What is Coercive Control? Evidence-based Interventions for Victims

by Dr. Anchal Goyal Edited by Tabitha M. Chapman, AMFT

Coercive Control as a Type of Intimate Partner Violence

The term Coercive control refers to a systematic pattern of behavior that establishes dominance over another person through intimidation, isolation, threats of violence or terror-inducing violence.

Coercive control refers to a systematic pattern of behavior that establishes dominance over another person through intimidation, isolation, and terror-inducing violence or threats of violence (Dichter, Thomas, Crits-Christoph, Ogden, & Rhodes, 2018). Studies show that spousal coercive control is more common than emotional, physical, or sexual violence (Kanougiya, Sivakami, & Rai, 2021). Individuals experiencing this type of abuse are often isolated from social support and contacts. Consequently, this contributes to low self-esteem, self-efficacy, and poor physical and mental health (Kanougiya et al., 2021). Additionally, the abuser can instill fear even in the absence of physical violence and can continue even after the relationship ends (Crossman, Hardesty, & Raffaelli, 2016). Research indicates that individuals experiencing this are usually entrapped within the relationship due to financial, logistical, social, or emotional barriers to escaping
(Dichter et al., 2018).

Individuals who experience coercive control, are often isolated from social support by their partner.

Reports show that COVID-19 is also used as a coercive mechanism whereby perpetrators exert further control in an abusive relationship, specifically in the use of containment, fear, and threat of contagion as a mechanism of abuse (Usher, Bhullar, Durkin, Gyamfi, & Jackson, 2020).

The pandemic was used as a way for perpetrators to further isolate their victims, or use Covid-19 as leverage in coercive control tactics. (Image by Angie Spratt).

Further, current high attrition rates, sentencing data, and low conviction rates in cases of domestic violence are evidence that our system does not adequately recognize the experience of coercive and controlling behavior (Donovan and Barnes, 2019). Thus, robust measures are required to deal with perpetrators and to prevent them from continue imposing coercive control on survivors.

The pandemic was used as a way for perpetrators to further isolate their victims, or use Covid-19 as leverage in coercive control tactics.

Image by Angie Spratt

Strategies for Change

Given the potential lethality of the coercive and controlling behavior, the following recommendations are important to ensure the safety of survivors:

Recognizing Coercive Control: The absence of a clear understanding of the importance of coercive control when making judgments about victims and perpetrators has serious implications for the efficacy of current approaches to domestic abuse (Robinson, Myhill, & Wire, 2018). Therefore, frontline workers (for example, social workers, family court judges, domestic abuse practitioners, or police officers) need to be knowledgeable about the complexity of this type of abuse and feel empowered to recognize coercion. They feel confident that the policing and justice system will utilize their power in effectively punishing offenders (Brennan, Burton, Gormally, & O’Leary, 2019). Moreover, recognition in the initial state might work as a buffering factor to prevent physical, sexual, and emotional domestic violence (Kanougiya et al., 2021). This is also important to help coercive control survivors to realize their rights to secure living environments and abuse-free lives (Katz, Nikupeteri, &
Laitinen, 2020).

Empowerment-based training to reduce the risk for victimization: These approaches provide education and skills training to strengthen the ability of survivors to assess risk for coercive control violence in relationships and situations and empower them to act (Berke & DeFour, 2021). Similarly, evidence shows that victims of coercive control may be able to address and overcome potential emotional and physical barriers that may inhibit actions to reduce the risk for coercive control victimization, such as fear, or physical size and strength (Berke & DeFour, 2021).

Image by Claudia Wolffe

In addition to this, empowerment-based self-defense (ESD) training has other benefits for survivors, including increased self-confidence, greater freedom of movement and action, improved relationships, and less self-silencing (Hollander & Cunningham, 2020).

Support Survivors to Lessen Harms: It is noted that there are socioeconomic barriers that escalate the
risk for victims of coercive control. Therefore, there are programs that provide opportunities to empower and support survivors through education, employment, income supports, and providing other opportunities (e.g., for leadership, and civic participation) are important for reducing risk for victims of coercive control (Sullivan, 2018). Provision of these types of supports to ensure partners can remain in and contribute substantially to the workforce not only improves their economic conditions and promotes family stability, but also decreases gender inequality, which has been linked to risk for coercive control (Niolon et al., 2017). Income-generating options such as microfinance provide loans and savings opportunities to low-income households to improve the financial and social status of women and families (Leite et al, 2019).

Educational Programs for perpetrators: Firstly, a recommendation for the Family Violence Education Program is associated with a reduction in coercive control behavior among high-risk perpetrators. Studies indicate that cognitive interventions focused on educating such perpetrators on the relationship may have an effective impact on the violence (Stansfield, & Williams, 2021). As a result, use of evidence-based therapeutic approaches are determined. These approaches include a range of evidence-based psychological interventions that are conducted in therapeutic settings by licensed providers.

Approaches include a range of evidence-
based psychological interventions that are conducted in therapeutic settings by licensed
providers. (Image by Mapbox).

Secondly, psychosocial interventions help address depression, fear and anxiety, problems adjusting to school, work, or daily life, and other symptoms of distress associated with experiencing coercive control (Keynejad, Hanlon, & Howard, 2020). Moreover, these types of interventions are associated with improved mental health and long-term positive impact for victims of coercive control (Ogbe, Harmon, Van den Bergh, & Degomme, 2020). For example, Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) which is an evidence-based psychological treatment that addresses post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among victims of trauma using a trauma-specific adaptation of cognitive-behavioral therapy (Sloan, Marx, Lee, & Resick, 2018).

Conclusion and Research Implications

Coercive control is a strong predictor for other forms of intimate partner violence (IPV) and limits victims’ day-to-day opportunities and social support, therefore contributing to low self-esteem, self-efficacy, and poor mental health. Moreover, intervention in the initial state of coercive control might work as a buffering factor to prevent physical, sexual, and emotional IPV. Not in totality, but each coercive control act needs necessary attention at intervention and prevention programs to provide multiple benefits, such as mitigating coercive control, preventing IPV, and reducing poor mental health outcomes for survivors. The inclusion of information on coercive control and the continued evaluation of such programs is important in terms of future research. Finally, as noted above, research is needed to further examine the construct and context of coercive control in studies of intimate partner violence.


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