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Identifying Signs of Coercion When Dating

One controlling behavior could be a red flag to examine further.

Key points

  • Coercive tactics such as gaslighting and love-bombing have made their way into mainstream society.
  • A recent study identified emotional maturity, which is counter to coercive behavior, as a desirable trait in a potential partner.
  • The more you know about coercive behavior, the more protection you have for finding a loving partner.
Nos Nguyen/Pixabay
Source: Nos Nguyen/Pixabay

People who meet coercive partners can become entrapped during the dating period, often unbeknownst to them. Over time, as a society, we have come to recognize more signs of coercive behaviors that are now part of our mainstream languages, such as love bombing, gaslighting, and narcissistic abuse. These coercive behaviors are tactics of emotional and psychological abuse, and often the perpetrator has narcissistic qualities. While one person is seeking a meaningful relationship, the coercive partner is looking for someone who can be influenced and eventually overpowered. Knowing what to look for in a potential partner to determine if there are lingering signs of coercive control is the best protection, and we now have more data to do just that.

Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and chief science adviser for, led a study ("Singles in America­") researching the behavior and attitudes of single people in the United States. In 2022, Fisher was stunned by one finding that had never appeared before: Participants were looking for emotional maturity, the ability to process and grapple with their feelings (Blum, 2023). Emotional maturity is counter to coercive behavior.

Defining Coercive Control

Coercive control is subtle, hard to identify, and can be embedded in what might seem like "normal" behavior, even behavior that appears favorable. Many types of non-physical behaviors constitute "coercive control" to attain a powerful persuasion over another person. All of the coercive tactics, in one way or another, serve to avoid, defend against, or disregard feelings in oneself or the other.

Coercive Tactics

In my many years of facilitating groups for women with controlling partners, each woman unpacks her relational experience and determines which coercive tactics have been at play. The two most prominent coercive tactics identified that are also deeply harmful are love-bombing and gaslighting.


What the women in the groups had in common was experiencing a display of positive behaviors during their dating period that powerfully influenced them to move forward with the relationship. Coercive partners can appear strong, sensitive, and focused in their dating behavior. Their attentive facade can be almost too good to be true while intentionally exhibiting few signs, if any, of the controlling tendencies that show up later.

The excessive positive attention upon meeting someone new and dating is love-bombing—a powerful manipulation. For example, you might hear loving statements that will feel good but occur way too early to be authentic. At the end of a 12-week group experience, I revisited the list they made of their experiences during the dating period. Upon learning about coercive tactics, they were able to identify the behaviors that indicated coercion and felt a bit more confident going forward that they could recognize early warning signs.


Gaslighting is when someone psychologically manipulates another person's sense of reality, creating confusion in the targeted person in order to gain control of the relationship. For example, a partner can be hurtful by demeaning their partner, and when confronted about it, they will lie, deny, change the narrative, or blame the other person, sometimes accusing them of being the abusive one. In time, the confusion turns into self-doubt, and trusting one's judgment in the relationship can get lost, making them all the more vulnerable to their controlling partner.

Over the years in my recovery groups, a majority of women identified gaslighting as the centerpiece of their coercive experience with their partner. Someone who gaslights rarely takes responsibility for their behavior, and that can make it very difficult to develop a balanced and emotionally mature relationship.

Knowledge Is Protection

Understanding coercive control or psychological abuse is the first step toward protecting yourself while dating. A single sign of coercion—such as one display of gaslighting—doesn't mean that a person will be a controlling partner. But it does mean that one needs to be alert for other signs. Collectively, the behaviors can indicate a systematic approach of control that can take over your life.

"A victim of abuse may initially register each individual put-down as trivial ('He's tired, he's had a bad day, he didn't mean it'), and unless she has made that special effort and conceptualized the remarks as part of a whole (as a concerted campaign, whether planned or not, by the abuser), she will not keep track of them—or their cumulative effect on her self-esteem" (Taylor, 2004, 87).

While dating, it's important to protect yourself. It behooves everyone (women and men) to know what coercive tactics look like: Love-bombing and gaslighting are two prominent ones. Developing a conscious awareness, being fully informed when making decisions of the heart, and choosing a partner who shows emotional maturity and has your best interests in mind are paramount.



Blum, D. 2023. "How the language of therapy took over dating." New York Times

Taylor, K. 2004. Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control. New York: Oxford.

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