What Is Coercive Control in a Relationship?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 23, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

When does psychological menacing cross into domestic abuse?

“Coercive control” is used to instill fear and compliance in a partner, says Evan Stark, PhD, the sociologist and forensic expert who coined the term. This type of mistreatment follows regular patterns of behavior, and, according to him, “in the vast majority of cases” is employed “by men of women” who are involved in abusive romantic relationships.

“I’m not talking about the somewhat controlling boyfriend or husband here,” says Stark, author of Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. “Compliance is fear-based. If there’s no fear, there’s no coercive control. And that fear is very real.”

What Happens

The pattern goes like this: A woman meets a new love interest who seems especially keen on them. Flattered, at first they don’t mind when they involve themselves in every detail of their life. They may show up at the office too much, or even pressure or force them into sex, but they ignore these red flags.

As the relationship progresses, so, too, does their obsessive monitoring of them. They read their texts and emails. Stalks them. Tells them what they can and cannot wear. Isolates them from their family and friends. And controls their bank account so they can’t afford to leave.

If they resist, they employ low-level violence including slapping, arm-twisting, being dragged by the hair, even frequent sexual assault. they threaten to harm themselves or the kids. They understand they will further hurt them, too.

How Common Is It?

According to Stark, coercive control is found in 86% of all reported domestic abuse cases. Only 14% of cases are now considered to be classic “battered women’s syndrome,” where the abused person has an obvious, serious injury such as a black eye or broken bone. And Stark says that while low-level physical abuse “isn’t likely to excite arrest or triage surgery in the ER,” it is relentless.

“In 40% of reported cases we see serial abuse, where a woman is subjected to physical assault several times each week,” Stark says. “These relationships last, on average, 5 1/2 years. That means the woman has endured being harmed with low-level violence dozens, if not hundreds, of times before it’s over.”

This form of psychological and physical abuse “can be found in institutions and religious cults,” too, he adds, and “we sometimes see it in same-sex relationships, as well.” But in general, the abused are female and their tormenters, men. The abused are usually not outwardly passive. Many are successful professionals who’ve lost personal autonomy even as their careers soar, and who may be too ashamed to seek help.

This is “not because women are less controlling, jealous, or abusive than men are,” says Stark, but because women have “fewer opportunities” to engage in coercive control. Advancements in women’s legal, social, and political rights may have actually enabled, rather than hindered, abusive men, Stark claims, because now they have more opportunities and resources to exploit, especially financial ones.

“Women are vulnerable because gains have not been sufficient. They may have formal legal equality now but not substantive equality.” Stark points to the large gender pay gap that rises dramatically over the course of a lifetime, as well as to the big disparity in political representation in the U.S. “Not long ago a man only had to use physical violence to control their partner. Now, he can’t solely rely upon that, so he crosses into the social space.”

Stark’s groundbreaking work led to recent legal shifts in the U.K. Much of Europe followed suit. As of December 2015, repeat offenders there who coercively control their partners risk a 5-year prison sentence.

The U.S. has yet to do the same. But victims’ rights groups here do now recognize coercive control as a major pattern in domestic abuse.

Spot the Red Flags

Could you be a target of coercive control? According to Stark, these are recognizable signs that your relationship is an abusive one and it’s time to seek help.

Obsessive monitoring. If your partner demands you exercise daily to stay slim, controls your wardrobe and diet, installs spyware into your digital devices, keeps you from other loved ones, and stalks your every move, move on.

Gaslighting. Abusers undermine the abused person's sense of sanity by insisting their lies are true, or by playing mind games such as moving a partner’s parked car late at night so they can’t find it in the morning.

Low-level violence. This includes constant physical abuse that leaves no scars and which generally won’t put abusers behind bars in this country: shoving, pinching, hair-pulling, and choking, with the understanding it will escalate if resisted.

Sexual assault. A common tactic among abusers is forcing the abused to engage in nonconsensual sexual acts, often several times each week, using psychological and physical threats to destroy resistance.

Need Help?

Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

Show Sources


Evan Stark, PhD, professor emeritus, Rutgers University. 

Psychiatric Times: “Battered Woman Syndrome.” The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap (Spring 2017).”

Center for American Women and Politics: “Current Numbers.”

The Guardian: “Controlling or coercive domestic abuse to risk five-year prison term.”

New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence: “Abusive Partners.”

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health: “Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coercion.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: “Pressure and Persuasion: A Closer Look at Sexual Coercion.”

Women Helping Women: “Domestic Violence (Intimate Partner Violence).”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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