Unmasking Coercive Control in Relationships: Recognising the Warning Signs

In a perfect world, we would all be in healthy relationships, built on trust, respect, and mutual support.

However, unfortunately, not all relationships meet these criteria.

In some cases, people may find themselves trapped in a cycle of emotional abuse, known as coercive control. Coercive control is a subtle form of domestic abuse that doesn’t rely on physical violence but instead centres on manipulating and dominating a partner psychologically.

In this article, we will explore what coercive control in a relationship entails and delve into the warning signs that can help identify this subtle but dangerous form of abuse. We’ll also discuss strategies for breaking free from coercive control.


Defining Coercive Control

Coercive control refers to a pattern of behaviour that seeks to dominate, isolate, or intimidate a partner within an intimate relationship. It is characterised by a range of abusive tactics, all aimed at maintaining power and control over the victim. The most common tactics include:


  1. Isolation: Perpetrators of coercive control often attempt to isolate their victims from friends and family. They may employ tactics such as restricting access to social events, demanding constant attention, or accusing the victim’s loved ones of being detrimental to the relationship.


  1. Micro-management: Controlling every aspect of the victim’s life, from their daily routine to their finances, is a hallmark of coercive control. This control can extend to even the most personal decisions, leaving the victim feeling powerless.


  1. Emotional Abuse: Constant criticism, belittling, and humiliation are tools used to chip away at the victim’s self-esteem, making them feel dependent on the perpetrator for validation.


  1. Monitoring: Coercive controllers often invade the victim’s privacy, demanding access to their phone, email, or social media accounts. This invasion of personal space can leave the victim feeling constantly monitored and anxious.


  1. Threats and Intimidation: Perpetrators may use threats, both overt and subtle, to ensure compliance. These threats can range from physical harm to threats of abandonment, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty.


  1. Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic where the abuser seeks to make the victim doubt their own reality, memory, or perceptions. It can be especially insidious, as it leaves the victim questioning their sanity.


  1. Financial Control: Some perpetrators maintain control by managing the victim’s finances or restricting their access to money, leaving the victim financially dependent.


Warning Signs of Coercive Control

Recognising coercive control can be challenging, as it often unfolds gradually. Here are some warning signs that might indicate you or someone you know is in a coercive control relationship:


  1. Excessive Isolation: If an individual becomes increasingly isolated from friends and family and seems to be losing their support network, it can be a red flag. The abuser may make derogatory comments about the victim’s loved ones, discourage contact with them, or create conflicts to isolate the victim further.


  1. Constant Surveillance: If someone’s partner is continually monitoring their whereabouts, online activities, and communication, it may signify an unhealthy level of control. This surveillance can include demanding to know the victim’s exact location, checking their phone and online messages, or tracking their social media activity.


  1. Emotional Manipulation: Frequent belittling, criticism, and attempts to erode the victim’s self-esteem may be an indication of coercive control. The victim may feel that they can never do anything right, constantly walking on eggshells to avoid their partner’s disapproval.


  1. Financial Dependence: When one partner controls all financial aspects of the relationship, it can be a form of coercion. This includes withholding access to money, forcing the victim to quit their job, or controlling all financial decisions. The victim may find themselves without resources to leave the relationship.


  1. Fear and Anxiety: If the victim lives in constant fear, walking on eggshells to avoid triggering their partner’s anger, it suggests an abusive dynamic. This anxiety can lead to physical and mental health problems and hinder the victim’s ability to make decisions independently.


  1. Inconsistent Behaviour: Perpetrators of coercive control often exhibit inconsistent behaviour, alternating between extreme kindness and cruelty, leaving the victim confused and disoriented. They may apologize and promise to change, only to revert to controlling and abusive behaviour shortly after.


  1. Blame Shifting: Coercive controllers often shift blame for their actions onto the victim, making them feel responsible for the abuser’s behaviour. The victim may find themselves apologizing for things that are not their fault, further eroding their self-esteem.


  1. Gaslighting: Recognising gaslighting can be difficult, but if someone consistently denies events or manipulates the victim’s perception of reality, it’s a clear sign of coercive control. Gaslighting is a tactic used to make the victim doubt their own memories and experiences, leading them to question their sanity.


  1. Alienation from Support Systems: Victims may find themselves estranged from family and friends as a result of their partner’s actions. This can include derogatory comments about loved ones or discouraging contact with them. The abuser may insist that the victim’s family and friends are a negative influence and that they are better off without them.


  1. Loss of Independence: Victims may have little control over their own lives, including decisions related to their appearance, career, or hobbies. The abuser may dictate the victim’s clothing choices, prevent them from pursuing their interests, or make all major decisions without their input.


Breaking Free from Coercive Control

If you recognise these signs in your own relationship or in someone you care about, it’s crucial to seek help and support. Breaking free from coercive control is a difficult and often dangerous process, but it is possible with the right strategies and support. Here are some steps to consider:


  1. Reach Out: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about your situation. Support is crucial in breaking free from coercive control. Sharing your experiences with someone you trust can provide emotional validation and help you understand that you are not alone.


  1. Safety Planning: Develop a safety plan in case you need to leave the relationship quickly. This plan should include a safe place to go, financial resources, and important documents. A well-thought-out plan can help ensure your safety when you decide to leave.


  1. Legal Assistance: Consult with a legal expert to understand your rights and options. Depending on your situation, legal avenues such as restraining orders, child custody arrangements, and divorce may be necessary. A lawyer experienced in domestic abuse cases can guide you through the legal process.


  1. Therapy and Counselling: Seek therapy or counselling to address the emotional scars left by coercive control and rebuild self-esteem and independence. Therapists and counsellors who specialize in trauma and abuse can provide valuable support in healing and recovery. Our friendly receptionists are always happy to help victims find the right therapist to support them. You are welcome to contact us on 1300 830 552 or put in a confidential email enquiry here.


  1. Support Groups: Consider joining a support group for survivors of domestic abuse. Sharing experiences with others who have been through similar situations can be empowering. Support groups create a sense of community and understanding, allowing survivors to learn from each other’s experiences and strategies for healing. A few Australian support groups are Full Stop, Mission Australia and Reach Out.


  1. Contact Hotlines: The Australian hotline 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) is available 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. This hotline is staffed by professionals who can provide guidance and support.



Case Study: Sarah and John – A Relationship Marred by Coercive Control

Sarah and John, a couple in their late 30s, have been together for ten years. They initially met at a social event and fell deeply in love, eventually deciding to move in together and build a life as a committed couple. Over time, their relationship began to take a darker turn as coercive control behaviours started to emerge.

Isolation and Surveillance:

John began to exert control over Sarah’s social life, limiting her contact with friends and family. He insisted on knowing her whereabouts at all times and would question her whenever she went out without him. Sarah’s friendships slowly withered, as she felt guilty for leaving John alone. She stopped attending family gatherings, and her friends noticed that she was increasingly isolated.

Emotional Abuse:

John’s controlling behaviours extended to emotional abuse. He would constantly criticize Sarah, making derogatory comments about her appearance, her choices, and her abilities. He told her that she was lucky to have him and that no one else would love her as much. Sarah’s self-esteem plummeted, and she began to doubt her worth.

Financial Control:

John took control of their finances, managing all of their accounts and making financial decisions without consulting Sarah. He also restricted her access to money, giving her an allowance for personal expenses. Sarah had no financial independence and had to ask for money even for basic necessities.

Manipulation and Gaslighting:

Whenever Sarah confronted John about his behaviour or expressed her unhappiness, he would deny or distort the truth. He made her feel like she was exaggerating or imagining things, making her doubt her own perception of reality. This gaslighting left Sarah feeling confused and isolated.

Threats and Intimidation:

John often used veiled threats to keep Sarah in line. He would say things like, “You’ll be all alone if you ever leave me,” or “No one else would put up with you.” These threats created a climate of fear and uncertainty, making Sarah afraid to express her needs and concerns.

Alienation from Support Systems:

Over time, John managed to create a rift between Sarah and her friends and family. He would make derogatory comments about her loved ones, often accusing them of trying to break them up. Sarah began to believe that maintaining these relationships was detrimental to her relationship with John.

Monitoring and Controlling Daily Activities:

John extended his control to every aspect of Sarah’s life, from her daily schedule to her clothing choices. He dictated when she should wake up, what she should eat, and how she should spend her time. Sarah felt like she had no autonomy and was constantly walking on eggshells.

Sexual Coercion:

John also exerted control over their sexual activities. He often pressured Sarah into having sex when she didn’t want to, using emotional manipulation to get his way. He withheld affection as a form of punishment, making Sarah feel obligated to comply with his desires.

Isolating the Victim from Professional or Educational Pursuits:

John sabotaged Sarah’s career aspirations. He discouraged her from pursuing a promotion at work, citing the additional time it would require away from him. He also accused her of neglecting their relationship if she considered going back to school to further her education.

Intervention and Recovery:

Recognising the signs of coercive control, Sarah eventually reached out to a local domestic abuse support group for guidance. She received counselling to rebuild her self-esteem and regain her independence. With the support of her family, friends, and professionals, Sarah found the courage to leave the relationship and file for a restraining order against John.

This case study illustrates how coercive control can develop gradually in a seemingly loving relationship, leading to isolation, emotional abuse, and manipulation. It also highlights the importance of recognising the signs and seeking help to break free from such an abusive dynamic. Sarah’s journey toward recovery serves as an example of hope and empowerment for those who have experienced coercive control.



Coercive control is a form of abuse that thrives on manipulation, isolation, and emotional abuse.

It can be challenging to recognise, but understanding the warning signs is the first step toward breaking free from this toxic dynamic.

If you or someone you know is experiencing coercive control in a relationship, don’t hesitate to seek help and support.

Remember; you are deserving of a healthy relationship. You are not alone, and there are resources available to help you regain your autonomy and self-worth.

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