Coercive control refers to a pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. These behaviors give the perpetrator power over their partner, making it difficult for them to leave.

Sometimes, coercive control can escalate into physical abuse. However, even when it does not escalate, coercive control is a form of emotional abuse that can cause psychological trauma.

This article will look at what coercive control is, how common it is, if it is illegal, possible signs of danger, and how to get help.

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Coercive control can create unequal power dynamics in a relationship.

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse, or intimate partner violence. It describes a pattern of behaviors a perpetrator uses to gain control and power by eroding a person’s autonomy and self-esteem. This can include acts of intimidation, threats, and humiliation.

Research into coercive control suggests that this type of abuse often predicts future physical violence.

Anyone in any type of intimate relationship can experience coercive control. Some research suggests that it is mainly women who experience it, while other studies suggest that the rates for men and women are similar.

In 2015, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that 36.6 million women and 33.1 million men in the United States will experience some form of coercive control by an intimate partner during their lifetime.

A 2008 study found that emotional abuse can lead to negative mental health consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Learn more about the effects of emotional abuse here.

According to the United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution Service, the following behaviors are signs of coercive control.

Monitoring activities

A person may exert control by deciding what someone wears, where they go, who they socialize with, what they eat and drink, and what activities they take part in. The controlling person may also demand or gain access to the partner’s computer, cell phone, or email account.

The perpetrator may also try to convince their partner that they want to check up on them because they love them. However, this behavior is not part of a healthy or loving relationship.

Exerting financial control

This occurs when a person controls someone’s access to money and does not allow them to make financial decisions. This can leave a person without food or clothing and make it harder for them to leave the relationship.

Isolating the other person

A controlling person may try to get their partner to cut contact with family and friends so that they are easier to control.

They may also prevent them from going to work or school.

Insulting the other person

Insults serve to undermine a person’s self-esteem. This may involve name-calling, highlighting a person’s insecurities, or putting them down.

Eventually, the person experiencing this abuse may start to feel as though they deserve the insults.

Making threats and being intimidating

Threats can include threats of physical violence, self-harm, or public humiliation. For example, a person trying to control their partner may threaten to hurt themselves if their partner tries to leave or release sexually explicit images or personal data online.

The controlling person may also break household items or their partner’s sentimental belongings in an attempt to intimidate and scare them.

Using sexual coercion

Sexual coercion occurs when the perpetrator manipulates their partner into unwanted sexual activity. They may use pressure, threats, guilt-tripping, lies, or other trickery to coerce them into having sex.

Involving children or pets

The controlling person may use children or family pets as another means of controlling their partner. They may do this by threatening the children or pets, or by trying to take sole custody of them if their partner leaves.

They may also try to manipulate children into disliking the other parent.

Domestic abuse can escalate into physical abuse and, in some cases, homicide. Signs that an abusive relationship is becoming dangerous include regular physical abuse and murder threats.

If a person feels that they are in physical danger or fears for their life, they should dial 911 or their local emergency department immediately. Neighbors, friends, and family can also do this if they know someone who is in danger.

In some countries, such as England and Wales, coercive control is a criminal offense. In the U.S., however, coercive control is not currently illegal unless it escalates to physical violence.

Some academics argue that criminalizing coercive control is not a complete solution to domestic abuse, because many criminal justice systems are not equipped to make judgments on it.

Most justice systems rely on physical evidence to charge people with specific criminal acts, such as assault or rape. However, coercive control is not a specific act. It is a pattern of behaviors. It also tends to leave less physical evidence than violence.

Despite this, coercive control is still abuse, and it can cause long lasting psychological trauma for those who experience it.

Although police officers cannot currently charge someone for coercive control in the U.S., there are many organizations that can offer support, advice, and resources to those experiencing it.

Some examples include:

These organizations can help someone create a safety plan. A safety plan outlines some ways a person can stay safe while they are still in the relationship, while they are in the process of leaving the relationship, and after they have left it.

It can also include advice for coping emotionally, informing friends and family, and, if necessary, taking legal action.

If someone’s partner monitors their online activity, the person may want to delete the search browser history on their phone or laptop after looking for domestic abuse resources.

Help is available

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:

  • phone, at 800-799-7233
  • text, by texting START to 88788

Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for People of Color, here:

Was this helpful?

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviors that enables someone to exert power over another person through fear and control.

Coercive control can happen in any type of intimate relationship and includes behaviors such as insulting the other person, making threats, exerting financial control, and using sexual coercion.

Although coercive control is not currently a criminal offense in the U.S., it is a form of abuse. There are many organizations that can provide help and support to people who are experiencing it.