2 therapists explain the tell-tale signs of coercive abuse, an insidious form of psychological manipulation

·3 min read
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  • Coercive control is a term that refers to non-physical tactics an abuser uses to manipulate a victim.

  • It can involve gaslighting, name-calling, belittling, and threats of self-harm.

  • These tactics mentally destabilize a victim so they become dependent on their abuser.

Coercive control is a type of emotional and psychological abuse used to manipulate a specific target, like a romantic partner or co-worker, according to two relationship trauma experts Insider interviewed.

The term "coercive control" comes from the UK, where domestic violence prevention advocates successfully campaigned to make this form of abuse a criminal offense. It's not a legal offense in the US, but the term is an accurate way to describe the insidious nature of emotional relationship abuse, said therapist Stephanie Sarkis, author of the upcoming book "Healing from Toxic Relationships: 10 Essential Steps to Recover from Gaslighting, Narcissism, and Emotional Abuse."

"It's just as damaging, if not more damaging, than physical abuse," Sarkis told Insider.

When someone enacts coercive control, they use pointed non-physical methods to make their victim feel dependent on them financially, mentally, and emotionally, according to Amelia Kelley, a trauma-informed therapist and co-author of "What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship."

If a therapy client believes their relationship problems are all their fault, or is always apologizing to their partner, it could mean they're the target of  coercive control, Kelley said.

They wonder why they've been unable to fix their relationship problems

According to Kelley, victims of coercive control tend to believe they're the problem with their relationship, even if they're unsure exactly why that is.

That's because their partner has used tactics to mentally destabilize them, like gaslighting or controlling what they do or who they see.

"The purpose of that is to gain power and control over someone, so they rely on the abuser for their personal reality," Sarkis said.

Kelley gave the example of a former couple she saw for therapy. She said the husband "convinced his wife she was insane," to the point she sought out multiple psychological evaluations. But when Kelley worked with them together, she said she saw an abusive dynamic, not a mental-health issue. She stopped working with the man and now only sees the woman client.

"There are often times where the gaslighter will make the other person feel like there's something wrong with them, and that if you even need to go to a therapist, then you're obviously crazy," Kelley said.

They avoid their personal interests or goals out of fear of upsetting their partner

When someone experiences coercive control, it's not a constant onslaught of abuse, Sarkis said. Rather, the abuser will strategically love-bomb their target so they come back.

As a result, victims of coercive control often convince themselves to do what their partner wants so they can experience those positive relationship moments. In fact, these shows of affection can give a victim a dopamine rush so they stay invested in the relationship, said Kelley.

If, for example, one partner has a goal to go to the gym four days every week, their abusive partner might say, "I don't even want you to leave and go to the gym by yourself. You need to go with me," according to Kelley.

They may also use threats of self-harm, verbally demean their partner, or threaten to withhold money or access to medical care if their target disobeys their commands, said Kelley. She said these are emotionally-charged ways to push a person into isolation, which makes it easier to control them.

They put themselves in uncomfortable or unsafe situations to appease their partner

An abuser may also use coercive control tactics to scare a target into staying in an unhealthy dynamic.

According to Sarkis, an abuser might threaten to turn their shared children against them, kill themselves, or say they'll ruin their target's reputation if they leave or discontinue contact. This pushes a coercive-control victim to stay out of fear, she said.

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