Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Simone Saunders BSW, MSW, RSW


Coercive Control: What Is It and How Can You Spot It?

PUBLISHED Jan 26th, 2022 & UPDATED ON Nov 8th, 2022

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Sometimes, things that are painful aren’t obvious from the outside. A migraine can force you to call in sick to work. A chronic pain disorder can make you unable to get out of bed, though nothing looks obviously wrong. And domestic abuse can cause immense emotional pain, even if it isn’t physically violent. 

In the same way that mental health is as important as physical health, emotional abuse is as damaging as physical abuse. Knowing the signs of domestic abuse, and getting help and support if you’re in an abusive relationship, is so important. In this article, we’ll explain what coercive control means, and the ways to spot it in a relationship.

What Is Coercive Control?

According to Women’s Aid, a domestic abuse organization in the United Kingdom, coercive control is “an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.” The abuser will often control the victim’s life to the point that the victim feels like they couldn’t live without them, or couldn’t escape the situation if they tried.

Coercive control can make the abused feel trapped and helpless. Even though there may not be any physical barriers to the abused getting help, the abuse tactics used on the victim can make them feel like help isn’t an option. 

In some cases, the victim might not be comfortable labelling their treatment as abusive because of the mental and emotional manipulation they’ve experienced. This is called trauma bonding, and is reflective of the cycle of abuse. A lot of relationships aren’t constantly abusive. Instead, the abuser will mix in reassurance, love, and praise, to make the victim stay with them and remember the “good times.” But good times aren’t actually good in an abusive situation. 

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Signs of Coercive Control

1. Control Over Finances

Controlling the victim’s finances is a way to ensure that the victim is completely dependent on the abuser. This might look like an abuser making the victim get money from them instead of them having their own account, not letting the abused access their bank account, or hiding financial matters from the victim. Without that control, the abused would have more financial freedom to be able to leave the situation.

2. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a tool used by abusers to make their victims question their own thoughts and feelings. It’s one of the more covert signs of a toxic relationship and a way of maintaining power and control. If the victim doubts their own memories, thoughts, and interactions, they may also doubt whether or not they’re being abused.

3. Isolation From Others

By isolating a victim from their support system, the abuser maintains control in the relationship. The victim will feel like they have no one to turn to or to confide in about the abuse. As well, if there was someone the abused was close to, they might spot signs of abuse. By eliminating that possibility, the abuser maintains the power.

4. Monitoring Activity

A victim of coercive control may find their activity monitored constantly. The abuser may track where they are during the day, go through their phone to check messages and calls, and keep tabs on their online activity. The abuser may also demand to know all the details of where they were and what they did when the abuser wasn’t with them. This surveillance reminds the victim of the abuser’s constant presence in their life and of how difficult it would be to escape the situation.

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5. Control Over Sex Life

An abuser might exert their power by having sole control over the couple’s sex life. This can include how frequently they have sex, what they do during sex, choosing whether or not they use protection, and taking photos or videos of sexual acts that the victim doesn’t want or doesn’t know about. None of this is consensual and none of this is okay.

6. Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse can include name-calling, bullying, and putting down the victim. By making the victim feel weak and worthless, the abuser will keep their control over the victim.

7. Threatening Violence Against the Victim or Themselves

An abuser might threaten violence to maintain power in the relationship. This can include violence against the victim and violence that they’d inflict upon themselves or others if the victim left them. The threats, even if they’re not acted upon, will make the victim scared of repercussions should they try to leave. 

8. Threatening Pets and/or Children

If an abuser believes that it could control their victim, they might threaten the victim’s pet or children. This can include threatening violence against them and threatening to get kids or pets taken away by authorities.

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How To Get Help

Domestic abuse is way too common. Over 1 in 3 women and over 1 in 4 men in the United States will be the victim of some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Almost half of all men and women have experienced psychological aggression in their lifetime, which can include coercive control. 

With this in mind, remember that if you or someone you know is the victim of domestic abuse, there are so many people who’ve gone through the same thing, it is not the victim’s fault, and there are resources in place to help you. Everyone deserves to feel safe, secure, and respected in their relationship.


If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call your local emergency helpline (like 911).

For other domestic abuse helplines, you can contact the following:

Here are some tips to minimize the risk of someone knowing that you’re researching domestic violence-related topics (via Tech Safety): 

  • If you think your devices or internet search activities are being monitored, access this information from a device that isn’t being monitored. That should be a device that the person does not or has not had physical or remote access. This is the safest thing to do if you don’t want someone to know that you are visiting these websites.
  • Sign out of other accounts, such as Google or Facebook, before visiting these sites.
  • Use your internet browser settings to increase your privacy, such as turning off browsing history or using the browser in-private mode.
  • If it is safe to do so, delete the websites URLs that you don’t want stored from the browser history.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to increase the security of your internet browsing and activity. 

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Read More: 8 Tips to Work Through Your First Date Nerves, Coping with Infidelity: How to Heal After Being Cheated On,