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11 ‘Hidden’ Signs of Coercive Control

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

Imagine being in a relationship and having your partner wish your body looked more like their favorite celebrity. They point it out often because don’t you want them to be more attracted to you?

In order to help you achieve this dream, you need to lose weight. So your partner plops you on the treadmill every day, right in front of a picture of said celebrity. They give you a workout regimen to follow — and even put you on a diet plan. Too bad it’s only one can of tuna per day. 

Your partner keeps mentioning they’re unsatisfied with your sex life, and you “getting your body back” would really heat things up. They’re worried if things don’t improve, they might need to consider divorce. Your partner is the breadwinner, and you wouldn’t be able to support the kids without their income — so you go along with it. You deal with the hunger pangs, the humiliation of running in front of the “inspiration” photo, the feelings of being trapped and the debilitating fear of being left.

They never hit you. In fact, people say your partner is the kind of person who wouldn’t hurt a fly. But there’s that small voice deep inside you that wonders if you don’t fall in line, could they hurt you?

What Is Coercive Control?

Coercive control is a type of domestic violence where a person uses a pattern of abusive behavior to instill fear in order to maintain power and control over another person. Though the majority of coercive control cases involve heterosexual romantic relationships where the abuser is a man and the victim is a woman, coercive control can occur in parent-child relationships, LGBTQ+ relationships and non-romantic adult relationships. 

“It is important to understand coercive control as a tool that the abusive person uses to maintain power and control over their partner,” Paulina Flasch, Ph.D., assistant professor of professional counseling at Texas State University, told The Mighty. “Some may describe it as a form of ‘brainwashing’ that leads to a place that is extremely difficult to get out of. In many cases, coercive control eventually progresses to physical violence over time.”

Evan Stark, Ph.D., sociologist and forensic social worker who first coined the term “coercive control,” told The Mighty coercive control really goes beyond the scope of how we typically think of “domestic violence.” Though 75% of coercive control relationships do include violence, in Stark’s years of work, women said time and time again violence was never the worst part. The worst part was being stripped of their dignity, liberty and autonomy. 

“This is not just about violence, it’s about the most basic fundamental freedoms of life,” Dr. Stark explained. “This is not just about him hitting you, this is about a man taking away your rights and liberties. As a citizen, you know, these are constitutional rights.” 

What Are the Signs of Coercive Control?

Coercive control is not merely being a controlling person — it’s the intentional use of fear to make a partner compliant. Both Stark and Flasch explained that abusers who use coercive control create fear in a number of classic ways, some of which we’ve outlined below.

1. Intimidation 

Examples of intimidation include using physical size to intimidate (for example blocking an exit door or standing over another person), displaying weapons or destroying items. 

2. Making Threats to Harm Self or Others

An abuser might make threats to harm their partner, pets or children if the partner doesn’t comply with their wishes. They might also threaten dying by suicide, walking out or reporting the partner to the authorities.

3. Low-Level Violence

Actions like pulling, grabbing, holding and pinching are common in coercive control. These actions are accompanied by the fear that things may escalate to a higher level of violence if the partner resists.

4. Isolation

Isolating a partner typically involves controlling where they can go, what they do, who they spend time with and how much time they can spend with others — often using jealousy as a way to justify their behavior.

5. Micromanaging Daily Activities

Coercive control also extends to the way a partner “is allowed” to go about their daily activities. An abuser will often micromanage the “little” parts of life — like the way a partner walks, how they fold the laundry, how they load the dishwasher, etc. 

6. Deprivation

Abusers will often maintain control by depriving the rights of their partner. They might deprive a partner of food or deprive a partner of equality by treating them as a servant.

7. Economic Abuse

In coercive control cases, the abusive partner will often maintain control through finances. This can look like giving a partner an “allowance,” restricting access to money, taking their partner’s paychecks or preventing them from getting a job.

8. Sexual Assault

An abuser will use sex as a means of control, often by forcing a partner to have sex or manipulating them into performing specific sexual acts they aren’t comfortable with.

9. Gaslighting

A common abuse tactic is gaslighting, which is the process of manipulating someone into questioning their own perception, memories and sanity. This is often done when an abuser insists there is no abuse or implies their partner is to blame for the abuse. The abuser will often try to humiliate their partner in order to break down their self-esteem.

10. Using Children

In relationships where children are present, an abusive partner will use the children to maintain control. This can look like threatening to harm the children, take them away or accusing their partner of being a bad parent.

11. Using Privilege 

In almost all cases of coercive control, there is an imbalance of power. In heterosexual relationships, male abusers use male privilege to assert dominance, often asserting rigid and traditional gender roles, making all major decisions in the relationship and viewing women as subservient. In addition to women, abusers may also target other less-privileged groups including folks with physical and intellectual disabilities and racial minorities.

Why Do People Stay In Relationships With Abusers Who Use Coercive Control?

Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult, but in cases of coercive control it may be especially difficult because it may not “look” like abuse at first.

“Abusive relationships rarely start out abusive, and coercive control can be difficult to detect, as it is a slow deliberate process that develops over time,” Flasch explained. “By the time it may be noticeable, the abuser may have managed to break down the victim’s self-esteem, distanced them from their social support, made them financially dependent and made them unable to trust themselves.” 

The Mighty’s disability editor and coercive control survivor, Karin Willison, knows what it’s like to feel trapped in an abusive relationship. In her piece, “Why I’m Ending the Silence Around Domestic Violence and People With Disabilities,” she wrote:

I am a strong woman who has fought against inaccessibility and discrimination. I would read stories about women who were abused and I couldn’t understand why they would stay. I would never put up with being treated that way, I thought. That could never happen to me. I was wrong.

Abuse can look different when it happens to people with disabilities. Our abusers may hit us, but often, they don’t have to. They have far more insidious tactics for coercive control and manipulation. Abusers may make their victim feel guilty for having a disability, exploiting fears many of us have about being a burden. We may stay because we believe no one else would love someone like us, that we can’t do any better. My abuser broke down my self-esteem by gaslighting me and making me believe my body and my life were too difficult for others to deal with. She used this supposed difficulty as an excuse to keep me stuck at home most of the time, where I became depressed and gained weight. Then she used those changes to humiliate and body-shame me, saying things like “you’re too fat to travel.” I hated my body so much by then, I believed her.

Even if a person is able to leave a coercive control relationship, their challenges are far from over. Stark told The Mighty women will often leave these relationships only to be stalked (virtually and literally) by their abuser. He said in these cases women often go back to their partners because knowing their partner’s location is better than the constant fear of surveillance.

“When a victim leaves, that is the ultimate loss of control for an abuser,” Flasch told The Mighty.

In a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers found 55% of all female homicides were related to intimate partner violence (IPV), and the vast majority were carried out by male partners. 

How Do You Heal From Coercive Control?

Even when scars and bruises fade, survivors carry the impact of domestic violence in their bodies. According to the CDC, IPV has a number of negative health outcomes including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive, musculoskeletal and nervous system conditions.

Though healing from coercive control or domestic violence takes time and can often be painful, there are resources available to you.

“The first thing to do is to seek out information and support. These days, there are many online support groups, Facebook groups, and websites that help people learn about the dynamics of relationship violence,” Flasch said. “Better still, reaching out to a counselor or therapist who specializes in intimate partner violence or to a domestic violence agency will give you a ton of resources.” 

One of the most important resources to know about is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which you can reach at 1-800-799-7233. On its website, you can find resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence, as well as information about identifying a healthy relationship. 

In addition to these resources, Stark believes part of healing involves understanding what was taken (or is currently being taken) from you in coercive control.

“You first have to realize what’s at stake,” Stark explained. “And what’s at stake is that your liberty is being taken. Your dignity is being taken. And you have to want those things. You have to identify that those are things you have a right to.”

Recognizing you are a human being worthy of love and respect takes time after you’ve been abused. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t simply snap your fingers and immediately understand your inherent worth.

Stark believes after identifying what was lost, you can move into empowerment — a fundamental part of healing. 

“We base all of our strategies for service and safety and protection on the idea of empowerment,” he said. 

Whether you choose to empower yourself through art, therapy, connecting with other survivors or turning to advocacy, engaging in activities that give you agency can be instrumental as you heal.

Like healing from any kind of trauma, healing from the impact of coercive control takes time, but it is possible. If you think you are a victim of coercive control or are in an abusive relationship, there is help available. Contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you’re struggling to connect with others who understand, we encourage you to post on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. Our community is here to support you.

Getty Images photo via Alexandra Merezhnikova

Originally published: September 23, 2019
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