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4 Common Patterns of Coercive Control in Relationships

4. Monitoring a partner's health and body.

Key points

  • Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing psychological and emotional abuse that is based on control, manipulation, and oppression.
  • Coercive control is often associated with narcissism-fueled abuse.
  • Both coercive control and traumatic bonds are based on intermittent reinforcment.
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When we think of intimate partner violence (IPV), we may immediately think of overt physical or emotional abuse. However, there is another form of abuse that often flies under the radar because it may not always include such tactics as gaslighting, overt devaluation, or physical violence.

Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing psychological and emotional abuse that is based on control, manipulation, and oppression; women ages 18-29 are thought to be at the highest risk. Other risk factors include low education or income, having traits associated with borderline personality disorder, emotional or financial dependency, low self-esteem, and a history of being physically abused.

Coercive control consists of the ongoing and increasing use of manipulative strategies that deny a victim their autonomy and sense of self. An imbalance of power and psychological and emotional exploitation are used to systematically harm a person.

What often makes coercive control more damaging is that a person may not recognize they are being controlled or manipulated until their esteem, sense of safety, and autonomy have come undone. Coercive control is seen in “traumatic bonds,” which often occur in abusive relationships fueled by high levels of narcissism; both are based on cycles of intermittent positive and negative reinforcement.

From an emotional, cognitive, and psychological perspective, coercive control can be more damaging to a victim because many times the damage is not immediately seen. There may be no overt signs and no physical or verbal abuse. This can leave a victim questioning if what they are experiencing is actually mistreatment.

Four common patterns seen with coercive control include:

1. Limiting autonomy

When a romantic relationship is new, it's common to believe that a person wanting to spend every moment with their partner is a sign that they’re invested in getting to know them. While this is true for healthy relationships, it is not the case with coercive control.

Someone's autonomy can be limited in several ways. Some common tactics include: refusing to let someone work or getting them fired, restricting access to transportation, telling the person's friends that they're not home if they call, devaluing the other's choice of friends, finding faults in their hobbies, or insisting they provide a receipt to validate where they were.

What makes these so dangerous is that coercive control can come off as trying to “save” someone; this kind of behavior has been referred to colloquially as "white knight syndrome." For example, instead of allowing a partner to get to work, they may try to come in as a “hero” and tell their partner that they don’t need a job and that they will pay the bills. When coercive control is in play, the goal is to keep the victim reliant on them financially, emotionally, and psychologically where autonomy is limited.

2. Use of technology to track

A person may insist on placing cameras in the house as a security system, or may use two-way surveillance to speak to their partner. While the rationale given may be to keep their partner safe or to chat with them while they’re at work, it’s not based on altruism but self-interest and control.

Similarly, restrictions may be placed on someone's computers or phones, or they may hack into the other's computer using a remote viewer in order to “fix” it. Other times, they may ask for passwords to ensure they’re secure enough, or may place a GPS tracker on their partner's car.

What makes these actions so insidious is that the guise may come across as trying to protect their partner or to secure their home—but the reality is when coercive control is in play, it’s based on monitoring and surveillance.

3. Intimacy and sex used as power or control

Overt signs of coercive control may be based on making “suggestions” on what to wear, what to try, or what to do in the bedroom. Other types of coercive control may be more covert, in which certain personal boundaries are violated, relational intimacy is overstepped, or lines are crossed with what has already been discussed or agreed upon.

When sex or intimacy are used as power and control, it can come across as wanting to "spice things up" or "try something new" in the bedroom. Manipulation may include pleads, compliments, promises, or praise. What may start out as a one-time experience may become more commonplace, or new demands may be brought into the bedroom which can further violate a sense of personal autonomy or boundaries.

4. Monitoring the partner's health and body

Most tactics of coercive control don’t require immediate medical intervention, which makes them more difficult to track. However, some coercive tactics can veer into a need for medical intervention when someone's physical health is controlled or compromised.

For example, someone may have what they eat, how they sleep, or what they wear dictated by their partner. They may not be allowed to wear certain clothes or may be required to stick to a daily schedule of when to get to sleep or when to wake up. Compliments and intermittent positive reinforcement may be offered for sticking to the schedule, or the controller may praise their partner for "looking good" or "losing weight," which can make the partner second-guess themselves or feel ashamed for questioning whether they're being mistreated.

On the far end of the spectrum, coercive control may include monitoring how much a partner eats, when they eat, counting calories, requiring them to stick to a rigid or dangerous exercise routine, or denying them healthcare when there is a medical necessity or emergency.

Getting Support

Coercive control is a dangerous form of abuse because it can go unnoticed. Instead of insults, a victim can receive compliments, praise, or "love bombing" for complying with the manipulation. Leaving can be very difficult, especially if our self-esteem and self-worth have been negatively affected. Speaking to a psychologist trained in abusive relationships and relational trauma can help.

To find support near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock


Bradley, A., & Potter, A. (2018). Women most at risk of experiencing partner abuse in England and Wales: Years ending March 2015 to 2017. Office for National Statistics.

Mitchell, J. E., & Raghavan, C. (2021). The Impact of Coercive Control on Use of Specific Sexual Coercion Tactics. Violence Against Women, 27(2), 187–206.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2021). Violence prevention: Risk and protective factors.…

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