If you recognize these 10 signs of coercive control in your relationship, then it's vital that you take action to protect yourself. You already know that coercive control (also known as mind control, undue influence, thought reform, coercive persuasion, brain washing or manipulation) is a series of influence techniques used over time to control another individual's thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors. It is used to wield power over and control other people. Hence the need to not only be able to recognize it but also to actually do something about it.
Here are 10 signs of coercive control in no particular order.
If you got into a relationship with someone you thought was perfect at the start but then there has been a significant change, you are in trouble. Initially your partner ticked all the boxes for you, charming, friendly, caring, loving, attentive, you thought this was too good to be true. Somebody who understood you, somebody who accepted you, who loved you for who you were. And then there were changes. Their love and attention became conditional. Conditional on you doing and saying certain things and not doing and not saying others. Now you are with someone who is very different from that wonderful person you fell head over heels for. This other person is irritable, grumpy, demanding, critical, who finds fault with everything and everyone.
Sometimes when you are in public, you see that original wonderful person appear and be the life and soul of the party. And you watch them charm and befriend others. But you think to yourself, "if only they knew," but you can't say that out loud. You are too afraid of the repercussions.
And you realize that your partner is great in the image management department. They can turn on the friendly, caring act in an instant in order to fool others. And it annoys you intensely that they get away with it.
The second of the 10 signs of coercive control is that whenever anything goes wrong anywhere near your partner, you or someone else, mostly you though, get the blame. It's amazing how these people can twist and distort information to somehow put the blame squarely on your shoulders. They themselves, of course, are totally blameless when things don’t go according to plan. They have all sorts of reasons and justifications for why it can't possibly be their fault. (And you are never, ever allowed to use the same justifications!)
This is so common and frequent that the victims get so used to it that they end up taking responsibility for all sorts of things that could not possibly be their fault. This shows up with the victim frequently apologizing for anything and everything to the point that friends and family start saying to the victim that there is no need to apologize so often.
The flip side of this is that you are not allowed to take credit for things you do well. The manipulator takes the credit. Again they twist things to make out that it's because of them that you are successful and that you have the things that you have in life.
These two things, no credit allowed for your successes and made to take personal responsibility for anything and everything that goes wrong, means that your self esteem is basically in your boots all the time.
The third of our 10 signs of coercive control has to do with decision making.
Have you ever thought to yourself, "If I bring this up now, he or she will get angry, so I won't mention it yet, I will say it later?" or "If I do this, there will be hell to pay so I just won't do it." Do you do this often? Do you do it with a range of topics?
I know this happens in any relationship, but when there is coercive control, it happens quite a lot. Some people even get to the point where they never mention certain things because it will cause a lot of 'unpleasantness' or they stop doing things they really like for fear of the consequences. For example, hobbies, sports, going out with friends, talking to family.
It feels that you have some control, it seems that you are deciding to do or not to do things to avoid problems. However, the abuser has actually trained you to make decisions this way. The first 3 or 4 times you mention something, they get angry. You quickly learn that this subject causes problems so you 'choose' to avoid it.
That thinking process I described above? That's actually called "asking for permission". You are checking with them before you do something, even if the check is in your own head!
It's tough to accept that someone is controlling your decisions or even that you have to ok it with them in order to be allowed to do the smallest things, but this is what happens in environments where there is coercive control.
At the start of the relationship there are basically lots of rewards, compliments, gifts, attention etc. You are made to feel fantastic, unique and special. Sure, this happens in normal, healthy relationships and that's why the abusers do it.
However, in a coercive environment, these rewards are always in relation to the manipulator. The good feelings are not for you to boost you, they are heavily linked to your partner. You feel great in relation to the manipulator. It's only when the manipulator is around that you feel great. When you are not with them, you feel like the only important thing is to be with them again. This is different from normal, healthy relationships where a partner will make you feel good about who you are because they want you to feel good about who you are.
This idea may be difficult to understand initially, but just think how you might have hidden information from your friends or family about your partner, or even kept your partner away from them for whatever reason. You felt great about your partner but you knew there were things that you could not share with others. This is not normal in health relationships.
The second aspect is that the rewards are conditional in a coercive relationship. As long as you are doing what the manipulator wants, they continue. Any deviation from that and there are no longer rewards. This motivates you to please the manipulator to get more rewards and nice times. Of course, when you are head over heels at the start of a wonderful relationship it doesn't feel like this. But when you look back, you can often recognize that there were moments where your partner let it be known that they were not happy and you took steps to please them again. These steps, typically, were exactly the steps that the manipulator wanted you to take all the time.
The third aspect of the rewards is that they quickly disappear as the relationship develops. Again, this happens in normal situations, but in coercive control situations, the rewards often stop suddenly when the manipulator realizes that they are no longer necessary, they have sufficient control that the rewards are no longer needed.
The range of the rewards is often quite limited, lots of the particular things that the manipulator has figured out that make you feel especially happy.
In the beginning of the relationship, the victim is motivated to get rewards. This brings us to the fifth of the 10 signs of coercive control.
People in relationships don't often think of their relationship in terms of punishments and rewards because it's not how they themselves treat the person they love, a person that they believe loves them back.
Relationships based on coercive control, however, are often organized around such things, especially in the minds of the abusers, who are often psychopaths and narcissists. These people are motivated by control, their relationships based on coercion and exploitation. For these people rewards and punishments are a very effective way to modify their victims' behavior.
Very early in their relationship they let it be known that they are not happy with this or that and if they don't get their way quickly, the punishments start. The range of punishments can be vast. They know exactly how to make you feel 2 inches tall with a look or a tone of voice. They make the attacks very personal. They know what you want, what you like and what you are afraid of and they have no issue using these things against you.
You can read more here about how the combination of rewards and punishments, compliments and criticisms create dependency in the victim. (It's about abusive husbands but the same dynamics apply to abusive female partners.)
As the relationship progresses the victim moves from being motivated to get rewards to being motivated to avoid punishments. The amount of rewards diminishes drastically while the number of punishments rises hugely.
Many people think that if someone punished or abused them that they would simply leave. But when coercive control has been used to trick someone into starting a relationship, with all the changes that happen to the victim's personality, the victim is actually motivated to try harder to please the abuser. This sounds counterintuitive, but if you are in a controlling relationship you will recognize this in yourself. (It's very important to know that it's not your fault. You have been tricked!!)
The sixth of our 10 signs of coercive control is control of such things as your food, drinks, hairstyle, clothes, activities etc.
If they consider you a trophy, they will have you dress up. If they don't want others paying any attention to you, they will dress you down. If you are better then them at some activity, they will make it so you can't do it or don't want to do it. If you get pleasure from having something they will criticize it and make you feel bad about it. If you are successful in some endeavor they will start an argument, minimize your achievement or otherwise ruin the moment.
Even in areas where they normally have little or no interest, if it's important to you, they will often get involved and impose their terms and conditions. They can't allow you to have anything of your own in case you go and start making unilateral decisions.
In terms of work, the manipulator will often stop partners from working, making them dependent financially and keeping them at home making it more difficult to interact with others. Sometimes they will have their spouse work extra hard at 2 or 3 jobs and they themselves have 'difficulties' find or keeping a job. And, of course, having children keeps a woman very busy and the manipulators often use this as a way to keep a woman committed to the relationship as well so busy she has no time to reflect on her life.
"Give them an inch and they want a mile" applies to the abusers. It does not matter how hard you try, how much you give, how much money you earn, how much energy you expend, how much attention you pay, it's never enough with these types.
They will continually force your awareness onto what is missing, the mistakes you made, the sins you committed, your slip ups, your flaws that you need to change, etc. etc.. You are told that if only you could fix all these things, then the relationship would be so much better. This is, of course, an impossible task.
For example, when you wear black clothes, you are told that flowers are not black and you should wear different clothes. When you buy colored clothes, you are told you look like a hippy. Or you are told that if you lost a few pounds you would look much better, but when you do that, attention shifts to your being a few inches too short (or your nose is too big, or your forehead is too high...). They keep moving the goalposts, often to something that is impossible to change, such as height in this particular example. This is obviously very destructive because they make you feel terrible about something that is impossible to remedy.
Number 8 in our 10 signs of coercive control is control of the sexual aspect of the relationship. This can take many forms, everything from withholding sex to insisting on group sex and open relationships.
In coercive relationships the sex life is typically a mirror of the power imbalance in the whole relationship. The manipulator decides when, where and how sex occurs. It typically becomes all about the desires and the pleasure of the manipulator.
The victim is often coerced into doing things that they would otherwise not be comfortable doing, including dressing up, the use of various positions and often engaging in activity when the victim does not want to. Control over the use of contraception, whether using it or not using it, is also part and parcel of the abusive nature of such relationships.
The manipulators can be extremely critical but there is no way to avoid their criticism. If constructive criticism takes the form of, "You do this part very well, this part is not so good so you could try changing this aspect to check if things are better" then it's safe to say that the abusers don't offer constructive criticism.
They are happy to point out your mistakes, errors, wrongdoings and slippages every time, Not only do they decide what a mistake or an error is, they also make you personally responsible for these things. They make you feel bad because it's you who made the mistake.
And, of course, they don't offer solutions. This means that you have to figure out what they want or how they want things done on your own. Which opens you up to being criticized all over again for not getting it right.
And even when you do figure out what they want, you still haven't got the right attitude, or you haven't done it how they would do it, or you haven't done it fast enough, etc. etc..
And, of course, no matter how much they criticize you, you are not allowed to criticize your partner. If you do, they get so angry you back down or they play the victim role so well that you end up apologizing to them!
The last of our 10 signs of coercive control is gaslighting. Taken from the 1938 play Gas Light and the movie Gaslight from 1944 (which is well worth a watch), the idea is that the manipulator makes the victim doubt their own perceptions, memories and even sanity. The manipulator uses lies, deception and misinformation to cause the victim to question themselves.
If the victim cannot depend on themselves to recognize truth from lies and reality from delusion who do they turn to? The manipulator, of course, leading the victim to be even more dependent on the manipulator.
Gaslighting can take the form of denying that certain events happened, convincing the victim that certain things did, indeed, happen, minimizing or ridiculing the victim's responses, setting up weird experiences for the victim, or leading the victim to think that the manipulator deliberately set up certain (unplanned) events to happen.
Here's an extra one... Repetition.
A study by Weaver et al. showed that if 3 people tell you something, you are very likely to believe it. However, if the same person tells you something 3 times, it has 90% of the effect of 3 different people telling you this piece of information.
How often do manipulators repeat things to you? Once a day? Three times a week? Now multiply that by weeks, months and even years. This repetition of the same ideas over and over again is used by manipulators to impose ideas and beliefs on you, even when they are not true! You are useless, you are worthless, the problems in the relationship are because of your character flaws, you are nothing without your partner, if only you were (blank) things would be better and on and on.
So whatever you can think of that they repeat a lot, (and it can be difficult initially to remember them) it's important to question these things. They are usually beliefs that benefit the abuser, that belittle you and/or create a power imbalance in the relationship. And they are not a fair representation of the real world.
Read about another 15 signs of coercive control...
You can read more about what is coercive control, things manipulative people say, dealing with a toxic family, how to leave a controlling relationship, and help for victims of psychopaths.
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