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Coercive control and how to spot it

Coercive control and HOW to spot it

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If you’ve found yourself up at night, googling “signs of emotional abuse” or “is my partner controlling?” chances are your internal spirit guides are trying to tell you something. Even the smallest inkling can be a sign that something is seriously wrong, and it’s kind of like a stone in your shoe - you can ignore it, but it’s probably going to get worse. 

One of the most insidious types of abuse is the coercive, psychological kind, due to the fact it can be really difficult to spot. It’s basically a pattern of controlling, manipulative behaviours that usually builds up slowly and methodically over time. This creates a cumulative effect in which the victim loses their autonomy, identity and self-worth. 

Someone in this situation might find themselves wanting to get back to “how it was before” which is generally because perpetrators will behave wonderfully in the beginning. The “gradual bath” analogy applies here, which is to say that you burn yourself quickly in slowly heating water.

Here are some key signs that you, or someone you love, might be experiencing the impact of coercive control. 

Making plans difficult

A hallmark of this type of control is that it’s indirect. The perpetrator might not be verbally telling you that you can’t do something, but they will act in such a way that makes it so deeply unpleasant to proceed that you end up not doing it anyway. They might never explicitly say “I don’t want you to do that” but the feeling in the room will be that it would not be a good idea AT all.

Endless circular arguments with no resolution 

Ever had an argument that felt like it was just going around in circles, regardless of what you do? What about when it feels like your partner keeps changing what their issue is? These are circular arguments and they’re designed to exhaust and confuse you. Once they start happening, you live in fear of every disagreement veering off course, causing stress to activate your nervous system, leaving you pretty much permanently in fight-or-flight mode. Your body is being flooded by the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol, which over time takes a major toll on our mood and sense of well-being. It goes without saying that this is not fun, and is often characterised by that “walking on eggshells” feeling. 

Humiliation, degradation and seemingly constant criticism 

If it feels like your partner is laughing AT you rather than WITH you, takes joy in criticising you and makes you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in public, this is a sign that something is wrong. No one should make you feel “less than”, especially someone you trust. It can leave people feeling on-edge, lacking in confidence and worried about what their partner will say or do next. It says a lot about a person if they take pleasure in cutting someone down. 

Lifestyle policing and unsolicited advice 

It can start with a loose suggestion on what to wear, or expressing pointed interest in where you’re going, and who with. At first this might seem caring and like “they just want the best for you” but it’s actually a technique that plants the seed that you can’t make decisions for yourself, and won’t be able to function without intervention. Over time, once boundaries are eroded, this can turn into flat-out telling you what to do, with consequences if you don’t listen. People who have experienced coercive control often report feeling like a child in the relationship, and that’s due to the dependency they start to feel on their partner. It’s sort of like an invisible chain, keeping the victim as close as possible to the perpetrator. 


This tactic follows the “conquer and divide” mentality, and comes from the abuser wanting their victim alone, without the external influence of people that want the best for them. It can start with the odd negative comment about family or friends, and build up to full-on “it’s me or them” ultimatums. It’s easier for a lion to catch a lone antelope than to approach a whole herd.  

It goes without saying that any and all of the above is deeply unpleasant to live with. Absolutely no one should be made to feel psychologically unsafe by someone they trust. If you or someone you love is struggling, know that there is a way out and through this. Just because it’s not visible to the naked eye doesn’t make it any less serious, and sometimes the most painful wounds are the ones you can’t see. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and start with the belief that you deserve a whole lot better. 

For free, confidential advice and support check this list here.

Article Written by Ianthe Jacob