15 Signs Of Coercive Control
- Ignore At Your Peril

Here are another 15 signs of coercive control, again in no particular order. If you recognize some or all of these things in your relationship, you really need to do something about it. Every day you are in such a relationship is another day that is stolen away from you.


Coercive Control 101 - Isolation

The first of the 15 signs of coercive control is that of isolation from friends and family. The abuser and controller wants to be your main source of information and the best way to do that is to get rid of all your other sources of information. The abuser wants you to follow along and believe only them, whether it's in an controlling intimate relationship, a friendship or a destructive cult.

The isolation is often a step by step process, planting idea after idea in your head until you believe it's in your best interests to stay away from your family, or ignore the warnings of your friends. The manipulator will tell you that your family don't want you to be happy, they don't want you to make your own decisions, they want to keep you dependent, they don't understand your relationship and so on. They may directly criticize your family members or friends. They make you uncomfortable for spending time with them. They may shame you for being a bad judge of character for having chosen such friends. They will twist and distort information about your family and friends to change how you think of them. When you have guests over to your house, the manipulator makes things so unpleasant that the guests decide not to return to your house. (Yes, this is a deliberate tactic!)

A basic rule in terms of cults and abusive relationships is never, never, never ignore warnings about new partners or new groups from family and friends... ever!! If you ignore the people who actually love you and care about you and give more credence to the new person who has breezed into your life, you are asking for trouble. Did I mention? Don't do it!!!


Attack identity

All the criticism and judgment that is leveled at you is directed at your identity, your sense of who you are. Even if they are referencing something you said or did, they make you feel bad about who you are.

Instead of, "that was a pathetic thing to do," it's, "you are pathetic for doing that."

Rather than, "that was a mistake," it's "what kind of person are you to make such a mistake!" And not a question mark, either. It's very much a statement about how they consider you.

What happens is that they make you personally responsible for errors, they make you feel bad for being the person you are. In order to patch things up you then feel that you need to change or adapt yourself in order to regain their approval. In this way you make small changes in the way you think or make decisions and in the way you act. Over time, all these little things add up to make a change in your personality. You can read more about how they impose a false personality or pseudopersonality here with more details in this article about narcissistic boyfriends.


Lies, lies and more lies

Number 3 of our 15 signs of coercive control is deception. If you are in a coercive control relationship, then you are being subjected to an avalanche of lies. These are part and parcel of the reality that the manipulator is creating for you.

Some victims recognize the lies, some suspect lies and others may be years in the relationship without seeing the lies.

There will be outright lies, lies of omission when they deliberately hold information back and lies where they distort things to make the information more 'acceptable'. Examples of the latter are, "I did this for the good of the relationship," "I acted that way because I was abused as a child," and "I was only reacting to what you did to me."

If you catch these types out in a lie, they will typically tell more lies to make the new information fit into their story.

When they apologize, or rather, if they apologize, that's a lie because they will be doing the very same behavior a few hours later.

The abusers using coercive control are often psychopaths and narcissists, and these people are practiced and professional liars.


Multiple arguments over the same thing

This is one of the 15 signs of coercive control that is often overlooked. Have you noticed that you seem to have the same arguments over and over with your partner? You may think it's because they don't get what you want, you are not able to communicate your thoughts well enough or they don't see the issue as a problem or you just can't seem to get through to them.

The fact is that they know exactly what you are on about, they just don't care! They understand perfectly (they are not stupid, right?!) but they are not going to give you what you want. They take the opportunity to just reiterate their own ideas and beliefs and they are happy to keep it up until you start to accept their side or give up asking for what you want.

This is also called 'indoctrination'.


Financial control

Many abusers will keep tight control of the purse strings as a way to keep their victims dependent. This occurs in many ways:

  • You are made to give up your job so you don't have your own income
  • Your partner has access to your money, but you don't have access to theirs.
  • Your partner actually spends your money but you don't know how much they earn
  • There is a joint account with your partner watching every move.
  • You are given cash for individual purchases and you have to provide receipts and change
  • You bought lots of expensive gifts initially and there was no reciprocity.
  • Your money goes directly to your partner and you have no idea how it is spent
  • Your money goes on the regular bills and their money goes on 'other stuff'.
  • You find that you have little left for extras each month but somehow your partner can buy anything they want.
  • You bought a house and they managed to get their name on the deeds
  • Your money/savings were spent at the start of the relationship, on holidays, expensive activities, the wedding, often before you realized your partner was not as well off as they made out.
  • You have lent money to your partner and there is always some excuse why they cannot pay it back right now.
  • When your partner assumed control of the finances it was presented to you in a way that seemed reasonable and you felt that you could not really object.

This is a very significant aspect in a controlling relationship and when there is a lot of financial control, it makes it very difficult for a victim to leave.


Report thoughts, feelings and actions

The sixth of our 15 signs of coercive control has to do with information being power. The more information your partner has about you, the more they can exert control. With this in mind, from the very start of the relationship they start gathering information about you. They will ask personal question about all sorts of things and because things seem so great, it's easy to give away a lot of information to the wonderful person in front of you that you love and trust. Over time, however, this turns into having to reveal things about where you were, what you were doing, who you were with, what was discussed, and so on.

Some manipulators get to the point where they have so much control that they don't need such details any more, but they do have their way of getting information when they want it. For example, they can guilt you into it, claiming that you don't include them in decisions any longer or that they feel excluded and are upset by this. Naturally, you feel obliged to spill the beans. Or they may call you a liar. Because nobody wants to be thought of as a liar, you reveal whatever information you may have been keeping to yourself (you were silent in the situation not to deliberately lie but actually to protect yourself!)

You may be allowed to know little or nothing about their activities. And any information you have could be outright lies!


No forgiveness

One of the 'tricks' of the abusers is for them to decide what a mistake, sin, error or slippage is. They basically decide when you have done something wrong.

Step two is to never forgive you for these things. Instead, the coercive controllers save up these events and trot them out on a regular basis to make you feel bad about them all over again. They will often do this so frequently that you come to believe that you are defective or flawed in many ways and they will hold it against you because they themselves (supposedly!) have these particular issues under control.

The flip side of this, of course, is that you are expected to forgive them anything and everything over and over again. They always have some excuse or justification and you have to just accept them.



Number 8 in our 15 signs of coercive control is that idea that manipulators often have things that they say or do that shuts down your thinking. It may be particular to you or it may be something that they use with everyone that they have realized makes it difficult for people to continue their challenge or complaint.

Some examples:

  • Are you not happy with what I provide in the relationship?
  • I am doing this for your own good (or the good of the relationship).
  • The reason things are not good is that you don't know how to be in a relationship and look, your previous marriage failed!
  • The problem here is you, YOU are the problem.
  • If this continues, I want a divorce.
  • You are doing that thing again
  • You have the wrong expectation here
  • You are not very good at this, are you?

Said with a particular tone or in a particular situation, the effect of these phrases is to upset the listener and often to put them in a double bind where it's difficult for the listener to think and recognize what is being done to them. The result is for the listener to back down and accept the manipulator's argument.



Fear is a huge weapon in the manipulator's arsenal.

These types have an ability to create so much fear in their victims that often the victim cannot even tell you what exactly they are afraid of any more. They just know that if they don’t do and say things a certain way, 'things will be very bad'.

There is fear of the manipulator's temper, fear of losing the manipulator (because of the dependency created), fear of disapproval, fear of making one's own decisions, fear of reprisals, fear of upsetting the abuser, and so on.



Along with fear is the huge amount of guilt created by the manipulators. There is no limit to the things that the manipulators can make their victims feel guilty about.

Your thoughts, decisions, feelings, actions, family, likes, dislikes, fears, hobbies, sports, work, your past and your friends all becomes targets for the manipulator in your life to use to make you feel guilty.

It is common knowledge that fear and guilt are fundamental to being able to control people, individually or in groups, and the coercive controllers know this too.

It is often not until the victim has left the abusive situation and has had some time away that he or she can begin to realize just how much fear and guilt they were living under while with their abuser.


Emotional roller-coaster

Another of our 15 signs of coercive control is that you find yourself on an emotional roller-coaster. The manipulator can make you feel great and they can make you feel miserable. It may seem as if they have buttons that they press to make you happy, sad, angry, miserable and a whole host of other emotions and they have no trouble pushing any of the buttons at any time.

Things can be so chaotic and dramatic that when the relationship ends, people feel bored, as if something is missing. They are so accustomed to the ongoing ups and downs of their daily lives that it feels abnormal when it actually stops.



An important part of coercive control are the threats. The most powerful and insidious one is the threat of leaving.

The manipulators not only make their victims dependent on them, they also use this against them. Because the victims are dependent on the abuser, often to the point of doubting their ability to manage alone without the abuser, the threat of leaving is a major deal for the victim. When the abuser talks about leaving, it typically creates such bad feelings in the victim that they will do whatever the abuser wants in order to keep the relationship intact.

This often gets to the point where even if the victim has an argument with the manipulator they feel that the whole relationship is on the line. They have to tread carefully so as not to upset the manipulator too much in case they actually do call off the relationship.

In this case, the bark is not actually worse than the bite, because if the relationship does break up, the dependency in the victim can cause such distress that the most important thing becomes to get back with the abuser. It seems to the victim like it's the only thing that will stop the ongoing awfulness they experience without the manipulator. This is why victims of psychological abuse (including battered wives) end up going back to their abuser time and again, the on-off relationship for a period before the victim finally manages to pull away for good.


Turn people against you

Not happy to isolate their victims, some will use smear campaigns to deliberately ruin their victim's lives. They will happily lie about you, spread rumors and destroy your reputation as a way to isolate and control you.

In divorce situations this can be very marked where the abuser will tell a particular story to friends and neighbors in order to minimize the support the victim has.

The manipulators can be particularly devious here in that they pretend to be worried about their ex, telling the neighbors that they are concerned about their spouse's mental health, worried that they are not managing and making poor decisions and so on. This creates a particular impression in the neighbors and friends so that when the victim does show up in poor emotional states, it plays into the false story that the manipulator has created and the neighbors side with the manipulator who is now the 'poor person having to deal with all that'.

They may also destroy your reputation at work and in your own family, with many victims of coercive control being left with their own family siding with the abuser.


In normal healthy relationships, there are little or no insults used. It's not what you do to someone you love. And when it does happen in the midst of an argument, people will typically apologize afterwards.

Not so in relationships where there is coercive control. In fact, it's often the opposite where the insults are raining down on a regular basis. The result of the insults here are for the victim to feel bad enough about who they are (regardless of what the insult was about) that they are driven to change themselves to try and stop the insults. Or more precisely, to try and earn praise from the manipulator. I know this sounds counterintuitive but this is what happens in controlling relationships.

And it doesn't matter what the manipulator is criticizing and insulting, whether it is a mistake, a behavior or an idea, the message that the victim receives is that they are bad, they are defective in some way and there is something inherently wrong with who they are. This is the first step in coercive control, destroying the person's real personality.


The victim role

Many manipulators play the victim role incredibly well. They will twist and distort information to make out that they have been hard done by and are incredibly upset as a way to elicit pity from those around them. They realize that if they can elicit pity they are well on their way to manipulating that person.

This victim role can start with a past history of childhood trauma and abuse, of having been adopted, or having a previous relationship that was abusive or in which they are cheated upon.

It continues with pretending to be upset with how they are treated at work, at home and in general. And if anyone challenges them or tries to unmask them publicly, they will pretend that there is a plot against them, they are being unfairly targeted or they will deflect attention away from the real reason they are being attacked.

Remember that many people who use coercive control are psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists and this has important ramifications. Not having emotions means that they never feel shame, remorse, guilt or embarrassment, which makes them great actors and very plausible liars. It can be difficult for those who don’t understand these types to recognize that they are being lied to and manipulated.


15 signs of coercive control - bonus

  • Everyone agrees with me.
  • You always leave me out of things.
  • No one else does it your way.
  • I'm right, you're wrong.
  • You are never allowed to make unilateral decisions.
  • It's best if I control (all) the finances.
  • I have never done that.
  • I do everything I do because I am always thinking of our relationship.

All these phrases are examples of black and white thinking. While sometimes it provides useful shortcuts (Always wear your seatbelt in the car, never drive through a red light) the amount of black and white thinking in coercive relationships is dangerous. It is used to set rules for the victim, it controls the victim's thinking and decision making and it prevents the victim from seeing the reality of the abusive situation.

10 more signs of coercive control

Detailed explanation of how coercive control works


15 signs of coercive control - more reading

Learn more about warning signs of abusive relationships, things manipulative people say, how to leave an abusive relationship and healing from emotional abuse..

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