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Coercive Control: Entrapped by Fear

The powerful impact of hidden psychological abuse.

Key points

  • The hidden realities of psychological abuse can be incapacitating to victims and make it overwhelmingly difficult for them to leave.
  • Coercive control—or a pattern of behavior that deprives a victim of personal freedom—is strongly correlated with domestic violence and murder.
  • Many countries have adopted laws criminalizing coercive control; the U.S. has yet to follow suit, though some states are on track to do so.

As a criminal justice professor, my students and I tend to delve into many unsettling topics; intimate partner abuse (also called domestic violence) is one of them.

One simple question that many students ask is: Why won’t the victim leave the abusive relationship? From someone outside of that abusive relationship, the answer seems quite clear—report the abuse and leave the relationship—but regrettably, the reality of the situation is far more complicated.

Sydney Sims / Unsplash
Domestic Violence
Source: Sydney Sims / Unsplash

While there are many explanations as to why some victims don’t leave their abusers, one of the most common reasons is fear. While the definitions vary, fear can be described as, “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.” Fear, like most emotions, can range from minor to severe. The fear may be real or perceived to be real. Irrespective of the victim’s perception, fear is a strong emotion that can affect us physically and emotionally, and as a result, can be quite debilitating and incapacitating. When a victim makes the decision to leave the abusive relationship, “the period both during and after that decision can be more dangerous than the abuse itself,” according to

If you were to search for victims of domestic violence, the search results would yield countless articles in which men are the abusers and women are the victims. While that is the dynamic in many cases, we must not discount the fact that males can also be victims and females the abusers. (For additional information on this topic, refer to my 2014 article entitled "Breaking Down Barriers: Research About Female-Perpetrated Domestic Violence Against Male Victims.")

For comparative purposes, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that:

  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact, sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, etc.
  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. This includes a range of behaviors (e.g., slapping, shoving, pushing) and in some cases might not be considered "domestic violence."
  • 1 in 7 women and 1 in 25 men have been injured by an intimate partner.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence (e.g., beating, burning, strangling) by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Maxim Hopman / Unsplash
Source: Maxim Hopman / Unsplash

What is Coercive Control?

One of the leading authorities on coercive control is Dr. Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey. As defined by Stark, coercive control is, “a strategic course of oppressive behavior designed to secure and expand gender-based privilege by depriving women of their rights and liberties and establishing a regime of domination in personal life.” I was unable to find any studies pertaining to coercive control in which men are the victims.

Stark adds that 60 to 80 percent of all abused women experience coercive control beyond physical abuse. According to Stark, coercive control is strongly correlated with murder. For illustrative purposes, 3,200 American soldiers were killed in combat from 2000-2006—yet during that same period, more than three times as many women were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. One woman is murdered every 16 hours in the United States by a current or former male partner. The victims most at risk of being murdered are those in which coercive control co-occurs with domestic violence and stalking, both of which are commonplace.

The Role of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Some evidence suggests that NPD, antisocial personality disorder, and coercive control are common among perpetrators of domestic violence. Individuals with NPD are often described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Individuals with NPD exhibit 5 or more of the following:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • A belief that one is special and can only be understood by or associate with special people or institutions
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement (to special treatment)
  • Exploitation of others
  • A lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or the belief that one is the object of envy
  • Arrogant, condescending behavior or attitudes
Bill Oxford / Unsplash
Source: Bill Oxford / Unsplash

Criminalization of Coercive Control

While victims experience coercive control as disturbing, few elements of coercive control are technically criminal; therefore, identifying, criminally charging, and prosecuting cases of coercive control is beyond challenging. Successful prosecutions are incredibly rare, but if the case does move forward, the case will most likely be plea-bargained.

Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France have criminalized coercive control, yet the United States has not. The good news is that New York State has become the first in the nation to introduce legislation criminalizing coercive control as a class E felony. As of this writing, NY State Senate Bill S5306 was passed by the Senate and is now awaiting delivery to the Governor to sign the bill into law. I hope that other states will follow suit in the criminalization of coercive control.