Most people are on their best behaviour initially and put their best foot forward. It can seem almost too good to be true. Be careful – negative changes can start within 3-6 months and true colours emerge eventually. No one can keep up the act forever. Over time, coercive control creeps in little by little. A little jealousy can seem flattering but keep in mind that it could be the start of more extreme behaviour to come.
If your partner shows behaviours that aren’t one-offs but seem to form a pattern, take note:
Signs of coercive control:
Your abuser’s behaviour is considered to have a serious effect on you if:
- on at least two occasions you have feared that violence will be used against you, or
- you have felt serious alarm or distress and it has had a substantial effect on your usual day to day activities. The behaviour has had a substantial effect on you if it has caused you to change the way you live. For example, you may have changed the way you socialise, your physical or mental health may have deteriorated, you may have changed the way you do household chores or how you care for your children. If you have changed the way you live in order to keep you or your children safe from harm, it is possible that the behaviour you are experiencing is coercive control.
Walking on eggshells
Do you feel that you have been vigilant of your partner’s moods? Will they be okay today or will they snap at me and find something wrong no matter what I do? While we all have bad days, if you regularly feel that you have to keep your partner happy by changing your behaviour, you might just be experiencing coercive control.
Isolating you from friends and family
Over time, have you lost contact with friends and family? While some changes are to be expected, you should still feel free to see your friends and family whenever you want to without any resistance from your partner. If your partner makes you feel uncomfortable about going out without them, ask them what the issue is. Usually, it’s because they don’t want other people influencing you. It dilutes their control over you. Some partners see their relationship as a possession. you are an object not a person with equal rights.
Possessive and controlling
When you feel stifled and trapped, it’s not a sign of a good relationship. If your partner wants to know where you are, gets irate if you don’t respond to calls or texts quickly and monopolizes your time – take notice. Some partners will comment on your posture (eg “Stop slouching, stand up straight”), others may tell you that you aren’t to eat bread or pudding etc
It’s not their choice to make. If they have an issue with your weight, this is something to be discussed in a kind and collaborative way. It should never be dealt with by being ordered to do something (or not do something). That’s a FAIL.
A question such as “Why did you do that?” can be a sign of coercive control if the tone is condescending. Coercive control isn’t always verbal. it might be a sigh, a shaking head, rolling eyes or a patronising tone. The message is clear – you are not measuring up according to your coercive partner. Ask yourself – Measuring up to whose standards? You don’t have to accept their standards. You have your own. Other common forms of control: sexual and financial.
Criticising and belittling
If your partner belittles or finds ways to insult you subtly, this is a sign of coercive control. A healthy relationship doesn’t include demeaning your partner. if you value someone you support their endeavours. It’s easier to manipulate and control someone who has low self-esteem. Don’t react when they try to belittle you, simply answer “Whatever”. They want to destabilise you – don’t let them. See coercive control for what it is. If you don’t feel afraid of your partner, say what you notice: “Are you trying to belittle me?” Call it out, don’t ignore it and above all, try not to react.
Blaming you for everything
Coercive control usually involves making you the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong. It’s all because you weren’t organised enough, or it’s because (this one is especially popular) – “You don’t listen”.
Somehow it’s never their fault and over time you will feel worn down as if you can’t do anything right. A healthy relationship relies on positive feedback. It’s recommended that for every piece of negative feedback, there should be five positive statements/compliments to balance the harmony.
Turning your children against you is also a sign of coercive control. Not only is this behaviour destructive, but it can also destroy family relationships and leave children with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Over time this can be internalised and this often manifests as an angry, out-of-control teenager.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The above diagrams are from a female’s perspective but coercive control exists for both sexes, and all people, not just males on females. It exists for transgendered, LGBTQ communities and many other recognised groups. No one is immune to this subtle and manipulative control in relationships. While some sources state that gay and lesbian couples experience domestic violence at the same frequency as heterosexual couples, other sources report that domestic violence rates among gay, lesbian and bisexual people might be higher but more under-reported. For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology_of_domestic_violence
Examples of acceptable behaviour when it’s infrequent:
Swearing, shouting, criticism, ignoring you, hurting your feelings, – no one is perfect
Physical abuse, malicious actions, insults, frequent criticism or belittling remarks, controlling how you dress, who you see, where you go etc. Emotional manipulation, instilling fear in you purposefully.
Every situation is context-based but hopefully the above gives you an idea of healthy boundaries.
What to do about coercive control
Understand that you are not going mad. If it feels wrong, it probably is. trust your intuition and speak to others who can offer you an objective perspective. I have experienced coercive control and it is a common experience. It’s subtle and gradual and victims often second guess themselves. It’s common and understandable to be in denial about the manipulative, unkind aspect of someone we love. It’s far easier to blame ourselves for being too sensitive, too demanding or ‘difficult’. Ongoing oppression and subtle denigration naturally lead to desensitisation.
Some statistics on domestic abuse:
- Research suggests that one in three women have experienced a form of coercive control in their lifetime. Estimates published by WHO indicate that globally about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
- A UN report compiled from a number of different studies conducted in at least 71 countries found domestic violence against women to be most prevalent in Ethiopia.
- According to various national surveys, the percentage of women who were ever physically assaulted by an intimate partner varies substantially by country: Barbados (30%), Canada (29%), Egypt (34%), New Zealand (35%), Switzerland (21%), United States (33%)
- Some surveys in specific places report figures as high as 50–70% of women who were ever physically assaulted by an intimate partner. Others, including surveys in the Philippines and Paraguay, report figures as low as 10%
- Statistics published in 2004 show that the rate of domestic violence victimisation for Indigenous women in Australia may be 40 times the rate for non-Indigenous women
- In Turkey 42% of women over 15 have suffered physical or sexual violence. In India, around 70% of women are victims of domestic violence
- 80% of women surveyed in rural Egypt said that beatings were common and often justified, particularly if the woman refused to have sex with her husband.
- Up to two-thirds of women in certain communities in Nigeria‘s Lagos State say they are victims to domestic violence
- A 1992 Council of Europe study on domestic violence against women found that one in four women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes and between 6 and 10% of women suffer domestic violence in a given year.
- The British Crime Survey for 2006–2007 reported that 0.5% of people (0.6% of women and 0.3% of men) reported being victims of domestic violence during that year and 44.3% of domestic violence was reported to the police. According to the survey, 312,000 women and 93,000 men were victims of domestic violence
- Approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men report being physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. In the United States, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44
Don’t give up your support network
Stay in touch with friends and family at all costs. You don’t need to tell them everything that’s going on if you don’t want to, but make sure that you keep other people in your life. When you have many people in your life, you can limit the amount of control your partner has over you. Even better – speak to a therapist. You can chat with a therapist in complete confidence. Please don’t isolate yourself. There are many people going through the same experiences as you are – it happens to the best of us.
Have your own bank account
Make sure that you have your own independent funds if possible. Save money over time. Nothing feels more empowering than knowing you have the money to get away if you need to. Try to save up enough for a deposit on a new place and enough to cover at least one month’s bills and expenses. If this isn’t possible – you can contact a refuge as they often provide free accommodation and support until you can get back on your feet – see details below.
Maintain healthy boundaries and know your worth
It can be tough to stay confident when you are in a coercively controlled relationship. Write down affirmations such as “I deserve love and respect”; or “These actions and not acceptable to me: criticising me, demeaning me, locking me out of the house, shouting at me..etc”
Remind yourself of your boundaries and don’t allow them to be violated frequently. If someone criticises you, it might just be a one-off and that’s normal but actions such as hitting you, using names such as “whore” or “Slut”, controlling who you see and where you are etc are more serious signs.
Trust your instincts
If something doesn’t feel right – you are probably right. The urge to dominate, control and oppress others is an ugly but undeniable part of human nature. Governments, police and the military use tactics such as torture, terror, scapegoating and miscarriages of justice. Bullying goes on in the school playground and in the workplace — and domestic abuse goes on in intimate relationships.
Have a safety plan
Create a plan to give yourself a way out – where would you go, what would you take? It pays to be prepared if the day comes when you finally decide to get out. See the useful contacts below and keep a note of the relevant numbers.
Maintain your independence
As much as possible – keep your hobbies, go to the gym or go for walks and make sure you keep yourself centred. Don’t revolve your life around your partner. This will limit their hold over you and maintain a perspective in your life. If you don’t have a career, consider volunteer work – strengthen relationships outside of your home.
Being with a coercive partner can make you feel powerless but you can take it back. There are ways to get help and start a new chapter. Start gathering information, keep it hidden but have a plan. Take it one step at a time and the more you do, the more powerful you will feel. One day you might even look back and thank yourself for being so strong!
Feel free to write to me if you need someone to talk – I have been there!! Email me: email@example.com
Useful contacts (USA)
In the United States, there are no federal laws that cover coercive control, though several states have taken action to illegalize coercive control, California and Hawaii have signed laws into the books. Maryland and South Carolina are both working on bills, amendments, and laws.
National domestic violence hotline: Call 800-799-7322
The Northwest network: Founded by lesbian survivors of domestic violence, the Northwest Network works to end abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. It strives to support and empower all survivors through education and advocacy. Call 206-568-7777
Useful contacts (UK)
Police – 999 (emergency) – 101 (non-emergency)
24 hour domestic violence helpline – 0808 200 0247 – www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk
National LGBT Domestic Violence Helpline – 0300 999 5428 – www.brokenrainbow.org.uk/help/helpline
National Stalking Helpline – 0808 802 0300 – www.stalkinghelpline.org/faq/about-the-law/
Revenge Porn Helpline – 0845 6000 459 – www.revengepornhelpline.org.uk/
Stop Online Abuse – www.stoponlineabuse.org.uk
The Law Society (to find a solicitor) – www.lawsociety.org.uk/find-a-solicitor/
Useful contacts: South Africa
SAPS Emergency 10111
Gender-Based Violence Command Centre 0800 428 428
STOP Gender Violence Helpline 0800 150 150/ *120*7867#
Useful contacts: Australia
Legislation to combat coercive control is being considered or is in the process of becoming law in every state and territory in Australia. Some already recognise coercive control under civil law.
- 1800 Respect national helpline:
1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line:
1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service:
1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line):
- Relationships Australia:
1300 364 277
Useful contacts: Canada
See our resources page for more info on other countries not listed above:
Ramani Durvasula – Should I stay or should I go?
Dee Graham – Loving to survive
Further information on coercive control/Sources:
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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