- Coercive control is cumulative in effect and often exists without physical violence.
- The aim of the abuser is to destroy the autonomy and confidence of their victim.
- These abusers often think their behavior is foisted on them by their victim's faults.
Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse with a cumulative impact. It is not defined by one or two or three incidents. It is more like death by a thousand cuts. The abuser presents a credible threat to their victim, who has learned over time to live on the edge, walk on eggshells, and be on the constant lookout for punishment.
Coercive control is characterized by various kinds of emotional and psychological abuse.
These include shouting, belittling, mocking, interrogation, and contempt. The victim’s movements and activities are monitored, micro-managed, and critically assessed. They may be stalked by electronic surveillance of their phone or car. Even if they are financially independent, their abuser will find ways to inflict economic punishment by not paying their share of the bills, by draining any joint account, or by subjecting the victim to costly legal challenges.
Last week, I attended a fabulous presentation by Dr. Emma Katz , who conceptualizes coercive control as a “do this or else” approach: Do what I ask/say/want or I will get back at you/do something I know you don’t like/withdraw all cooperation or support.
While some features of coercive control can be found in most cases of domestic violence, many cases of coercive control have no episodes of physical violence. In some cases, it is the victim that is more likely to instigate physical assault—usually a slap or push in frustration at having their autonomy and dignity curtailed. This increases the difficulties in identifying coercive control by, for example, social services or the police.
One feature of the coercive controller, Dr. Katz observes, is that they pour energy into cultivating a positive public persona. They will volunteer for school or neighborhood sports activities or be active in local charities. This positive persona, according to current literature, is tactical. It is a disguise that puts outsiders and professionals off the scent, undermining any potential complaints from the victim.
From my observations of such abusers and listening to their accounts, I believe that this carefully groomed persona, in some cases, goes far beyond a tactic. It is not so much a disguise as an encompassing narrative of who the abuser is and what they are doing. Unless we understand the mindset of the abuser, we will be unable to manage it—other than via injunctions or criminal proceedings that are as yet highly ineffective.
Addressing the question, “What does the coercive controller think they are doing?” begins with their sense of where the fault lies. In their view (and a view they very much want the victim to adopt), the fault always lies with the victim. From the abuser’s perspective, their behavior is forced upon them. They have to control the victim to ensure they do not damage themselves or the children, to persuade them to see reason and to acknowledge the abuser’s “fair” requirements and needs.
It is because they are so oblivious to the abuser’s reason, so confined within their distorted mindset, and so poor in their judgment of who can be trusted that the abuser is compelled to be “assertive.” It is only through reminders of their emotional and cognitive deficits and “protection” (i.e., isolation) from the “bad influences” of their “toxic” friends and family that the abuser can “correct” their many faults. The abuser is unaware of their need to control, constrain, and diminish and sees their behavior as directed to the victim’s and the family’s own good.
The abuser’s belief in their own innocence often goes further.
Some abusers have a deep need not only to believe that they are in the right but to valorize their struggle towards good. With intimate friends or lovers or therapists, they convey their distress at having to be so tough on a partner. They describe their life as a drama in which their valiant efforts to “support” their victim repeatedly fail. They present themselves as exhausted and saddened by their efforts to manage them. Their carefully selected lovers and friends (and possibly therapists), aware only of the abuser’s perspective, offer sympathy for the abuser’s challenges with the victim. In so doing, they provide enormous satisfaction to the abuser, thereby fuelling their coercive energy.
It is not surprising that so few people are charged with or convicted of coercive control. These abusers are such good actors because they are performing what they believe to be the reality of their unassailable rightness. This lends credibility to their self-defense and counter-accusations in any formal challenge brought against them. It allows them to fashion a story in which the victim is the abuser. After all, their own actions are for the good of the family, and the victim is resisting them. The victim’s complaints—to the police or to a court—are a sure sign that they are the abuser and trying to punish their partner by making accusations.
A final feature of these “innocent” abusers is that they do not fit the more common pattern of the coercive and controlling parent who has no real interest in their children. Examples in the literature on coercive control portray children’s preference for the victim parent and dread of the abusive parent. But for the innocent-feeling abuser, being the better parent, indeed, the only competent parent, is essential to their story. Moreover, their conviction that they grasp a reality that eludes their victim may mean that some children feel safe and secure with them.
Coercive control is common. Survey data suggest that 22 percent of women in the U.S. experience coercive and controlling behavior , as do 30 percent in England . We will only be able to witness the extent of coercive control, provide the necessary support, and produce evidence as required if we expose the many atypical problems that arise from the “innocent” abuser.
1. Katz, Emma. (2022) Coercive Control in Children’s and Mother’s Lives. OUP.
2. Johnson, M.P., Leone, J.M., & Xu, Y. (2014). Intimate terrorism and situational couple violence in general surveys: Ex-spouses required. Violence Against Women, 20(2), 186-207.
3. Myhill, A. (2015). Measuring coercive control: What can we learn from national population surveys? Violence Against Women, 21(3), 355-375.