Understanding coercive control

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Summary information

Coercive control is sometimes difficult to identify, but being able to recognise it it is vital to understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Coercive control is behaviour which is ongoing and persistent, through which a partner tries to undermine the other person’s independence, confidence, sense of safety or ability to seek help.

Coercive control can make you feel fearful and anxious. It is sometimes called domestic terrorism.

Watch: What coercive control looks like

Sometimes it feels like everybody and everything is trying to control us. It begins with children being told what to do by their parents, and then their teachers and friends. As an adult, social media is full of people and businesses telling you to do this or that, wear this, vote for this, eat this and don’t eat that.

Some of this advice you will accept. Some you will seek out. Some you will ignore or reject. And that’s all healthy and normal.

What is not healthy is when advice or recommendations come with threats, and make you feel fearful if you don’t comply.

In a relationship, this is called coercive control.

If advice turns into directions with threats, and if this makes you feel fearful or anxious, take care, as this can be coercive control in action.

Is my relationship healthy?

All relationships have their ups and downs, and sometimes it’s hard to be objective about what is healthy and unhealthy.

Watch: Hidden in Plain Sight: Coercive Control and Domestic Abuse

What does coercive control look like?

Coercive control can take many forms, including:

Controlling

  • What you wear

  • Where you go

  • Who you see

  • What you eat and drink

  • The friends and family you contact

  • Access to your own money

Monitoring

  • Your access to your phone, social media or the internet

  • Cyber stalking

  • Excessive phone and text contact

  • Wanting to know where you are at all times

Belittling

  • Name calling

  • Excess criticism of a wide range of things about you and your life

Accusing You

  • Of disloyalty

  • Of having other relationships

  • Of not being committed to the relationship

Instilling ongoing fear

  • About the consequences of not doing what they’ve demanded

Threatening

  • The withdrawal of love or support

  • Injury or removal of pets

  • Taking children away

  • Your personal safety

Watch: How coercive control manifests in a new relationship

Women can endure years of coercive control without recognising this as abuse. But the absence of physical violence does not mean the absence of abuse.

The trauma, fear and anxiety experienced by women who experience coercive control can take years to get over, and can have significant impacts on children who witness or are subject to this behaviour.

Sadly, abusers typically follow a pattern — they repeat abusive behaviours over time and with multiple partners — and abuse almost always escalates.

Watch: Why domestic violence victims don’t leave

Technology

Controlling your access to technology is a common indicator of coercive control. If you’re worried about your partner’s reaction to your website searches and other online activity, see this helpful article on how to be eSafe.

5 Minute Read

Technology safety tips

How to decide if your relationship is healthy

It’s always good to examine your relationship and make sure it’s still working for you, whether you are just starting out or years into it.

A healthy relationship can look like different things for different people, depending on what your likes and dislikes are and what types of boundaries you want to set.

Relationship needs can also change over time—who you were at 20 years is likely not the same version of you at 40 years.

Healthy relationships change as people change.

Deep Dive

What makes a relationship healthy?

A powerful tool to identify coercive control is a check list of ‘red flags’ – signs that your relationship is unhealthy.

Red flags may include a tendency for one partner to make all the decisions and tell the other what to do, what to wear and who to spend time with.

Dishonesty, physical abuse, disrespect, intimidation, sexual abuse, dependence and hostility are all red flags that coercive control is being exerted in a relationship.

Fact Sheet

Healthy vs unhealthy relationships


As well as red flags, it’s useful to think about ‘green flags’ in a relationship – signs that your relationship is healthy.

Here are some green flags that women have identified – but note that the presence of a green flag doesn’t negate a red flag, and shouldn’t be used to excuse an abusive partner.

  • “Respects a ‘no’ and doesn’t ‘flip out’ when I express an opinion or feeling.”

  • “Same person in public and private.”

  • “Accepts who you are as an individual.”

  • “Doesn’t blame the woman [for] why past relationships didn’t work.”

  • “Does not belittle you in public or private.”

  • “Doesn’t mind attending family gatherings.”

  • “When I was dating my husband, he said he would never raise his voice to me. Married eight years to my safe man.”

  • “Respectful, open, honest communication.”

  • “When a guy doesn’t show signs of jealousy when I’m away from him and doesn’t try to stifle my life.”

  • “Not asking for sex right away.”

  • “Is keen to introduce you to family and friends.”

  • “Genuine apologies.”

  • “When they can take a back seat and acknowledge that you know more than they do on a subject.”