What is Coercive Control?

Domestic Abuse Awareness : casting & choreography by MeltingProject, song High & Low by EZA, performance by Ella Pileggi + Connor Scott, production & direction by RAW Productions

Domestic Abuse Awareness: casting & choreography by MeltingProject, song High & Low by EZA, performance by Ella Pileggi + Connor Scott, production & direction by RAW Productions

Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviors over time more akin to terrorism and stalking [1]. While psychological abuse does not always lead to physical violence, it is nearly always preceded and accompanied by psychological abuse [2]. Coercive control represents the unseen psychological abuses victims experience in the most damaging relationships. The intent of coercive control is subjugation of the victim and complete control by the abuser. Examples of coercive controlling behaviors might include:

  • Isolating a person from their friends and family
  • Monitoring their time
  • Depriving them of their basic needs or access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
  • Monitoring a person via online communication tools or using spyware
  • Taking control over aspects of their everyday life, such as where they can go, who they can see, what to wear and when they can sleep
  • Repeatedly putting them down such as telling them they are worthless
  • Enforcing rules and activity which humiliate, degrade or dehumanize the victim
  • Forcing the victim to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children to encourage self-blame and prevent disclosure to authorities
  • Financial abuse including control of finances, such as only allowing a person a punitive allowance
  • Threats: to hurt or kill; to a child; to reveal or publish private information (e.g. threatening to ‘out’ someone)
  • Assault or rape
  • Criminal damage (such as destruction of household goods)
  • Preventing a person from having access to transport or from working [3]

The lasting impacts of this sort of abuse go far beyond individual episodes of interpersonal violence [4]. Coercive and controlling abuse impacts a survivor's sense of safety, identity, autonomy and their attachments to others. Without understanding this dynamic and its full impact, victims who have survived this particular type of trauma continue to be isolated by the complexity of their experience and their needs for recovery are misunderstood and unmet. Judith Herman, M.D. and Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is a recognized expert on the psychology of complex trauma and recovery. Her work highlights the dangers of a society that fails to understand the dynamics of totalistic control: "Observers who have never experienced prolonged terror and who have no understanding of coercive methods of control presume that they would show greater courage and resistance than the victim in similar circumstances." [5] 

This perspective is globally pervasive and dangerous on multiple levels. When victims escape their terror, they experience further psychological isolation, where the true harm of their experience is not recognized and society, as a whole, is left unprotected from predatory and authoritarian control. 

Chelsea Brass & Abigail Hazlett, February 21, 2018

[1] Stark, E. (2009). Coercive control: The entrapment of women in personal life. Oxford University Press.
[2] Dutton, M. A., Goodman, L. A., & Bennett, L. (1999). Court-involved battered women's responses to violence: The role of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Violence and Victims14(1), 89.
[3] Hertfordshire County Council. Coercive control fact sheet. Link.
[4] Walker, L. E. (1980). The battered woman. New York: Harper & Row.
[5] Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. Hachette UK. p. 115.