Taking Control of Coercive Behaviour

Researchers and academics have met in an attempt to better understand the problems of coercive control.

A meeting was held in mid-March 2024 at Auckland University to explore how individuals, organisations and systems can better support those experiencing coercive control and systemic entrapment.  

It was acknowledged that coercive control can have severe health and wellbeing consequences, indeed at times it has been fatal, but it is now widely understood. 

It is a pattern of abuse and violence where one person threatens and intimidates their partner (or ex-partner), controlling their choices and behaviour. 

One of the main issues is that acts of control can be subtle and difficult to see as abuse.  
To effectively support victims/survivors it is essential that more is understood about coercive control and systemic entrapment. 

A facilitator of the event Nicola Gavey, a co-director of the NZ Family Violence Clearinghouse and Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland, opened proceedings by telling the audience that coercive control was the ''harmful dynamic'' that shaped most domestic and family violence. 

She said that without more widespread societal recognition of the complex nature of coercive control the signs of serious violence and harm will continue to be ''misinterpreted, minimised, and missed altogether''. 

Panellist Rachel Smith, a lecturer in the Auckland University Technology Violence and Trauma Studies Programme, talked to the audience about American research by Professor Evan Stark, in which he stated that coercive control was not about physical acts of violence, it was a crime against people's ability to be self-determining. 

"This is a really important concept ... the tactics of coercion and control operate together and reflect on each other,'' she said. 

''The combined impact is it shrinks people's ability to be themselves, it takes their world and what matters and shrinks that space for action.'' 

Professor Heather Douglas, a Professor at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne, spoke on the differences between what is happening in Australia and New Zealand. 

She said it had been ''an uncomfortable debate'' in Australia mainly based around whether coercive control should be a criminal offence, even extending to Senate inquiries, where people had used emotionally abusive comments. 

''It's been intense and highly fraught and has been going on in this way for the last three or four years,'' she said. 

''It's all been about whether it should be a criminal offence.'' 

Professor Douglas said there were ''diverse views'' on this, with 85 per cent of control survivors saying in a survey of 2000 people that coercive control should be criminalised. 

But when asked if they would want their partner charged there was much less certainty. 

''So, while there was a gut reaction to the survey saying, 'we want it criminalised', there was much less clarity about why.'' 

In a Q&A session towards the end of the meeting Associate Dean of Maori Advancement at Auckland University of Technology, Denise Wilson, said while a lot of the talk, and examples, of coercive control had focussed on Wahine Maori, the issue was far more widespread than just one group. 

''Poor people, immigrant women who are attached to their husband's visa have little option to walk out that door because if they do, they no longer have a status to stay in the country, so, it's really complex,'' she said. 

Family violence literature broadly agrees on the factors that make families more likely to experience violence – that is, the risk factors or drivers of harm. Many of these are universal; however, in New Zealand there are additional factors for Pacific peoples who are also more likely to experience one or more coercive and controlling behaviours from a current partner.   

Domestic abuse isn’t always physical. Coercive control is an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

A recording and slides of the event is available here

Coercive control is a pattern of controlling and manipulative behaviours within a relationship. 

There are 12 signs of coercive control 

1. Isolating you from your support system. An abusive partner will cut you off from friends and family or limit your contact with them, so you don’t receive the support you need.

2. Monitoring your activity throughout the day.

3. Denying you freedom and autonomy. A person exerting coercive control may try to limit your freedom and independence. For example, not allowing you to go to work, school, or church, restricting your access to transportation, stalking your every move when you’re out, taking your phone and changing passwords, etc.

4. Gaslighting, where the abuser makes you doubt your own truth, experience, and sanity, by insisting that they are always right, and instils their narrative of a situation, even if the evidence points against this. Gaslighting in essence, is based on lies and manipulation of the truth.

5. Name-calling and severe criticism, as well as malicious put-downs which are all extreme forms of bullying.

6. Limiting access to money and controlling finances. This is a way of restricting your freedom and ability to leave the relationship. Financial abuse is listed above as a specific form of abuse but, within the context of coercive control, financial control is a tactic to keep a person disempowered, by utilising strategies such as:

  • placing you on a strict budget that barely covers the essentials such as food or clothes
  • limiting your access to bank accounts
  • hiding financial resources from you
  • preventing you from having a credit card
  • rigorously monitoring what you spend.

7. Coercing you, to take care of all the domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare without sharing the responsibility and tasks involved to undertake these duties.

8. Turning your children against you. If you have children either with the abuser or someone else, they may try to weaponise the children against you by making comments that are critical of you, belittling you in front of the children, or telling them that you’re a bad parent. Sometimes the techniques are very subtle and insidious, involving slow drip-feeding of a narrative that regards you as abnormal.

9. Controlling aspects of your health and your body. The abuser will monitor and control how much you eat, sleep, exercise, or how much time you spend in the bathroom. They may also control where you go for medical help, and the medications you take.

10. Making jealous accusations about the time you spend with family or friends, either in person or online, as a way of phasing out all your contact with the external world, except for them.

11. Regulating your sexual relationship, for example making demands about the number of times you engage in sex each day or week, and the kinds of activities you perform.

12. Threatening your children or pets as an extreme form of intimidation. When physical, emotional, or financial threats do not work for the abuser as desired, they may make threats against others such as your loved ones, children, and pets, who are also beloved members of the household. 

Sources- Hill J (2020) See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse. Black Inc.Lamothe C (2019) How to Recognize Coercive Control. Healthline

If you are worried you are experiencing  any coercive behaviour, reach out to someone about yourconcerns.