How to spot a controlling partner and escape emotional abuse.
Are you suspicious that your partner might be trying to control you? If you have even the smallest inkling that something is amiss in your relationship and you don’t feel emotionally or physically secure, the chances are that you are right. Domestic violence is considerably more complex than it seems on the surface and not all abuse is physical.
If your partner mistreats you emotionally or psychologically but never lays a finger on you, the abuse can be harder to spot, and could easily leave you second guessing yourself, but is no less harrowing for the victim. Coercive control is often at the heart of domestic violence, but as it is such an insidious form of abuse how can you tell if your partner is controlling you, and what can you do to stop the cycle?
We spoke to Chartered Psychologist Dr Vanessa Moulton and Narcissistic Abuse Expert and Founder of My Trauma Therapy Emma Davey about the common signs of coercive control and how to escape from a toxic relationship:
What is coercive control?
Most people understand what constitutes domestic violence, but abuse comes in a number of guises. Coercive control is a form of psychological abuse whereby the perpetrator carries out a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviours within a relationship and exerts power over a victim, often through intimidation or humiliation, which tends to be more subtle and harder to spot.
‘Coercive control is effectively controlling behaviour; either a one-off act or a pattern of acts by an abuser which takes away another person’s freedom and ability to have a positive sense of self and worth,’ explains Moulton. ‘This results in the victim feeling more dependent on the abuser, which then creates an on-going cycle of controlling abuse.’
In this way, coercive control creates an invisible chain which further oppresses the victim. According to Women’s Aid coercive control works to limit a person’s human rights by depriving them of their liberty and reducing their ability for action, similar to being taken hostage. But how do you spot coercive control?
Coercive control checklist
If you’re constantly second guessing yourself and not sure if your fears are real or imagined, don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you’re in a toxic relationship it can be difficult to tell if it’s happening to you, especially because the nature of coercive control enforces self-doubt.
We’ve outlined the following 14 signs that your partner is using abusive techniques to try and control you. If even one of these sounds familiar, it could be time to re-evaluate your relationship and consider an exit strategy:
1.Isolating you from friends and family
The first step to gaining control is divide and conquer, so abusers will often attempt to isolate you from friends, family or any type of support system in order to achieve total power. If your partner starts to say negative things about your family, this is the first red flag.
‘An abuser will often start making things difficult between you and your family or friends,’ says Davey. ‘They start to directly make comments about them and create an issue around seeing them. Abusers always like to act the victim, so they will insinuate that it’s your friends and family who are the ones who have a problem with them and then try to make you feel like you need to stand up for them and be on their side.’
But why? ‘The reason for this is because the abuser wants their victim alone; they don’t want outsiders’ opinions on your relationship, as an outsider is a threat and may have more of an influence on them.’
‘It’s very much like when a lion goes hunting – when they have segregated one animal from their herd, it’s a lot easier to go in for the kill as they are vulnerable, alone and scared,’ adds Davey. ‘The abuser wants to confuse the victim into believing everyone is against them and so the victim then makes the decision themselves that they don’t want anything to do with family or friends, all to make their abuser happy.’
- Closely monitoring your activity
Checking your phone or peeking at your social media sounds innocent enough, but if your partner starts to closely monitor your daily activity, something as innocent as phone checking can quickly spiral into complete coercive control.
‘Abusers like to be in control at all times and they do this by tracking the victim’s activity,’ says Davey. ‘They will monitor where you’re going, who you’re going out with, for how long, your social media activity and who you’re talking to on your phone. In extreme circumstances they might even install cameras in the house and put tracking devices on your car.’
Abusers do this to isolate you and to ensure that you have nobody else in your life apart from them. ‘It makes you feel intimated and often on edge, resulting in you not wanting to do and see anyone in case it causes a problem with the abuser,’ explains Davey.
- Denying your freedom
When an abuser starts controlling you by denying your freedom, they are essentially trying to break your identity. ‘You no longer see and do the things you used to do which made you happy,’ says Davey. ‘They want your world to become very small so that they become very big and powerful.’
But why would a so-called loving partner behave in this way? ‘An abuser thrives off power and control as it makes them feel good, and the more control they have over you the better,’ says Davey.
- Gaslighting you
Have you started to second guess yourself? Gaslighting is a very subtle but insidious form of domestic abuse and manipulation that causes a victim to question their own feelings, judgements and even their sanity.
‘Gaslighting is one of the most dangerous forms of emotional abuse,’ explains Davey. ‘An abuser will use many gaslighting techniques to make the victim feel like it’s all their fault – like they are the ones who are crazy. The abuser convinces the victim that they have said things they didn’t or find things that weren’t really there.’
Gaslighting can have serious implications. ‘Many victims are left feeling confused, ashamed, terrified, hurt and lost,’ says Davey. ‘An abuser will leave the victim for short and long periods of time with no contact leaving the victim feeling so alone and longing for their abuser to come back or for any attention whatsoever. Long periods of gaslighting has a very damaging effect on the victim leaving many to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.’
- Constantly criticising you
If your partner’s nagging criticism has started to gain momentum and they constantly put you down, this is a classic coercive control red flag.
Abusers often like to criticise and put down their victims either directly or indirectly, says Davey. ‘This is to make the victim lose their confidence and doubt their abilities so that they look to their abuser to give them the validation they need,’ she says. ‘It also makes the abuser feel good about themselves when they are putting others down.’
- Controlling your finances
A joint bank account might be the obvious next step in your relationship and you may welcome the help if you’re not good at keeping your finances in order, but if your partner has taken complete control of your money then something could be seriously amiss.
‘Abusers like to control finances, forcing the victim to depend on their abuser for money,’ explains Davey. ‘The abuser wants to have so much control over you and to know everything you are doing even to the point of having to ask for a pound to buy a newspaper.’
The other reason why they do this is to isolate you and to ensure you have nowhere else to go and you have no means of doing so, she adds. ‘Abusers want to trap their victims so that they feel they have no way out and they have to stay with them no matter what.’
- Forcing you to live by their rules
While little quirks in relationships such as insisting on a particular direction to hang the toilet roll or the correct time to add milk to your tea are all perfectly normal, if your partner runs a tight ship and you’re scared of their reaction if you don’t live by their rulebook, you’re in dangerous territory.
‘Abusers want it all their own way and nothing but,’ says Davey. ‘The victim feels like they are walking around on eggshells making sure they do everything they can to make their abuser happy.’
- Parental alienation
If your partner has convinced your child to reject you or disobey you without legitimate reason, this will not only sabotage your relationship with your kids but reinforces your abuser’s hierarchical position in the family.
‘Parental alienation is basically a smear campaign where the abuser turns others including your children against you so that you feel even more isolated,’ says Davey. ‘It will also convince you even more that you’re the problem.’
- Policing your lifestyle
It may seem caring if your partner shows interest in your fashion choices or likes to know where you are at all times. But if they tell you how to dress or where to go, this is a common sign of coercive control.
‘Abusers make their victims into robots,’ says Davey. ‘Victims become conditioned to what the abuser wants such as how much they eat, sleep and wear. The victim loses their identity and the capacity to make a decision on their own.’
This type of manipulation can break the victim down, until they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves. ‘They feel they have to have their abuser in their life as they no longer know how to live life without the abuser telling them how to live it,’ says Davey.
- Making jealous accusations
We’re often taught that jealous behaviour is a sign that someone cares. But being constantly accused of something you haven’t done can be incredibly damaging to your sense of self and is another way for abusers to exert control over you.
‘It’s quite often when an abuser is accusing their victims of things and being extremely jealous that it’s because the abuser is doing those things they are accusing the victim of,’ explains Davey. ‘Jealousy stems from ownership; abusers believe they own their victims and when the victim is getting attention or admiration elsewhere they will not like that as it’s not about them.’
- Depriving you of access to help
If your partner prevents you from seeking any type of help including medical assistance, this is a major warning sign. ‘An abuser likes to see their victims in pain, they see their weakness as their power. The abuser wants to see their victim suffer as much as they can,’ says Davey.
If you need urgent medical assistance or believe you may be in danger, call 999 for emergency help. Alternatively, call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 for confidential, non-judgemental information and support.
- Regulating your sexual relationship
Does your partner nag you for sex or convince you to carry out sexual acts that make you feel uncomfortable? While it’s normal to have differing sex drives, if your partner makes you do anything that you’re uncomfortable with, this is a classic sign of coercive control and you have every right to say no.
‘The abuser wants control over everything in your life and this includes the sexual side of your relationship,’ says Davey. ‘They will say when and where and how. Again this is all to do with power and control. The abuser will not consider if the victim is consenting or not; they believe they have the right to do whatever they please.’
- Making violent threats
Are you frightened of your partner and scared that they might hurt you or your family? In a coercive relationship the abuser will often use violent threats to get their own way.
‘This is to intimidate you and to make you scared so that you will do whatever the abuser says to ensure your and your family’s safety,’ says Davey. ‘Once an abuser knows this tactic works, as your family are your weak spot, they will keep doing this to ensure they get what they want.’
- Blackmailing you
It sounds like something out of a film, but if you previously revealed private information or shared photos with a partner which they are now threatening to expose, this is blackmail and it is not OK.
‘Abusers will do anything to get their own way and this includes blackmailing their victims,’ explains Davey. ‘They will go to extreme lengths to get what they want. A victim at the beginning of the relationship opens up to their abuser, thinking they have met their soulmate and tells them intimate details. The abuser encourages this by making out that they can be trusted and are generally interested.
‘This is a clever tactic they do to get “dirt” on their victims to use against them later to blackmail their victims if they don’t do what they want them to do,’ she adds.
How to escape coercive control
If something doesn’t feel right, chances are it isn’t. But getting out of an abusive relationship can be complex and takes time, planning and emotional resilience. If you feel like you don’t have the strength to leave, this is because your partner has deliberately and systematically disempowered you to prevent you from doing exactly that. But you don’t have to put up with emotional abuse and help is available, so remember that you are not alone.
For help exiting a toxic relationship head to one of the support groups at the bottom of this article. In the meantime, read Davey’s advice on how to escape coercive control:
- Keep a journal and make notes
If you start seeing signs of coercive behaviour in your relationship start writing things down, like a journal. My advice is to keep everything such as screen grabs of text messages, pictures, letters – anything that you may need in the future.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Reach out to someone close for support and let them know what you’re going through or contact one of the organisations listed below. Leaving an abuser is extremely hard especially when they have isolated you from most of your friends and family and taken away a lot of your identity.
- Plan your escape
Planning your escape is crucial as this needs to be done with a lot of thought and care. Start collecting all important documentation such as passports, bank details, birth certificates and hide them or give them to a family member or friend for safe keeping. Have an emergency bag which contains a change of clothes, numbers of people you may need to contact in case you leave without your phone, and any money you can get.
- The law is on your side
Unfortunately abusers don’t usually go without a fight so if you are worried what they might get violent, reach out to the police. Coercive control is a crime and abusers can be convicted; that’s why its important to keep as much evidence as possible.
Further help and support
If you have any concerns about coercive control and your relationship, don’t be afraid to seek help. To speak to professionals who are trained in dealing with domestic abuse, try one of the following resources:
- Victim Support: a charity supporting those through traumatic experiences.
- National Domestic Abuse Helpline: freephone, 24-hour helpline.
- Women’s Aid: a charity which aims to end domestic abuse against women.
- ManKind: support for men experiencing domestic abuse.
- Relate: a charity providing support to couples, families and young people.
- Refuge: supporting women against domestic violence and abuse.