How to recognize coercive control

Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Abusive relationships can involve more than physical violence and aggression. They may also include coercive control, which involves physical and verbal abuse and/or controlling behaviors aimed at limiting an individual’s autonomy, abilities, and choice. In many cases of domestic abuse, coercive control is used to control partners or other family members for the benefit of the abuser.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse. It involves a pattern of physical, emotional, and verbal acts that cause fear and submission as a means to gain control [1].

The abuser deprives their victim of their independence by preventing them from being able to make any decisions or actions of their own choice. This causes the victim to be trapped by their abuser, and at times entirely dependent on them [2].

Signs of coercive control

In many cases of coercive control, abusive behaviors are not apparent at the start of the relationship. Many abusers gradually increase controlling behaviors over time, intentionally deceiving their partner [3].

Knowing the signs of coercive control can help to recognize them when they occur. Signs of coercive control include [1][3][4]:

  • They control your finances, allowing you no access to your own money or providing a set amount your allowedto spend.
  • Convincing or forcing you to stay away from your friends and family, such as by telling you lies about them, blocking their calls or messages, or begging you not to speak to them
  • Deciding all your daily choices, such as what to eat, what to wear, or where to go
  • Manipulating your actions by making threats to harm you, your children, or your pets if you don’t behave a certain way
  • Checking or monitoring your devices, such as phones or computers, to see whom you are communicating with and what is being said
  • Depriving you of your basic needs, such as sleep or food
  • Depriving you of access to required services, such as healthcare, or attending all appointments with you and not allowing you to go alone
  • Making insulting, dehumanizing, or humiliating remarks when alone or in front of others
  • Telling lies about you to your friends, family, or employer
  • Being physically aggressive or intimidating
  • Breaking your possessions
  • Locking you inside the house to prevent you from leaving
  • Refusing to help with any domestic activities and insisting you complete them all yourself
  • Forcing you to engage in sexual acts with them or with others
  • Gaslighting you, denying the occurrence of abuse, or blaming it on you

Effects of coercive control

Coercive control and other aspects of domestic abuse can have severe consequences, such as:

  • Becoming isolated: Over time, coercive control can lead to complete isolation from friends and family. This results in the individual having no support system and feeling utterly dependent on their partner, making it harder for them to leave the relationship [3].
  • Living in fear: Coercive control is likely to result in the individual being constantly afraid due to repeated physical and verbal abuse. They may alter their behaviors to try and prevent a frightening situation from occurring, potentially ending friendships, employment, or hobbies to try and protect their well-being [5].
  • Mental health issues: Coercive control increases the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. It can also contribute to other issues, such as anxiety or insomnia. The individual’s mental health is likely to worsen while coercive control persists and may only improve after the relationship ends and they receive professional help [6][7].
  • Physical injury: Controlling and abusive relationships may involve physical violence, which can result in severe injuries and potentially long-term physical health complications [2][8].
  • Distrusting others: Even after leaving an abusive relationship, many continue to feel afraid and distrusting of others, which can impact future relationships and friendships. This can also affect mental well-being and cause social withdrawal [6][9].
  • Impact on children: If a child experiences coercive control within their parent’s relationship, this can cause several detrimental effects on their well-being. For example, it may impair their emotional and social development, increase the risk of mental and physical health issues, and increase their risk of also being exposed to abusive and harmful behaviors [7][10].

What type of people use coercive control?

Coercive control can occur within many types of relationships. It often occurs within the home by a partner, spouse, parent, or carer [3].

Most reported cases involve a male using coercive control on a female partner. However, there are cases in which males report being coercively controlled by a female partner and coercive control occurring within non-heterosexual relationships [1][2].

People who use coercive control or commit acts of domestic violence and abuse often have traits such as [8]:

  • a lack of empathy
  • feeling no remorse or compassion for the victims of their abuse
  • patterns of unstable relationships
  • violation of others for their own gain
  • a need for admiration
  • a history of their own abuse
  • troubles with emotional regulation
  • unaddressed, insecure attachment styles leading to dysfunctional behaviors in relationships

These traits are common features of various personality disorders, including narcissistic, borderline, and anti-social personality disorders. As such, many abusers meet the criteria for one or more of these conditions [8]. However, it is important to point out that not all people with these conditions are abusive or use coercive control.

How to deal with coercive control

The following can be helpful advice for managing or escaping coercive control [1][3][5][9]:

Recognize the abuse

First, it is important to understand you are not to blame for this abuse occurring, despite what your abuser has told you. Similarly, it is important to recognize that you have been manipulated and controlled by their behaviors. Recognizing this abusive behavior can help you to challenge or escape from it.

Leave the relationship

If you are in relationship dominated by coercive control, it is essential to try and leave this relationship as quickly and safely as possible. If you can, find a way to tell this person you are ending the relationship and leave immediately, cutting all communication.

Walking away is not always possible, particularly if the individual controls your finances or isolates you from your support system. However, some legislation and services can support you.

Utilize a support system

If you can, try to regain relationships with friends and family or contact those still in your life. Speaking with loved ones can help you recognize abuse and provide you with the support you need to report or leave the abuser.

Read survivors’ stories

You may find reading how others have coped with similar situations useful. Survivors of coercive control and domestic abuse have written many books, blogs, and websites. Their stories can help you understand safe ways to leave your abuser and how to overcome the effects of their behaviors.

Call an advice line

There are many advice lines you can call to speak with a professional who can help you understand how to manage your situation safely. They can advise you on reporting abuse, finding safe places to go, or seeking professional support to help manage your well-being.

Go to a shelter or refuge

There are many services and organizations that provide safe accommodations to individuals in abusive relationships. This can be particularly helpful for those without access to finances or support and could offer a safe space to go while putting a long-term plan in place.

Call the police

In some countries and states, coercive control is a criminal offense, and individuals can be prosecuted and serve a prison sentence for this abuse. Alternatively, you can call the police to help you put a restraining order in place, thus helping to protect you from your abuser.

In either circumstance, it can be helpful to your case if you are able to gather evidence. This might be a written record of occasions of abuse, photos of physical injuries or property damage, or verbal conversations with friends or professionals. However, if you cannot gather evidence, you can still call the police and make a case, as your statement is considered evidence.

If your abuser monitors or checks your devices and possessions, you may need to keep records, photos, and call logs somewhere they cannot find them, such as with a trusted friend or at work. Do not do anything that could put you at risk of harm.


After leaving a controlling relationship, it is vital to find ways to manage the impact of your experiences, to help protect or improve your well-being. This could include aspects of self-care, such as increasing your dietary intake, sleep, or exercise. It may also be helpful to seek professional help from a therapist to discuss and overcome traumatic experiences.

  1. Flannery, S. (2021). A Guide to Coercive Control. Domestic Shelters. Retrieved from
  2. Women’s Aid Federation of England. (2022). What is Coercive Control?Women’s Aid. Retrieved from
  3. Queen Mary University of London. (n.d). Coercive Control in Relationships: Know the Signs. Report + Support. Retrieved from
  4. Relationships Australia Victoria. (2023). What is Coercive Control?Relationships Australia. Retrieved from
  5. Rights of Women. (2016). Coercive Control and the Law.Rights of Women. Retrieved from
  6. Lohmann, S., Cowlishaw, S., Ney, L., O’Donnell, M., & Felmingham, K. (2023). The Trauma and Mental Health Impacts of Coercive Control: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 0(0). Retrieved from
  7. Broughton, S., & Ford-Gilboe, M. (2017). Predicting Family Health and Well-Being After Separation from an Abusive Partner: Role of Coercive Control, Mother’s Depression and Social Support. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 26(15-16), 2468-2481. Retrieved from
  8. Rakovec-Felser, Z. (2014). Domestic Violence and Abuse in Intimate Relationship from Public Health Perspective. Health Psychology Research, 2(3), 1821. Retrieved from
  9. Open Minds Foundation. (2022). Coercive Control Recovery Strategies. Open Minds Foundation. Retrieved from
  10. Xyrakis, N., Aquilina, B., McNiece, E., Tran, T., Waddell, C., Suomi, A., & Pasalich, D. (2022). Interparental Coercive Control and Child and Family Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 0(0). Retrieved from
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Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: Jul 20th 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jul 20th 2023