What is Coercive Control?

What is Coercive Control? | Narcissistic Abuse Rehab

COERCIVE CONTROL is a pattern of acts used to secure emotional, psychological, and financial dominance over a targeted individual. It is also referred to as “intimate terrorism.”

The term was Coercive Control was coined by Dr. Evan Stark of Rutgers University to describe the hidden, invisible psychological violence many survivors of domestic violence experience in toxic relationships. It is a component of narcissistic abuse.

Coercive control  is a kind of emotional terrorism that aims to subjugate a targeted person and give the abuser total control.

Dr. Stark’s groundbreaking work influenced the criminalization of this invisible form of violence  in England and Wales in Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015.  

Here is the British Government’s definition:

  • Coercive behavior is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
  • Controlling behavior is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behavior.

Coercive Control was criminalized in Ireland and Scotland in 2019. Efforts are also being made in Australia and in the US an historic Coercive Control Bill is being sponsored by State Senator Kevin S. Parker in New York. 

Coercive control in the context of narcissistic abuse

Coercive Control is a narcissist’s weapon of choice. After half a century of research, efforts are being made to put a framework in place to protect survivors from this insidious kind of psycho-emotional abuse.

Some of the basis for Dr. Stark’s work can be found in Albert Biederman’s Chart of Coercion and Mary Romero’s comparative study of domestic abuse survivors and prisoners of war.   The findings in these two reports were based on numerous studies of how stress can be used to break down the will of human beings.

Albert Biedermann's Chart of Coercion

For example, Chinese Communists used this kind of coercion in many contexts at universities, prisons, businesses, with laborer and peasants alike. They called  it zu-hsiang kai-tsao or “thought reform”.

Signs of Coercive Control

Here are the indicators of coercive and controlling behavior:

  1. Isolation – The abuser will keep you away from family and friends. 
  2. Monitoring your time – They abuser will want to know where you are, where you are going and what you are doing at all times
  3. Deprivation of Basic Needs: The abuser will restrict your access to healthcare and/or food.
  4. Monitoring Communication: Your abuser may use spyware to track your online communication tools.
  5. Taking control of your daily life: They may  control where you can go, who you can see, what you wear and what you eat.
  6. Put-Downs: your abuser may repeatedly tell you that you’re worthless or useless. They may call you degrading names or make comments about your appearance, your body, your intelligence, etc.
  7. Rules and Regulations: the abuser will create a set of ever changing rules which they enforce by humiliating, degrading or dehumanizing you.
  8. Financial abuse: the abuser will control your finances, making sure you have little access to money and making you dependent on them.
  9. Threats: an abuser may threaten to to hurt or kill; to take away your child; to reveal publish private information such as intimate photos or revealations about your sexuality.
  10. Criminal damage: the abuser may destroy your personal property. For example, they may destroy your cell phone or an article of your clothing.
  11. Assault or rape: the abuser may physically abuse you or violate you sexually.
  12. Obstruction of Employment: the abuser may stop you from working and earning your own money.
Coercive Control Evan Stark

The impact of this sort of abuse is long lasting. Coercive and controlling abuse harms the survivor’s sense of identity, safety, autonomy and their attachments to other people. 

It’s so subtle that many times survivors don’t realize what’s happening to them. They often compare it to the fable of the Boiling Frog. In their isolation, it can be difficult for them to have any perspective.

Daniel Quinn, author of ‘The Story of B’ explains, “If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.”

It’s important to remember that narcissism is a trait that exists on a spectrum. It ranges from healthy narcissism to full on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). These are two very different things. The further along the spectrum of narcissism an individual is, the more like they are to use coercive and controlling behavior to dominate others.

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