Is Coercive Control the Same as Verbal Abuse?
There is a growing awareness around coercive control, as well as umbrella terms like verbal and emotional abuse. This is partly thanks to the UK law that was passed in 2015 (carrying a prison sentence of up to five years for perpetrators), and also due to celebrities speaking out as part of the #metoo and #timesup movements. Although no such progress has been made in the US in terms of legislation, this is still a step in the right direction; it's the start of our cultures taking lesser-known forms of domestic violence more seriously and recognizing the devastating effects of verbal abuse (as well as other types of abuse). So what exactly is coercive control, and how does it differ from other forms of abuse in a relationship?
What Is Coercive Control?
Coercive control describes a pattern of behaviors that enable one person to maintain control over another. Confusingly, the UK government's definition includes physical violence, threats, and verbal abuse, which makes coercive control difficult to define in relation to other forms of abuse.
Each person's experience of coercive control is different, but the most common characteristics are:
- Isolation: Intercepting messages and phone calls or dissuading the victim from seeing friends or family members.
- Threats: Threats of physical violence, including homicide or suicide, as well as threatening to expose sensitive information or photographs.
- Jealousy: Extreme jealousy (whether founded or unfounded) that includes threats and ultimatums.
- Control: Overall dominance that may extend to childcare or custody arrangements (he or she calls the shots), stalking, and telling the victim what to do and expecting the victim to "obey" a series of rules.
What Is Verbal Abuse, and How Is It Different from Coercive Control?
Verbal abuse (also known as psychological abuse or emotional abuse) is an umbrella term used to describe non-violent abusive behavior, usually at the hands of a romantic partner or close relative. It covers insults, minimizing, gaslighting, and a multitude of other sins.
The problem with the term "verbal abuse" is that it sounds like a perpetrator's behavior is solely verbal, thus minimizing the pain and confusion it causes. It brings to mind the old "sticks and stones" adage: a children's rhyme that fails to recognize the after-effects of verbal abuse.
Is It Helpful to Draw Distinctions Between Coercive Control and Verbal Abuse?
Can distinguishing coercive control from verbal abuse help us create boundaries in our relationships or identify early warning signs of abuse? Yes, in theory, but it doesn't often work out this way. Most abusive relationships contain elements of coercive control, verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, and, eventually, physical violence. What's more, the situation between a victim and a perpetrator is so complex that neither can be relied upon to interpret the signs.
I've talked about this before, but in Look What You Made Me Do (a brilliant memoir that came out after the coercive control law had passed), Helen's partner Franc is portrayed as extremely controlling. Franc stalks Helen, checks her messages and emails, tells her which foods to eat, and even chooses her outfits. He also isolates her from her children, tries to control her finances, and threatens to kill her as a "joke" (When Verbal Abuse Is Disguised As a Joke). All of this occurs so gradually that Helen doesn't realize what's happening until she's well and truly under Franc's thumb.
The book is presented as a real-life study of coercive control and verbal abuse, yet there are points in the story where Franc slams Helen against a wall, pulls her hair, and locks her in a room for hours on end. If that's not physical violence, I don't know what it is. The man was dangerous, whether you label his actions domestic abuse, coercive control or anything else.
Let's just call coercive control what it is. It's abuse. Let's not draw distinctions between emotional and physical violence, because the lines are blurred at best. It's all abuse, it's all destructive, and in almost every situation the victim is at risk.
Abuse is abuse and it has to stop.
Look What You Made Me Do: A Memoir, Helen Warmsley-Johnson, Macmillan, 2018.
Smith, E. (2018, April 17). Is Coercive Control the Same as Verbal Abuse?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/verbalabuseinrelationships/2018/04/is-coercive-control-the-same-as-verbal-abuse
Author: Emma-Marie Smith
Nancy, Your story is mine. No one believes me. I am the problem. Do they not remember us before? I lay here waiting for my own home to be foreclosed on because I don’t have any fight left. After 20 years together, this is my repayment. I spent Mother’s Day alone for the first time. My greatest loss is my only son. I won’t make it out alive because the pain is unbearable. Thank you for sharing.
We have to be strong, I have the "father" of my only child trying to destroy me emotionally and financially we not even married. I will get through this. i think the worst is financially, I am alone right now, but jobs are hard to find. I paid 300 dollars to have someone do my resume, and only got a job with the help of a friend.
Be strong, talk to your son, do whatever it takes to have a relationship with him, you are his mother, he needs to know you love him. Explain to him what you went through. but dont let your ex control your life, easier than done I know, but work on it every day.
Hello Nancy. I read the whole article and recognized myself in many places within it. I get it! The best thing to do is exactly what you're doing. Until we actually get out all of our story...there is no way we can fully function. This I believe. If you can find it...the most amazing way to pull yourself up is to join a Narative Therapy group., One where the group listens to your side of the story. You are acknowledge, believed 100% and therefore your emotions validated. God bless hyou...YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I heard and understood your story. Now that you are 'Free' make a pact with yourself to enjoy very waking moment of every day. God Bless from Cindy
Sorry about the 'typo'x
Thanks for your comment, Cindy. Narrative Therapy sounds so helpful. Validation and being listened to are so important when it comes to overcoming abuse. Thanks for sharing your wisdom :)
So very well explained and all the terms so many of us have come to know, but often too late to be able to help “save ourselves” from these abusers, narcissistis, psychopaths, sociopaths, etc. Many fall into all those terms and more like mine did. I’m grateful for having a fabulously caring counselor and psychiatrist years ago while still with my now ex for the last several years. They are the ones I credit with bringing my pain to light and to where I was not to blame for everything as he verbally pounded into my mind and soul for years. My mother also having many traits of maternal narcissism and controlling. I was so in the dark and in my own disbelief that the man I married and was with 16 years before separating then divorcing nearly two full years later, that I myself portrayed him as a loving caring person to those professionals. Sad how I think back and protected him while seeking help to fix myself after falling so deeply into major depression, anxiety, etc., that I was convinced it was me to blame for all our problems until my counselor and psychiatrist both started asking questions about him and the things I never talked about. The pieces all were falling into place and they were the scariest thing I’ve ever known to have no control over at that time. I’d lost a great job, took nearly three years to get approved for disability here in the US. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t function and all while being gaslighted for so many years, and hiding all of that from family and friends. The same family and friends I eventually lost due to the alienation, out of control jealousy and yes, the threats all made as “jokes” for years. Not one person believed me in the midst of our separation and eventual divorce, and post divorce, when he drug me back to court after it being final and I’d lost everything financially, etc,, but he wanted MORE. They have to win at everything no matter how petty. I was diagnosed with C-PTSD during the 18 month plus divorce process that he drug out and also blamed me for to the few loved ones I had. My grown daughter from a first marriage, he brainwashed against me and we’ve not spoken in 6 years. I’ve got three young granddaughters I’ve not seen in all that time. That was and is the most cruel thing anyone can set out to do for pure spite knowing it would do such damage to me that I’ve isolated myself from everyone and everything all this time. The biggest and most devastating loss I’ve known. I left social media, I stopped all contact with my elderly mother who was so ashamed and embarrassed and upset that I’d ruined HER life again with disappointment. (Her favorite word for me). I’m 57 and have spent my entire 50’s alone and building my walls higher and higher because even though we had no children together, (thank God), and I haven’t had any contact with him and no reaction whatsoever for the things he still attempts to get to me with, he’s still very much in the outside trying anything he can to get a glimps of what’s going on in my world. It sickens me. I try so hard not to be afraid of the past threats for years saying that there’d be a bullet with my name on it one day if he ever so much as saw me smiling somewhere., and that he’d be at work when it happened.. SICK. That threat was always said the same way and then of course it was only a joke. Near the end of us being together and after we finally split, I would call my daughter and tell her when I was walking my dog in case I didn’t come back to check on me or call someone to check on me. She thought I was ridiculous then and I suppose she still does. Then I quit calling her when she’d cut me out of her life completely due to lies I couldn’t even imagine the enormity of at the time. Then I spent several days in court with him over a matter of months and found out for myself just how huge the lies were in court each time.
I was abused and discriminated against by the female judge so badly that I can’t drive by the courthouse without a panic attack. It gets much worse from there but I can’t say it here. I’ve lived it over and over in nightmares and flashbacks for years now.
After losing the home I had bought before marrying this man after 24 years of ownership to foreclosure I was forced to move. That was hard after having taken so much pride in my home. It was hard finding a rental that accepted large dogs as I have a beautiful Golden Retriever that’s my reason for being here today. I’m already scared for the day I lose her as I’ll have then lost the last living thing that loves me. The pain I’m in now is still very real. No pill no amount of counseling has helped me get through this or try to live alongside of it. It’s simply not possible for me, yet I’m always trying to reach out to strangers or here as I often do. Like many here, that know that nobody gets it, but those of us who’ve suffered at the hands of these inhumane individuals, I can only hope things change for the better somehow someday and I know I am the one who must make those changes, but the grief I feel for so much loss is indescribable. How can one feel so empty, lost and abandoned, and still feel I’ve got so much love in my heart to give?? I would think all the cruelty and abuse would have made me into something else, something unfeeling and uncaring and unloving; and sometimes I pray so hard for that. Not to “feel” all this enormous pain that has not gotten easier with time, only worse. I love to laugh and often do at my own expense about myself, thinking that if anyone has a right to laugh at myself it’s me. The laughter helps ease the unbearable pain for awhile, and I glad I’m still able.
Thank you for this article and for validating what I’ve lived through and still very much trying to recover and heal from. It’s a daily fight and today it’s winning.
To anyone out there who sees and reads this and relates, please remember you’re not alone even if your own world may be void of people who love and support you, as mine is. I know there are so many of us who struggle and exist in silence, alone, and THAT makes me hurt and ache with you. You are not alone as long as there are places like this at The Healthy Place, who do care, as much as I do about all of you.
To anyone who may read this, thankYOU, and know that I care, because I know what it’s like to not be cared for or loved. You are loved and you are enough. Don’t let anyone else define you when you’re the only one you may have at the beginning and end of each day, as I am. I do care and I do want each and every one of us to heal and survive and thrive again.
((((Hugs)))) to anyone who needs one or many. I know I do ???
I’ve rambled on long enough. I needed to, and if what I’ve shared makes just one person feel not so alone, I’m glad and grateful for that, as I think that’s likely the best medicine ever; knowing you may have helped one hurting soul and made a difference in someone’s life is the most rewarding feeling I can think of ...... ???
Thank you so much for your comment, Nancy. You're absolutely right -- it is so helpful to talk about our experiences and help each other heal. I'm so glad you found the article helpful. Keep spreading the love!