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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Sturmer

The truth about coercive control: warning signs, and what to do

When we talk about coercive control, we are talking about an act, or a series of acts, that are designed to manipulate, intimidate, isolate or control another person.  Coercive control is so insidious because it can be subtle, varied and unpredictable.  It might begin with something that seems fairly benign, but it can grow and escalate until it builds a tangled web of control and abuse.  This can mean that it’s hard to spot when it’s happening to ourselves.  And it’s often accompanied by a narrative of blame and accusation, leading us to believe that we are responsible for what’s happening.  I spoke to The Telegraph about coercive control, click here to read the full article, or read on to learn what I had to say.


Coercive control: warning signs

  • Isolation.  Our partner might act to reduce our contact with our support network.  This can be an overt act, where we are told not to contact them.  Or it might be more subtle.  They might suggest that we move to a new area, so that we are further away.  Or they could plant seeds of doubt in our mind, suggesting that our friends and family don’t like us, or that they aren’t good for us.  

  • Anxiety and manipulation.  When a relationship becomes controlling, we are likely to experience a heightened sense of anxiety in daily life.  A sense of fear and hypervigilance.  This can manifest in physical ways too, leading to muscle pain, breathlessness or difficulty sleeping.  This anxiety can worsen if our partner begins to use our own thoughts or actions to manipulate us.  Gaslighting is a well-known example of this, whereby our partner leaves us questioning our own wellbeing and sanity.  

  • Being watched.  The pervasiveness of technology has made it easier for one person to exert control over another. Our devices, our satnavs, our doorbells, our smart homes.  Our partner might use some or all of these to watch, track and record our moves.  

  • Restrictions on choice.  Over time, we might notice that our sense of choice and autonomy is diminished.  In a controlling relationship, our partner might belittle our choices and dictate aspects of our everyday lives.  This can include what we wear, what we eat, where we go, where we work or study, how we spend our free time, our sexual activity.  And they might suggest to us that they are doing us a favour, that we are unable to make good choices for ourselves.  

  • Criticism.  In order to maintain a sense of control, a perpetrator will often accompany their actions with regular criticism.  Calling us names, putting us down, belittling what we do.  This onslaught of negativity can weaken our confidence and self-esteem which can, in turn, allow our partner to strengthen their power over us.  

  • Financial control.  Our partner might begin with suggestions or criticism about our spending.  And this can sometimes lead to a deeper sense of control.  They might hide money or limit our access to it, making us more reliant on them, and harder to imagine being able to leave.  

  • Intimidation.  Our partner might use threatening language or behaviour in order to intimidate us.  This can take all sorts of forms.  They might threaten to spread information or secrets to our friends and family.  They might threaten our access to our children or our pets.  They might tell us that no one will believe us, and that they will have us sectioned or put into care.  


Coercive control: what to do

  • Keeping track.  Find a way to keep track of the behaviours that you notice, and to record it so that you can understand a pattern of behaviour.  Make sure that you are careful with this.  Staying safe is of the utmost importance.  You might need to think about having a second phone, or taking steps to cover your tracks when you are online. Women’s Aid has some useful information on this here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/cover-your-tracks-online/.  

  • Connect with your support network.  It’s so important to stay in contact with people who can support us.  This might be hard if your partner has attempted to isolate you.  But it’s worth trying to reach out in order to retain a sense of your own identity and to make sure that you will have support if you are able to leave.  

  • Consider devising a practical plan to leave.  This process is two-fold.  There are practical elements here.  What do you need in terms of belongings, money, documentation, and support.  But there’s also an emotional process.  When we start to think about leaving a controlling relationship, we might find ourselves flooded with feelings.  Perhaps anger, frustration, guilt, embarrassment, anxiety or fear, to name a few.  Starting to really notice these feelings can help us on the journey to liberating ourselves from the situation.  

  • Connect with local support services.  Know where you can go and who you can call for help.  There are a whole range of strands of support that are available, including legal, advocacy, peer support, skills development, and counselling.  

  • Therapeutic support.  Counselling can offer a non-judgemental, confidential space to explore and understand our relationships.  This can be a space for you to develop your self-esteem and resilience, and to understand your own personal story.  


Coercive control: support and helplines


Keen to explore more? In counselling we can take a deeper look at how you feel about yourself. Click here to contact me, or click here to book a 30-minute introductory call.



coercive control warning signs

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