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4 Early Signs of Coercive Control

Coercive control is a term used in the context of domestic abuse in relationships. When we think about partner abuse, we usually picture very overt behaviors: Yelling, hitting, or threatening physical violence, as examples. Coercive control is more subtle, but it’s no less serious.

“Coercive control is a behavior in which one person in a relationship uses tactics, manipulation, intimidation, and various forms of emotional and psychological abuse to gain power and control over their partner,” explains neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services and director of Comprehend the Mind. “The goal is to dominate the victim’s thoughts, emotions, and actions,” she adds.

Coercive control is abuse and someone in a situation involving it may need help getting out.

Signs of Coercive Control
Coercive control can involve all of the below behaviors, or only some of them. Each of these behaviors is a problem and should not be tolerated, even if the perpetrator is not engaging in every one.

Isolation
Pulling you away from your network makes you reliant on your partner, and also prevents you from accessing your loved ones for help from their behavior.

“The abuser monitors and controls the victim’s communication and interactions with others, including phone calls, messages, and social media,” says Hafeez. In turn, “the victim becomes increasingly isolated from friends, family, and other social connections.”

Threats
Intimidation is a way to prevent a victim from taking action against an abuser, and the threats can come in a variety of forms. “The abuser uses threats of harm, violence, or other consequences to control the victim,” says Hafeez, who explains that because of that, “the victim feels fear or anxiety due to the abuser’s threats or aggressive behavior.”

Gaslighting
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation. It’s a tactic in which someone claims that reality is different from how the victim is perceiving it. “The abuser distorts the victim’s perception of reality, making them doubt their memory, feelings, or sanity,” says Hafeez.

When someone tells us our version of reality is wrong, we can quickly grow distraught. “The victim often second-guesses themselves and struggles to trust their own judgment,” Hafeez adds.

Economic Control
Taking over someone’s finances can take away their freedom, and can make escape financially impossible for the victim. “The abuser controls the victim’s finances, limiting their access to money or resources,” says Hafeez, who explains that the point of this is for the victim to be made financially dependent on the abuser. That dependence can prevent them from being able to leave.
Abuse is Not Gendered
When we think of domestic abuse, the standard picture that comes to mind is a man abusing a woman. The truth, though, is that people of all genders can be abusers. One in three women, and one in four men, have experienced physical domestic abuse, and even more have experienced emotional abuse. Intimate partner abuse occurs as often, if not more often, within LGBTQ+ relationships as with heterosexual ones.

Prevention Strategies
If you are not currently in a situation of coercive control, there are steps you can take to avoid it. Hafeez offers us four ways we can avoid becoming victims of coercive control.

Educate and Observe
Having a solid basis of what a healthy relationship looks like is vital to being able to recognize an unhealthy one. Becoming more aware of our own actions and how they affect others is a way to become more aware of the others’ actions.

Educating ourselves about domestic abuse and what the warning signs of it are is very helpful. Look up any terms you aren’t familiar with, and educate yourself about the early warning signs of abuse, not just what full blown domestic violence looks like. This way, you can be on your toes as soon as you experience a red flag.

It’s also important early on in relationships to pay attention to how the person you are interested in engages with others. “Observe how potential partners treat others, including their friends, family, and colleagues,” suggests Hafeez.

Coercive control can escalate and intensify over time and it is important to be able to observe and identify early warning signs including intensity and high involvement, need for constant contact, jealousy without reason, frequent arguments about trust and betrayal, insistence on being right all the time, pressure for early commitment and possessiveness, and isolating behaviors including mentioning people they don’t like and suggesting you stop being friends with them.

Set and Respect Boundaries
Both having and respecting boundaries is key to healthy relationships. Know what your own boundaries are, and set them firmly. Hafeez recommends that you “establish clear boundaries in your relationships and communicate them openly.” Be firm in your maintenance of them, as some people will attempt to push you to behave outside of your boundaries, and will push further if you give in.

It is equally important to listen closely to your partner’s boundaries, and to respect them fully. If you have a problem with someone else’s boundary, ask them questions and explain your feelings, rather than disregard or ignore their wishes.

Just Chill
When we like someone, it can be seriously tempting to rush into a relationship with them. Unfortunately, this is rarely the right move, and it can lead us to not notice major problems ahead of time.

Hafeez recommends you take time to slowly get to know a person first. This enables you to witness how they treat others, how slow or quick they are to anger, and to learn more about their past relationships.

If anything arises that makes you want to back off, disentangling yourself will be much easier if you are not already heavily involved and invested in the other person and deeply entrenched in their life.

Keep in Mind
Coercive control can present subtly, but it’s a serious matter. If you or someone you know is in a relationship in which a partner is gaslighting, exerting control over finances, preventing engagement with friends and loved ones, and/or making threats, action should be taken. Fortunately, resources are available. If you are unsure whether or not you or a loved one are in a situation of coercive control, talking to a therapist may be helpful as an initial first step.

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