What Is Coercive Control? Alarming Details About The Scariest Form Of Emotional Abuse

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upset woman being emotionally abused by partner

You know that awkward moment when you’re listening to a crime podcast about a brutal murder and you think, “F***, some of that early behavior sounds a lot like my last relationship?” Come on, admit it, I know I’m not alone.

I was sitting in my car listening to Real Crime Profile when I first learned about coercive control. The presenters, actual criminal profilers, were discussing OJ Simpson and the pattern of relationship behaviors that preceded Nicole Brown’s death. And as they continued to talk about the definition of coercive control, how it affected women, and what it was characterized by, my mouth dropped open.

How in the hell could I be a victim of something I’d never heard of?

Now let me preface this by saying I am 100 percent not saying any of my ex-boyfriends are or have the potential to be psychopathic murderers. Sociopathic? Maybe. Psychopathic killer, no. Definitely not suggesting my exes are potential or actual killers. (Legal department, is that good enough?)

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But what I am saying, is that there is a scale of the severity of coercive control, and holy sh*t, was I on it. Which, as you can imagine, came as a bit of a shock to the system seeing as the presenters were talking about it in conjunction with a homicide.

So, what is coercive control?

The hosts, Laura Richards and Jim Clementi talked of behavioral patterns that involved a set of rules that one partner was aware of when another wasn’t. How one partner would start out by saying something like “I like your hair better down,” and the other would wear it down to please them. Slowly but surely “I like it this way,” would become “Why don’t you do it this way?” Then eventually, “You can’t do anything right”.

A small but persistent anxiety (or maybe even fear) develops within victims to make sure they’re living by the arbitrary “rules” set out by their partner. Often, they have no idea they’re becoming subordinated, or victims of this, or that it’s even emotional abuse at all; they’re just trying to make their partners happy. But if there’s even the tiniest bit of worry that if they don’t do something the “right” way you might set your partner off? That’s evidence of coercive control.

I started to do my own research and found out a few more things about this hidden abuse. Professor Evan Stark Ph.D. is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of coercive control and describes it like this: “Coercive control is a general pattern of behavior that although not unique to, is often related to the control of women… It’s a combination of tactics used over time to subordinate someone through a pattern of threats, threats of violence, actual violence, and other tactics that bend them to your will.”

Well, I thought, that sounded way more extreme than what my situation was. But I read on.

“Coercive control is a pattern of behavior, it’s not an individual act… it extends over time. It also has a wide breadth and involves a whole range of tactics… While may include violence, it doesn’t always include violence. It can also include other tactics of coercion, particularly intimidation tactics, such as stalking. But these run the gamut from literal threats to things that from the outside world may even look like love.”

Like coming to help you move house? Well, that’s love… except when he tells his friends it’s because you’re incapable of doing it yourself despite you having managed perfectly well without him for years before.

Well. That was getting warmer.

Professor Stark continued, “Then there are the controlling elements that complement the coercion. They’re designed to take fear or anxiety and deploy it in a process of subordination. The controlling tactics are usually isolation of the partner, cutting them off from their sources of support, the regulation of their behavior, the exploitation of their resources, and … the regulation of their everyday lives.”

At that last comment, I felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle. One of the things that my friends and family pointed out to me post-breakup was how much Mr. Narcissist (refer to previous columns for background bio) wanted me to do things his way, and that my way was always found wanting.   

As the Professor continued, I felt things getting more familiar. The regulations on women’s lives are usually related to tasks they’re “expected” to do simply because they’re women, “The control relates to how they cook, how they clean, how they dress and so forth, but extends across a broad gap to some of the most trivial aspects of everyday life. Whether they leave the bathroom door closed or open when using the facility. What shows do they watch on television? Not just that they vacuum but how they vacuum, like until they can see the lines on the carpet.”

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I had visions of Mr. Narcissist telling me I was too messy when I cooked, despite me doing the clean-up afterward. Of him calling me over to point out what was wrong with the way I did my dishes. Of him telling me I should put my clothes away before I come downstairs, rather than lay them on a chair. Of him unstacking the entire dishwasher and washing the dishes by hand, telling me only lazy people used dishwashers. Or even the time he told me it was weird and not normal for me to get up to pee in the middle of the night and that I should try not to. And of me, mentally running through my checklist of all the things he didn’t like to make sure I’d done things “properly” before he came home.

Professor Evans explained that “Through the process of coercive control and micromanagement of women’s daily lives, all of the spaces in which they might eke out and breathe the air as a free person is essentially exhausted. And they essentially lose that sense of self and freedom that’s essential.

Lysn psychologist Breanna Jayne Sada agrees. “The reason Coercive Control is so insidious is that the abuse is ongoing and it compromises much more than what you can see physically,” she explains.

“It is a confusing form of abuse that strips away the victim’s sense of self and has them questioning their own stability. Perpetrators use subtle tactics that can seem harmless at first, but over time can impact the victim’s sense of self.

“It’s the constant and ongoing remarks and actions that wear the victim down emotionally, often leaving them questioning whether something is wrong or not. Coercive control is a form of abuse that disempowers the victim and strips away their independence unfortunately, it can be a lot harder to spot because it develops gradually, may happen in private, and can be harder to notice than a black eye.”

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Well, if that doesn’t speak to my soul.

How do we fight coercive control?

If you live in the UK, lucky you! There are actually laws against it there, but it does have to be on the more serious side of things. The law now protects victims who experience the type of behavior that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, and can carry a maximum jail term of five years and a fine.

One of the main reasons campaigners in the UK fought so hard for these laws was that there’s a lot of evidence to show that in many cases, the milder forms of coercive control can be indicators for behavior escalation to stalking, physical abuse, or even murder.

Hence the mention on a murder podcast.

And while I am in no way even close to the category of women who have experienced that level of trauma, I do know what it feels like to suffer from emotional abuse and have no idea until you see the situation from afar. I know what it’s like to feel anxious that you might not have done things to your partner’s standards and worried he will criticize you for not doing things “properly” I know what it feels like to lose who you are trying to please someone else.

And I know I want to start fighting to make sure that women who are victims of this are aware that it is abuse, no matter how far on the spectrum it is. I want to start fighting to make sure people know it’s not normal to be anxious you won’t be adulting well enough to avoid barbs and criticism from someone who is meant to love you. And I want to start fighting to get the laws in the UK available all over the world.

Who’s with me?

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This article was originally published at SheSaid. Reprinted with permission from the author.