What Is Coercive Control?
A Comprehensive Guide

What is coercive control? We can think of it as a series of influence techniques, applied over time, with the express purpose of controlling the victim's thinking, emotions and behaviors for the benefit of the controller. It changes the victim's identity, takes away their freedom and independence and the victim's life becomes organized around the desires and needs of the controller.

Coercive control occurs in cults but also in work situations, social situations and in families and intimate, romantic relationships. The presence of coercive control in any situation changes the nature of the relationship. It is no longer a normal, healthy parent child thing, or a boyfriend girlfriend situation. Coercive control is used to manipulate and dominate in a relationship. The relationship has been turned into a situation where there is a power imbalance and the victim is controlled by the manipulator. The victim is exploited in all sorts of ways by the manipulator.

Coercive control is typically not recognized by the victim for reasons that we will see later. The victims are led to believe that the situation they are in is acceptable. It may be that friends and family tell them that their partner/friend etc. is controlling or abusive but the victim is unable to recognize it.

So in order to answer the question what is coercive control. let's have a look at the various aspects of our description.

What is coercive control? The techniques

The influence techniques used in coercive control situation are not special or hidden or known only to a few. They are normal influence processes used in day to day living but they are used with a particular intention in mind, which, as we have said, is to control.

A major technique here is that of making friends. It is so commonly used, but not usually thought of as a coercive control technique, that it is worth looking at this in some detail. Nobody goes out looking for an abusive relationship. The victim thinks that they are getting into a relationship with someone that they like, that they have things in common with and who makes them feel good. In fact, many people in abusive relationships thought that they had met Mr. Right or Miss Perfect at the start of their relationship. They fell head over heels in love very quickly. As it turns out, this is a significant warning sign of an abnormal relationship, the idea being that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

The manipulators know that making friends is a very useful thing to do. It's a great first step. People like and trust their friends, thy give importance to what they say, they do nice things for their friends and they return favors. They compromise and even put themselves out for their friends.

The initial impression we form of someone when we first meet them tends to stick and is often difficult to change later. The manipulators will often create a very strong, a stronger than normal, in fact, impression in their victims. This gets the victim to commit to the relationship very quickly. You can read more about how manipulators use this trick here.

The manipulators will often size up the victim's wants and needs and present the victim with their ideal partner. They put on an act, a show, to fool the target into thinking that they have found a great match as a way to capture the victim. There are more details in this article on narcissistic wives about the dynamics of such a situation.

Manipulators also take advantage of reciprocity, the idea that if I do you a favor, you owe me one. They will do something for you, tell you they have done you a favor (even though you haven't asked for anything) and they build a sense of obligation in you. Or they do one thing for you and expect to be paid back for ever more.

Humiliation, belittling, threats, blackmail, shaming, criticism, insults and name calling come later in the relationship when the manipulator knows they have already captured the victim. These all create fear and guilt in the victim that further shifts the power to the controller. You can read examples of what kind of things are said and done in signs of verbal abuse and things manipulative people say.

A significant technique that the abusers often use is to criticize you rather than your behavior or your opinions. Instead of 'that was a stupid thing to do', it's 'you are stupid for doing that'. This is one of the ways in which they destroy your personality and your self esteem.

 

What is coercive control? Repetition

It's important to keep in mind that coercive control is done over time with typically many influence techniques in play. A girlfriend making a snarky comment about her boyfriend's new shirt or a parent who shouts at a child occasionally does not constitute coercive control.

It is the repetition of the insults, criticism and humiliation that does the damage. Studies have shown that if three people tell you something, you are very likely to believe it. And if one person tells you the same thing three times, it has about 90% of the same effect as three people telling it to you. This is very significant. How often has the abuser called you a certain name? Or told you that you were stupid? Or useless? Or worthless? Hearing these things repeated over time has a profound effect on a person's thinking, their perceptions and their sense of self.

 

What is coercive control? Understanding the controllers

There may be various reasons for a person wanting to control others but here I want to focus on one particular group. Why? Because some studies have shown that 80% of abusers who were court ordered into therapy fit into this particular category. These are people with a personality disorder, either narcissists or psychopaths or sociopaths.

People typically have some idea of what a psychopath or a narcissist is and this idea is often not accurate.

A psychopath is someone who has no conscience and a huge sense of entitlement. They have no conscience because they do not have emotions. There are people who do not experience, guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, love or remorse. This means that they cannot put themselves in someone else's shoes, they have no empathy for other people's hurt or suffering. In practical terms, they never feel bad for anything they do. They can abuse, take advantage of, hurt and even destroy others and they don’t get upset about it. This allows the likes of psychopathic serial killers to do that they do without being concerned for their victims.

Most people do not even know that there are some who do not have emotions. It is often explained away by saying that such people have difficulty expressing their emotions, or that they love their family in their own way and such things. However, these justifications are used because most people don't even consider that someone may not actually have emotions.

While I am not going to go into too much detail about psychopaths and narcissists in this article, (you can read more here about psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists) its important to know if you are dealing with one because it changes things in a considerable way. Dealing with someone who is very jealous, for example, is not the same thing as dealing with a psychopath.

If your abuser is a psychopath or a narcissist there are certain things to keep in mind at all times.

  • Their relationships are based on coercion, domination and exploitation.
  • They are deliberately doing this.
  • They know what they are doing.
  • They are not going to change, no matter how many chances you give them and irrespective of how convincing they may seem when they make such promises.
  • That sense of entitlement means that they believe they are superior, they are always right and they should have whatever they want.
  • They will do whatever they like to get what they want
  • They are professional and practiced liars
  • You cannot negotiate with them.

I think it's obvious that with these things in place with psychopaths or narcissists, it's important to know if you are dealing with such a person.

 

What is coercive control? Personality change

Coercive control is not a new idea. It is also known as mind control, undue influence, thought control, mental control, thought reform and brain washing, In fact, in the early 1950s the psychologist Edgar Schein coined the term coercive persuasion. He was using it to describe what had happened to prisoners of war during the Korean war. These prisoners had undergone a personality change as a result of the treatment in the hands of their captors and even when they were released, this new personality with it's new beliefs and ways of thinking persisted because of the way it was installed.

People who are subjected to coercive control undergo a personality change. When friends and family say that they hardly know the person any more, that they have lost their sense of humor, they seem quite, introverted, different, difficult to communicate with, it's the new personality that they are referencing.

The abuser basically breaks down the person's real personality, makes changes and freezes these changes in place.

All the insults, criticism and humiliation make the victim feel bad about themselves. So bad, in fact, that they are willing to try and change themselves to be more pleasing to the controller.

Any 'bad' behavior on the part of the victim is punished. Any 'good' behavior is rewarded, although the rewards typically get less and less over time. The control is heightened here because the abuser decides what is good and bad behavior. Things that might not be bad in normal healthy relationships, such as having a password on a phone, or disagreeing, will be labeled as bad in a relationship where there is coercive control and the victim is punished for it.

The combination of rewards and punishments actually increases the dependency in such situations because the victim ends up changing their behavior to try and avoid criticism while earning compliments. The victim wants the approval of the abuser and will go to great lengths to get it. I know this sounds counter intuitive to anyone who has never been in such an environment, but this is what it's like for victims.

You can read more specific details about how the personality is changed in these articles about narcissistic boyfriends and husbands.

There are important aspects to this new personality, or pseudopersonality, as Edgar Schein called it. The pseudopersonality is programmed to trust and believe the abuser, to take care of the abuser and to be completely dependent on the abuser. This dependency is created in various ways.

The abuser basically creates the pseudopersonality to be the kind of person that he or she wants around them. Think servant, or slave. The pseudopersonality is programmed to be submissive and to take the abuser into consideration whenever deciding anything. The pseudopersonality uses the ideas and beliefs of the abuser as the master program with which to live their lives. This applies in cults, in abusive relationships and in toxic families.

A significant feature of the pseudopersonality is that the ability to think and reason is affected in various ways because of the abuse. This means that the pseudopersonality does not consider the treatment of the controller as abusive. Nor does it see all the contradictions in what the abuser says and does. This is what makes it difficult to see the warning signs of abusive relationships when you are actually in such a relationship. The knock-on effect of this is that it is difficult to leave the situation.

 

What is coercive control? Devastating and destructive

Looking into what is coercive control we can see that it is used to dominate and exploit the victims. It is used for the benefit of the controller and not for the benefit of the victim, although the abuser will often claim (and the victim often believes) that it is done for the victim's well being.

The victim is changed at their very core, their sense of self is destroyed, their beliefs and ideas about themselves are distorted (not in a good way!), their world view becomes aligned with that of the abuser and their decision making is altered radically. The victim is typically on an emotional roller-coaster because of what the abuser is doing to them. Even thought the psychopaths don't have emotions themselves, they are often quite adept at manipulating the emotions of others. With all these things being manipulated, the victim's behavior is, of course, changed in many ways, too.

There is no way to live with or tolerate this kind of abuse, or 'manage' the situation or the abuser. The only way to stop the abuse is to leave, to separate from the abuser.

When you believe that your partner loves you, and you have built a life around this idea, it's very difficult later on to accept that this person that you love, and you believe loves you, is actually abusing you. The whole of your reality is challenged and it takes time to reorganize your beliefs and your thinking.

Recovering from such abuse is a matter of undoing the pseudopersonality and the effects of the control in order to start making your own decisions and living your own life. This is a complicated situation and is often best done with the help of a professional.

 

What is coercive control? More reading...

You can read more here about mind control, the signs of emotional abuse, how to recognize a psychopath, narcissistic abuse recovery and how to divorce a sociopath.

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