What is Coercive Control?

This article comes from The Cedar Network, a UK organisation that helps mothers and children recover from domestic abuse. Republished with permission. Click here to read the original article.


What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a term developed by Evan Stark to help us understand domestic abuse as more than a “fight”. It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self. It is not just women’s bodily integrity which is violated but also their human rights.

Traditionally, domestic violence has been understood to be an incident or series of incidents of physical violence perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner. Indeed, sometimes it is understood to be a fight between partners.

In Scotland, instead of using the term domestic violence, we use the phrase domestic abuse in order to emphasise that it is not about fights, that abuse is on-going and that it comprises much more than physical violence. This is not to say that verbal and / or physical fights do not take place between partners, but it is important to distinguish between these and the social concern that is domestic abuse. It is dangerous to dismiss on-going abuse as a fight or a one-off act of violence.

However, some confusion remains, and even when we acknowledge the emotional, psychological, financial and sexual elements of domestic abuse we still focus primarily on acts of violence in our discussions and responses to domestic abuse. Talking about coercive control means that it is not only another phrase for domestic abuse but it helps us to rethink what constitutes domestic abuse.

It is a term and a concept developed by the academic and activist Evan Stark which seeks to explain the range of tactics used by perpetrators and the impact of those actions on victims / survivors. In Stark’s own phrase, the concept explains ‘how men entrap women in everyday life’.

It is a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self. It is not just women’s bodily integrity which is violated but also their human rights.

Coercive control, Stark argues, is not primarily a crime of violence; it is first and foremost a liberty crime. This is not intended to play down the level or scope of physical violence that can occur within domestic abuse (though sometimes no physical violence is used at all, or the violence that is used may appear ‘minor’ in the eyes of the law) but to highlight what is significant – control.

In this model, violence is used (or not) alongside a range of other tactics – isolation, degradation, mind-games, and the micro-regulation of everyday life (monitoring phone calls, dress, food consumption, social activity, etc.). The perpetrator creates a world in which the victim is constantly monitored and criticised; every move is checked against an unpredictable, ever-changing, unknowable ‘rule-book’.

The rules are based on the perpetrator’s stereotyped view of how his partner should behave towards him, rules about how she cooks, house-keeps, mothers, performs sexually and socialises.

Experiencing coercive control is like being taken hostage; the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the partner / abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.

Surveillance continues even when the perpetrator is not present (constant phones calls or texts, using children to report on movement, etc.). The perpetrator can come to appear omnipotent.

Fear and confusion are central to our understanding of coercive control; it is living in a world of moving goal-posts, shifting sand; it is like constantly walking on eggshells. It is a world of everyday terror.

In this way, coercive control is not domestic purely in the sense that it occurs at home – it crosses social space: literally, in that technology allows for surveillance wherever a victim is, and metaphorically, in that the victim becomes brainwashed, internalising the rules, adapting her behaviour to survive. Coercive control is the white noise against which she plays out her life; ever present, ever threatening. The strength to live with this and to function daily in a range of settings – to survive – is enormous and courageous.

[August 16, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to August 16, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to August 16, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to August 16, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (August 16, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


A link to this article has been added to our Resources — in the section Understanding Domestic Abuse.


Further Reading

Abuse Is a Pattern.’ Why These Nations Took the Lead in Criminalizing Controlling Behavior in RelationshipsTime Magazine, June 21, 2019

22 thoughts on “What is Coercive Control?”

  1. I’ve been captive in this unreal world since I told my ex that I was pregnant with our first child. Right then and there he told me that if I ever dared leave him he would fight for full custody and he’d win because he’s a well-known professional in our community. Many years and several children later, I finally did break free of the marriage. Miraculously I got custody, but he still exercises plenty of coercive control and I will be in this prison until my youngest turns 18. It’s hell and I’m sick of it.

    My kids are victims of his despicable control tactics as well and they live in the emotional wasteland of having a love / hate relationship with him. They hate him because they see and feel the control and the rigidity, and the blatant disregard for their needs, and the pathological selfishness, and the lies. But they love him because he is their father and I think they just need to love him because they are children and he is their father, or they think they do, or I don’t know…. In some ways I am freer than they are because I feel no need to love him, or forgive him, or to make excuses for him. I can say and believe and know that he is evil. They cannot because it is far too painful for them. My poor kids. God help them.

    [Paragraph break added to enhance readability. Editors.]

    1. They cannot because it is far too painful for them. My poor kids. God help them.

      I think you’ve described this very well, LauraGrace. If it is any consolation, your kids might see through the fog and be able / willing to face the pain….when they are adults. With my daughter (now 26) her eyes have come clear in the last few years. It was incremental.

      1. Thanks, Barbara. I hope you are right. Do you have any suggestions on how to help them with their conflicting emotions in the meantime?

      2. Good question — perhaps the booklet Respecting & Listening to Victims of Violence would have some things that you could adapt to your situation. Even though your kids are not yet able to acknowledge the abuse, you can still do principles 3, 4 and 5 in the booklet to some extent. You are probably doing them to some extent already, but maybe the booklet might help you to do them more, or more effectively.

        My own experience with my daughter was I found that if I tried to point out how her dad was abusing her when she was NOT wanting to see it, it only made our relationship worse. But when she herself was saying things that tentatively pointed to her dad’s mistreatment of her, I could affirm her perceptions without pushing her to go the next step (see more; be more outraged). So I just rode with the waves: when the wave was high and she was identifying his bad behaviour, I would affirm her perceptions and ask open-ended questions like “What options do you have for how you could respond when he does that kind of thing?” When she was in the trough (the fog of fear) and not identifying his bad behaviour, I went along with her at the time, just to support her. I tried to be there for her wherever she was at.

        My other suggestion would be Lundy’s book When Dad Hurts Mom [Affiliate link] which you can find in our Resources list.

      3. What about a child that consistently says that he wishes that his dad would go away and not come back? He says that his dad hates him and he hates his dad.

      4. I would think that child is giving a message to his mother that he thinks it would be better if his parents didn’t live together. Of course, it is not up to the children to make their mother’s decisions for her, but her children’s feeling can be one element that influences her decision-making process.

        If their father is an abuser, there can be different ways the kids respond. Some kids hate their dad and know their dad hates them. Some kids think their dad is better than their mum (because dad has enlisted the kids to see her in the same unjust way he sees her). Some kids are recruited so much by their dad that they actively participate with him in coercively controlling her.

        Sometimes, different kids within the family take different stances — some pro-Dad, some anti-Dad. Sometimes their stances change. Sometimes if mum leaves dad, the dad then starts recruiting the kids (lying to and manipulating them big time) so they come over to his point of view. But it sounds like with this boy you have described, because he already has such strong antipathy against his father, he would be unlikely to switch like that.

        That is all I can offer you, and I’m not an expert in this stuff. I suggest you read Lundy’s book When Dad Hurts Mom.

      5. They can sometimes switch suddenly and take you by surprise. One of my daughters was very supportive of her father and angry and bitter at me, then one day he yelled at her and she completely and permanently reversed her position. On the other hand her sister would write down things like “Dad, out of the house now!”, yet when he did leave she started defending him. I found Lundy Bancroft’s book “When Dad Hurts Mom” very helpful.

      6. I am almost ready to leave my abuser and this is the main issue holding me back. Will he have the same control over their minds and actions if we are apart??? He is making sure to act like best buddies with them now and since they are such good kids they wouldn’t dream of hating their father. They are trusting and would never question his outright manipulative and intimidating tactics. I do have some hope as my older children did come to see the truth about him when they got into their 20s. That’s a long time to wait for my youngest.

      7. Anthea, I understand your trepidation and concerns. You might, either now or later, find it helpful to read the posts which are in our category Children and Extended Family. You can find a list of our categories in the sidebar of this blog. 🙂

      8. Thank you, Barbara — I will do that as part of my daily “staying sane” time.

  2. One thing that gets me is that people play these games in public, such as with employees at a store or with co-workers in a job, and folks snicker and roll their eyes behind their backs….and don’t even think about, “If they’re treating you like this, how do you think they treat their spouse and children?”

    I point this out, and it feels as if the most common reaction I get is a startled blink — sometimes after having to explicitly point out that whatever they do in public would be a sanitized version of what they do behind closed doors.

    “I didn’t think of that,” I’m told, and although I get that I see things others don’t, I don’t understand why folks miss that basic “What people do openly, they’ll also do in private.”

    1. So true. Once I had a supervisor who did everything he could to verbally degrade and belittle those working under him, constantly finding fault, micro-managing, and just trying to make people doubt themselves and feel incompetent in general. Then one day I saw him interacting with his 12-year-old son at a company picnic, and he treated him the same way and worse. It was nothing overt that could have been reported to DCS, but I felt so bad for the kid. To live with that and grow up hearing it would be so horrible.

  3. “Coercive control” is an excellent phrase! I will have to think on this but my reaction is this is better than using the word “abuse” because so many people assume abuse only involves violence. And people dismiss so many things as not being abuse. I think people probably understand the word “control” better. If I describe some behavior by my husband people will shrug and say “that’s not really abuse”. But I imagine if I described the same behavior as control I doubt many would disagree. Now to get people to realize no one has a right to control anyone.

  4. Yes. The coercive control (along with / as a part of manipulation, brainwashing, grooming) comes long before any overt acts of abuse can be identified. By the time a pattern of abuse has developed the abuser has already successfully defined his victim’s reality. Add to that many false messages given to women by the church and society, which all enable and reinforce a lot of what the abuser is doing….it is truly living in a fog, often just doing the best you can to make it through each day. It is so hard when people make statements that they would never put up with such a thing, or that the victim was somehow co-dependent or “allowed” it to happen. These people do not truly get how subtly and covertly an abuser can define their victim’s reality the whole time convincing the victim that SHE is the one that is defining reality. It is a huge thing to sort out when the fog starts to lift, I am so thankful for the few resources that do get it. If it wasn’t for these type of articles I could have been easily led to believe that I was just as responsible for the abuse, it is also these type of articles that help me see just how much he’s not changing, he may have stopped or changed some of his overtly abusive tactics….but the attempts at coercive control and manipulation are still alive and strong.

  5. I wonder sometimes what is controlling behavior and what is a man being concerned about his wife. My husband requires that I text him the moment I arrive at work and call him the moment I leave. I find my gut tightening if I take too long to text him, because I know he will call and “scold” me for taking so long. I don’t know. Should a woman feel flattered that her husband constantly worries about where she is? I like the fact that someone cares but I’m feeling more and more tense sometimes regarding him. I’m afraid to miss a call because I don’t want to make him mad.

    1. Sunshine,

      Identifying the difference between a caring and a controlling act can be difficult. Maybe ask yourself this question: “What does the action produce in me? Do I feel loved when this person does this? Or do I feel fear?” A caring act from a pure motive and a heart of love will be felt as such by the recipient. A controlling act often produces fear in the recipient. That fear can be seen as the recipient starts “walking on eggshells” around the controlling person, and the recipient feels she has to react in a certain way to prevent a negative response, such as anger, from the person doing the action.

    2. This reminds me of some former farming neighbors. Many years ago the wife worked in town at 6 a.m. The husband drove her to work every morning (their car was very loud and always woke me up at 5:30), came home, then he drove into town at noon and ate lunch with her, went home again, and then picked her up after work. People called him “a real go-getter”. (He takes her to work, then he goes and gets her!)

  6. I also very much like the term “coercive control” as it gives a more accurate picture of what victims are going through. “Violence” seems to imply physical abuse. I was even hesitant before I originally contacted my local domestic support group since the word “violence” is a part of their name and I was not physically abused. Coercive control by the very name shows that we are being controlled, and we are being forced into it by wicked means. Physical violence is only one possible method used by an abuser to exert control. Coercive control can help both victims and outsiders see that the problem is CONTROL and the methods used to achieve it are varied but always coercive: to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition.

  7. From the original post:

    ….Coercive control is the white noise against which she plays out her life; ever present, ever threatening….

    An apt statement.

    For some reason, I equate the white noise with a hyper-vigilant nervous system.

    Always in the background….since birth….hidden behind the childhood sexual abuse.

    Perhaps a factor for me to consider….food for thought….

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