6 Signs Of Coercive Control That Can Protect You From Abuse

Being aware of the cycle of abuse can help vicitms get out early.

Breaking free from combative and controlling relationships dikushin | Canva

In May 2007, my cherished childhood friend, Shelby, was murdered by her coercively controlling, abusive, estranged husband. The heinous act was all premeditated. 

Weeks after she finally left him, after enduring years of his systematic narrowing of her world and subtle erosion of her independence, he stalked her, tampered with her truck gas tank, followed her to where she’d pulled to the side of the road to investigate the problem, and shot her twice in the head at close range. With an unquestionable suspect at large and through a fast-acting network of officers of the law, Shelby’s killer was caught within hours, and he confessed within days.


Unresponsive, Shelby was in the hospital on life support for two days before she died of her injuries. When police got a confession, her father came in to tell his unconscious daughter they caught him. At that point, her mother, father, sister, and I encircled her hospital bed pouring love on her as she took her last breath and let go.

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A classic example of coercive control 

Prior to this tragic event, my last conversation with Shelby was filled with relief as she told me she’d left her controlling husband. Witnessing her journey to break free from his grip was commendable and courageous, and I told her how proud I was of her. She knew my concerns about him from the nanosecond I met him.  


Shelby and I met in the sixth grade when she came bounding up to me exuding vibrant, adventurous energy — she was the new kid, it was the first day of school, and we were kindred spirits and partners in all things goofy before we knew one another’s names.

She was a strong, vibrant, hardworking, and spirited cowgirl known for her silliness, stubbornness, and unwavering happy yet feisty spirit ——and despite all that personality, she tragically found herself ensnared in a sticky, subtle, toxic web of emotional abuse and coercion.

Her story serves as a stark reminder abusers come in various guises – partners, family members, mentors, or even scammers. Their methods encompass a spectrum of overt and covert abuse, spanning emotional, physical, sexual, financial, and technological manipulation. Regardless of the type, they are usually someone you trust, and all employ similar tactics to exploit and cause harm.


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Coercive control often looks like devotion

Violence does not have to be physical – emotional violence is just as damaging. Covert emotional abuse and coercive control can be best identified through the loss of choice, “The true danger of coercive control is that it teaches you to control yourself. Eventually the abuser no longer even needs to abuse, because you have fully internalized the abuse, abusing yourself,” wrote renowned advocates for domestic abuse prevention, Luke and Ryan Hart.

A hidden precursor to abuse is possessiveness — it is the opposite of mutuality. In the very beginning, hopeful and open-hearted individuals like Shelby, often unknowingly perceive control and manipulation as expressions of love and devotion – getting gradually caught in what abuse prevention specialist Amy Saltzman, MD calls, “a sneaky sticky web”.

Recognizing the warning signs is crucial to safeguard oneself and loved ones from emotional and physical exploitation. Through understanding and support, ‘surthrivors’ can reclaim their autonomy and rewrite their narrative – breaking free from the chains of coercive control to step into a future filled with empowerment, hope, and love.


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6 red flags for coercive control

1. They use love bombing

Abusers overwhelm their target with affection to build trust, masking their true intentions. This façade of kindness is aimed to mislead individuals into liking them. Dr. Saltzman describes this tactic as a deception that can undermine one's wise self — the part of you with innate instincts and inner wisdom that offers clarity and skill to differentiate between right and wrong.

A genuinely safe and emotionally healthy person never resorts to persuading or tricking you into trusting or liking them.

2. They use gaslighting

Manipulative abusers use this extra sticky type of lie to distort reality, sowing doubt in their victims' minds about what is true, gradually leading you to feel guilty for even thinking they are abusive. They get you to believe your boundaries are aggressive, manipulating you to stop questioning their actions. They may say, "You can trust me!" or use phrases like “You’re too emotional,” “You don’t deserve good things,” “Nothing bad has happened to you,” or “If you loved me, you’d understand”


Being gaslit can be particularly disorienting for individuals who strive to avoid upsetting others or going back on their commitments. If asserting your boundaries upsets someone, consider it a red flag. At times the most compassionate actions may not feel loving; a genuinely supportive individual would encourage you to prioritize breaking harmful agreements.

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3. They use bullying

When confronted or questioned by someone’s wise self, abusers resort to threats, insults, intimidation, or blame-shifting, and may use physical violence to maintain control. They may use phrases like, “No one else is complaining,” “You’ll be nothing without me,” “Quit acting like a victim,” or “You’d better not make me mad”.


Man coercive controls women in public Ekateryna Zubal via Shutterstock

A person trying to exert coercive control may even attempt to flip the narrative and claim you have harmed them. “You and this relationship is the reason I didn’t get that promotion!”

Paired with gaslighting, this is where abusers convince you to tell yourself their lies. Survivors tend to spend a lot of time thinking about trying to make their abuser happy, worried about making them mad and believe they are to blame.


4. They use isolation

A toxic and controlling partner will isolate you from your support system. They aim to avoid exposure by actively preventing truth-tellers and perceptive individuals from communicating with you. Those who understand the situation can offer support and expose the truth.

They may make it difficult to visit and contact family and friends, monitor your location and calls, seize control of the money, convince you your supportive friends and family aren’t good for you or that they hold negative opinions of you, and spread rumors and lies like, “Your friends are jealous," “They are liars,” and “Your family just doesn’t like me”.

“They trick you into shifting your wise fear and wise worries away from the abuser and toward people that love you,” says Dr. Saltzman. Ultimately, a controlling partner separates you from your ‘wise self’, the part of you that knows the truth about their behavior.


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5. They use bragging

To control how they are perceived, abusers inflate their qualities and accomplishments. Controlling partners manipulate by managing how they appear, concealing their deep insecurities, and exaggerating their significance. They tell you how great they are to convince you to stay and make you afraid to leave, especially when they think you are onto them.

They often portray themselves as exceptionally intelligent, modest, intuitive, affluent, creative, irreplaceable, extraordinary, or destined for greatness. By emphasizing their importance and getting you to think they are unique, they trick you into spreading their propaganda and bragging to others for them.

6. They enforce traditional rules and gender roles

Abusers often impose rigid one-sided rules and gender norms to assert dominance and control within a relationship. Such behavior reinforces power imbalances and perpetuates harmful stereotypes. They justify their beliefs and actions, for example by promoting the idea that women should be submissive while men are the breadwinners and hold authority. This control can extend to various aspects of one's health and body, including regulating exercise, appearance, food intake, and even dictating terms in the sexual relationship.

@_stronger_than_before_ I can't wait to have men tell me in the comment section that I'm a misandrist for not wanting to have a man use the patriarchy to oppress and abuse me 🤣 Fun fact: male abusers all do this. Only some female perpetrators of abuse use traditional gender roles to abuse their male partners. Mostly they don't because traditional gender roles only benefit men. #abusesurvivor #narcissist #narcissism #toxicrelationships #traumabond #manipulation #violenceagainstwomen #dv ♬ original sound - Lisa | StrongerThanBefore.ca ❤

The path to breaking free from coercive control

In September 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to amend the Domestic Violence Prevention Act to ensure that Coercive Control constituted domestic violence. Many states have Coercion Control Laws that specifically cover coercive controlling behavior – including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Washington.

It is painful to witness a loved one endure abuse of any kind, but there are steps you can take to support them effectively. Start by listening without judgment and expressing your concern for their safety. Encourage them to learn about what constitutes abuse, confide in you, and offer emotional support without pressure to make immediate decisions. Help them explore available resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233), shelters, or counseling services. Consider creating a safety plan together and assisting them in accessing professional help.

Solo woman on the street has freed herself from coercive control GaudiLab via Shutterstock


There is a future free from fear

In honor of Shelby and all survivors of abuse, it is crucial to raise awareness about the patterns and tactics used by abusers. To those who have experienced abuse or know someone who has, remember that you are not alone. There is support available, and safety and healing are possible.

By reaching out for help and surrounding yourself with caring individuals, you can break free from the cycle of abuse and rebuild a life filled with love, strength, and hope. Stay strong, believe in your resilience, and let us stand united in our resolve to create a world where love is never a weapon but a source of strength and empowerment.

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Eva Van Prooyen is a licensed marriage and family therapist who provides psychotherapy for couples, adults, adolescents and groups. She specializes in couples therapy as well as treatment for co-dependency, addiction, anxiety, depression, and more.