The belief that violence in relationships is always physical can stop us from coming to grips with, and recognising other types of domestic violence, such as psychological or emotional abuse – both of which can often be a precursor to violent assault.

Coercive control is a form of psychological abuse. It can look different in each situation, but fundamentally it describes all the ways in which one person intimidates, threatens, or pressures another to ensure that they will comply with directives. Often this can mean that the victim is forced to act against their own preferences and values.

Coercive control involves the perpetrator imposing psychological force, which could include significant duress, the threat of violence or punishment if their victim does not go along with their requests. It is not a one-off – it is about a regime of behaviour, a way of living according to one person’s mandate; that is where the term ‘control’ comes in.

The intimidation and fear of retribution mean that one person becomes less of themselves, behaving in ways that keep try to the tension in the house down and keep the physical violence at bay. It may be that actual incidences of physical violence are very rare because the victim has changed behaviour to suit the person using control tactics.

Sometimes these make it hard to really identify, let alone complain about what else is going on. Someone may say that their relationship is not abusive as they have their own money, friends, and independence. Others might be held hostage and are isolated, controlled, belittled, and minimised in the relationship.

How to recognise and address coercive control in your relationship

Given what could look like a mixed experience, another difficult realisation is that it may be harder to get friends and family to believe you when you try and speak up. Here are some ways to get a handle on your experience.

Have you lost self-esteem and autonomy?

Looking back, do you recall having more confidence, self-esteem and independence before this relationship? Compared to how your friends have grown and changed over the years, do you see any differences in what you feel able or allowed to do?

Is your voice heard or ignored?

In your relationship, whose voice rules, and over what issues? Do you feel able to speak up or does that fill you with anxiety and fear? If you say something contradictory or controversial, what happens?

Do you feel stressed about your relationship regularly?

How much of the time are you going along with things that do not suit you because you fear the ramifications if you don’t? What is your internal dialogue – are you arguing or sad on the inside a lot of the time?

Do you feel as though your life is full of contradictions?

Do you find yourself talking up the relationship to others when you are actually worried, anxious or fearful? Are you trying to convince yourself or others that everything is ok when you know that it is not?

Are you frequently ‘on edge’?

You may not register actual fear anymore if the threats have now gone underground. However, when you ask yourself ‘what would happen if I rocked the boat?,’ that might be a better measure of the relationship dynamic.

Examples of controlling behaviour patterns

The following fictional scenarios offer up examples of how something as dangerous as coercive control can occur in long term relationships:

  • Phillip has set up a complex tracking system to know where his partner Lorrena is at all times. Every so often, he appears at random events just to prove to her that she is truly under surveillance.
  • Mina turned down sex in the couple’s first year of being together. She was then raped by her boyfriend Kevin They never refused sex again. Ten years in, Kevin describes their sex life as ‘great.’
  • Amanda was not able to spend any money without permission. She was given one account to use which her partner Julia transferred money into and monitored. As they deposited money in, they would write lines in the transfer details like ‘I’m watching bitch.’

While these examples describe a singular example of behaviour, coercive control often involves a broad regime of behaviour. The dynamic also becomes pervasive and can build over several years.

This does not mean that other aspects of the relationship are not operating in more equal or even satisfying ways. For example, the woman could have the bigger career, or the man might be an incredibly involved dad.

Trust your judgment and seek help

If you and your partner outwardly look solid to others, that doesn’t mean you should ignore your own sense that something is not right from your perspective. Talk to others about what is going on. Do not let yourself be talked out of concerns. This behaviour is not just ordinary relationship conflict, which every couple experiences. It may not fit the abuse stereotype that you or your friends have in their heads. But all of that does not make it any less real.

If you are not sure about where you stand, or how to make sense of your experience, then consulting with a professional can be very useful. If the relationship is important and your partner wants the best for you both, then attending together is useful and they will agree to it. If not, and you are told not to speak to others, that is a bad sign in itself.

If you picture any difficulty in speaking up in a couple’s session (as could be common in situations of coercive control) then it may be more ideal to see a counsellor who is well trained in issues of violence and abuse on your own.

While Open Support supports over 80 woman and children p/a through our domestic and family violence programs and services, we do not offer a 24/7 crisis line. If you or someone you know is in crisis, waiting could become dangerous, so please call ‍1800 656 463 who are open 24/7 and they can always refer you back to Open Support.

NSW Domestic Violence Line
Free call 1800 656 463
Translating and Interpreting Services: 13 14 50
TTY 1800 67 14 42
The Domestic Violence Line is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

In an emergency call 000