Coercive Control, The Abuse No One Talks About
Physical violence is the most widely recognized form of abuse; but there is a whole dark world of abuse that doesn’t leave physical injuries. According to Evan Stark, Ph.D. MSW, a forensic social worker and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, coercive control is a term used to describe a course of oppressive behavior grounded in gender-based privilege. This is abuse that occurs when a male takes actions to control a female. It is done through emotional and verbal abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and manipulation.
Coercive control is dangerous, and this control is often the reason women stay in abusive relationships—they feel stuck or even develop trauma bonding where they start to feel bad for their abuser. This malicious type of abuse is widely ignored by courts, and women who make claims of coercive control are frequently seen as crazy and emotionally unstable. Which, if she is struggling emotionally, it is likely due to said abuse.
The best way I can relay the dangers of coercive control is to tell my personal experience with it. It is embarrassing to admit some of the things that went on in my abusive relationship. The fact that I didn’t leave sooner or acknowledge this as abuse until after leaving. But that’s just how abuse works—my abuser had convinced me that every problem was my fault. He convinced me that if I thought something was wrong with how he was treating me, that it was my issue, not his. I thank God that I had the strength to leave that relationship and find safety for me and my children.
So, starting from the beginning of our relationship, here are some of the ways (unfortunately the full list would end up being a novel) he coerced me into doing what he wanted and staying in the relationship:
- From very early on, he would make jokes that he was going to forgo birth control and get me pregnant with an “anchor baby.” I had never heard this term before, so I asked him to explain. He flat out told me that he thought I was so wonderful and that he “couldn’t understand why I was with him” so that he would intentionally get me pregnant before I wised up and left and would be stuck with him since we would have a child together. When I finally did get pregnant, it was planned, though. But in these early stages of the relationship, I did not recognize this type of talk as a warning sign when I should have.
- I was not allowed to have a different opinion than my abuser. A typical disagreement with him would go like this:
Him: I think A.
Me: I think B. But this is just a matter of opinion and we don’t need to argue. We can have different opinions.
Him: Well Hitler had the opinion that all the Jews should be killed. So you’re saying we should kill all the Jews then?
I lost count of how many times he compared me to Hitler just for having a different opinion than him. Because these tactics to take away my right to an opinion, I just stopped expressing myself altogether. I did not feel free to express an opinion.
- He exerted financial control when he was upset. We kept separate bank accounts and paid most bills separately. But he received BAH from the Marine Corps that covered our apartment. The apartment was only in his name, and he made sure I knew that when he was angry. He was quick to tell me that I wouldn’t have a home if it wasn’t for him and that I would never make it as a single mother of two. This was intimidation that worked for quite a while. He instilled fear in me. Fear of being on my own because he convinced me that I needed his financial help.
- Many abusers use coercive control to sexually abuser their victims; my ex was no exception to this. There were things he wanted me to do sexually that I said “no” to. Strongly, firmly saying “no.” In fact, I remember saying I would never do the things he wanted. At first, he said it was okay and that he wouldn’t pressure me. But then the manipulation started. He asked me again. He told me how he always wanted a wife who would do those things and how it would be so hot. I felt incredibly guilty. I felt like I was a bad wife for saying “no.” So I gave in. I convinced myself it was something I wanted too, because this would make me a good wife. I cried and cried and cried afterwards. But he still asked me again. He insisted. It was a relentless cycle of control and abuse—exerting power, forcing, followed by fake apologies and love, and then back to manipulation and abuse again.
My ex broke me down emotionally. I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t express myself. I wasn’t safe physically, emotionally, or financially. I was convinced I couldn’t make it on my own. That I NEEDED him. And while this coercive control didn’t leave marks on me like his physical violence did, it did leave scars on my emotional well-being. It took me a lot of counseling and prayer to regain my confidence. And I still sometimes struggle with expressing my opinion to men.
In addition to the points I listed above, there was also a great deal of yelling and threats made. Threats to take my children away (even my daughter, who is not his child), threats of abandoning me, threats of “if he wanted to hurt me, he would have” to minimize the pain he inflicted. These behaviors kept me in fear and pressured me to keep quiet as a “good wife” should.
What’s important to know is that coercive control often leads to physical violence. Victims may cry out for help because of this type of abuse, but they’re usually pushed away from receiving help. Coercive control is dangerous, and when a woman tries to leave, it could put her in grave physical danger. Women are 500 times more at risk for being killed when they leave their abuser. And if children are involved, they are at risk as well. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you can find help by calling the national domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Spread awareness about this type of abuse by sharing this blog. Listen to survivors and take abuse seriously. Together, we can end abuse.