Coercive Control in Abusive Relationships

Black and white photo showing the back of a woman, coercive control victim

Despite what some may think, intimate partner violence doesn’t necessarily equate to only physical abuse. Types of psychological maltreatment, such as coercive control, can be just as damaging for victims, leaving them fearful of and reliant on their abuser. 

The Coercive Control Collective (CCC) defines coercive control as “a pattern of controlling behaviors over time … akin to terrorism and stalking.” According to experts at the CCC, “While psychological abuse does not always lead to physical violence, [violence] is nearly always preceded and accompanied by psychological abuse.”

What does coercive control look like?

Coercive behavior can seem innocent enough at first. It may start with the abuser sending texts to check up on their partner’s whereabouts, or they may offer to handle financial tasks like bills and deeds after the couple begins living together. In their partner’s eyes, these types of efforts may make the abuser seem considerate, or even romantic.

Over time, though, the abuser’s behaviors will get increasingly restrictive. Perpetrators often attempt to exert control over their partner by using manipulative tactics such as isolation, intimidation, and humiliation.

Previously normal actions, like sending check-up texts, will become excessive, turning into dozens of messages and calls whenever the victim is out of the perpetrator’s sight. Eventually, victims often end up staying home — or only going out when accompanied by their abuser — in an effort to keep their partner happy. 

If the victim starts to challenge their abusers’ demands, the violence tends to worsen. Eventually, this may lead to the perpetrator committing acts of physical and/or sexual abuse in an attempt to regain power over their victim. 

What behaviors are indicative of coercive control?

There are quite a few abusive behaviors that can signify coercive control. Coercive control can encompass any method used to keep a victim tied to their abuser. Their actions are meant to strip the victim of their independence —  financially, emotionally, psychologically, etc. 

The End Coercive Control campaign has compiled a list of some of the most telling factors. A few examples include:

  • Isolating their partner from friends and family
  • Depriving their partner of basic needs
  • Controlling their partner’s finances and bank account
  • Humiliating, degrading or dehumanizing their partner 
  • Physically and sexually assaulting their partner

Is it illegal?

In some places, yes. For example, coercive control has been banned in the United Kingdom since 2015. Several other European countries have outlawed it in recent years as well. In the United States, however, there is no national law on the issue.

So far, there are only laws against coercive control in two states. According to Ms. Magazine, Hawaii was the first to introduce legislation on the topic, allowing courts to consider coercive control as a factor in issuing protective orders. California followed soon after. “In addition to allowing protective orders against people engaged in coercive control, the California law amends the state’s family code so that coercive control will be considered in custody and visitation decisions,” the article states.

A few other states are currently considering legislation as well. If New York’s bill is passed, for instance, coercive control could soon be classified as a Class E felony there.


This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications


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