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.