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What is Coercive Control? 
Breaking Down the Tactics& Unveiling the Patterns

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What is Coercive Control?

By Larissa Crane, LICSW, RYT 

Finding a successful path through the Family Court system can be difficult for anyone. There are often additional complexities and challenges for those involved in a relationship where coercive control is an issue. In this article, we hope to provide insight into what coercive control is and how it can manifest in a relationship.

Coercive control is best defined as a pattern of abusive tactics aimed at controlling an intimate partner or family member. Many people who have been in an abusive and controlling relationship for long periods don't realize that they are, in fact, victims. But there are some common feelings associated with being coercively controlled, which the following questions (upper right) may help to identify. 

Physical intimidation and abuse are commonly wielded tools in coercive control dynamics. Physical abuse can range from overt acts like pushing, hitting, and choking to more subtle tactics ranging from tripping their partner when they walk by, backing a partner into a corner and screaming at them, or pouring water over their partner.

Elements of Coercive Control

Coercive controllers are often very careful not to leave physical marks, so just because there aren’t physical marks doesn’t mean one isn’t experiencing physical abuse. These may include:

Pushing, hitting, slapping, kicking, punching, pinching, burning, intentional tripping of partner, backing partner into a corner. 

Locking partner in a room.

Punching a wall, throwing something violently across the room, or damaging property with intent to intimidate.

 Using or threatening to use weapons. 

Sexual Abuse

Sexual violence often occurs alongside other forms of abusive behavior and typically includes physical and emotional abuse. Even in intimate relationships, consent is always required. Sexual violence is about power. Perpetrators use sexual violence to assert power over their victims. 

Technological & Financial Abuse

Technological and financial abuse further entrench control. Perpetrators monitor communications, restrict access to financial resources, and manipulate economic dependencies, leaving victims feeling trapped and powerless. The following are some of the ways Technological Abuse limits the autonomy and asserts control over a victim of abuse. 

Financial Abuse

The following are some of the ways Financial Abuse limits the autonomy and asserts control over a victim of abuse:

Legal Abuse

Family court is an ideal forum for abuse. Litigation facilitates control, coercion, punishment, ongoing psychological abuse harassment, and financial harm:

  Forces adult survivors into ongoing contact and battle.

The essence of custody litigation is attacking the other parent as a person and a parent = the perfect match for an abusive agenda.

 Abusive fathers were found to be twice as likely to seek sole physical custody as non-violent fathers. - APA Presidential Task Force 1996

Psychological Abuse

The most insidious aspect of coercive control is psychological abuse. Abusers intimidate, scare, confuse, and manipulate victims. Victims endure a barrage of mind games, including gaslighting, projecting, minimizing, deflecting, and blame-shifting. 

These tactics distort reality, leaving victims questioning their own sanity and diminishing their sense of worth. Many women report they prefer the physical abuse because they know the abuse will be eventually end. Abusers who engage in psychological abuse are constantly looking for ways to trick, confuse, or deceive victims.

Perpetrators abuse victims emotionally with constant badgering, bullying, and stalking of the victim. Abusers use devaluing language and phrases such as “No-one will ever love you” or “You are worthless, incapable, and pathetic.” Abusers are adept at identifying and exploiting the victim's vulnerabilities and self-esteem through name-calling and demoralizing language. 

Gaslighting is the ultimate hallmark of psychological abuse. Abusers deceive 

and lie to their partners leaving victims to their perception of reality. Victims are made to believe they are emotionally compromised or mentally unstable, which provides the excuse to assert greater control over the victim. 

Abusers play mind games by altering reality, causing confusion and doubt. When confronted with their behavior, the abuser will minimize it, often telling their victims that they are overreacting, mistaking the facts or “going crazy.”

Abusers are unable to accept responsibility for their actions or admit that they are wrong. They dismiss their victims' concerns as exaggerations or misunderstandings.

They are masters at deflecting blame and shifting it to the victim. DARVO, (the acronym for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender) is a tactic employed by abusers to avoid taking responsibility for their actions by turning the blame onto the victim, such as “If you didn't upset me so much, I wouldn't have to hit you.” Victims are left confused and dysregulated and begin to question their sanity.

The following are tactics used by a perpetrator of Psychological Abuse.

From the outside, the behavior may seem harmless, but it is insidious and rampant, similar to getting a thousand paper cuts. Coercive Control is often undetectable by others and can occur in all gendered relationships.

Coercive control relationships often exist under the radar because perpetrators are highly skilled at deceit and manipulation, making them hard to detect. They are often charming and charismatic. Most abusers have narcissistic traits such as grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy. They are interpersonally exploitive and believe in their own superiority. Their greatest fear is appearing inferior or not feeling in control. Any attempts to confront their behavior often escalate the abuse.

It is important to understand that it is not the victim’s fault that their partner is abusive. The victim did not do or say anything wrong and did not cause the abuse. There is rarely anything a victim can do or say to stop the harmful behavior. Abusers abuse because they see the world through a maladaptive lens and have a distorted view of how things should operate. They are not coming from a rational place.

Being a victim of coercive control is very isolating. Family and friends may have difficulty understanding what you are going through. They might ask a victim, “Why don’t you just leave?” or “Can't you just get along and work things out?” Leaving the relationship is not that simple while dealing with the turmoil of abuse. 

The effects of Coercive Control are devastating and can have lifelong consequences including:

 Depression
  Anxiety 
  PTSD 
  Alcohol & Substance Abuse Disorders
  Suicidality 
  Chronic pain 
  Reproductive issues
 Gastrointestinal/Cardiovascular Issues
 Sexual/Reproductive Issues 

At its core, coercive control strips victims of their fundamental rights to security, dignity, and respect. If you think you may be a victim of Coercive Control, know that you are not alone and that there are resources to support you. 

If you think you are a victim of abuse and would like someone to talk to and to find out about getting help, please explore our Helpful Resources Guide

About Larissa Crane, LICSW, RYT 

Larissa Crane is a psychotherapist based in the Boston area who specializes in helping people overcome anxiety, depression, and eating disorders through a trauma-informed approach.

Her practice also supports “high conflict” litigants navigating the Massachusetts probate and family court. Larissa conducts GAL (Guardian ad Litem) reports, offers parenting coordination services, and provides counseling for those who have experienced coercive control or narcissistic abuse.

She can be reached at larissacrane.com or at cranelarissa@gm ail.com.

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