A Description of Coercive and Controlling Relationships

In coercive and controlling relationships, one partner consistently exerts an undue amount of influence and dominance over the other, often using manipulative tactics to maintain power and control. These tactics can range from emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, and gaslighting to more overt behaviors like monitoring the other’s activities, dictating how they should behave, or isolating them from friends and family. The controlling partner often feels a need to oversee or dictate many aspects of the other partner’s life, including personal decisions, social interactions, and even thoughts and feelings. This dynamic can lead to a significant imbalance in the relationship, with the controlled partner feeling oppressed, unheard, and trapped.

Over time, the controlled individual might experience diminished self-worth, increased anxiety, and a sense of helplessness, while the controlling partner may become more entrenched in their need to dominate, perpetuating a toxic cycle.

In light of the devastating consequences on emotional health, coercive relationships are increasingly recognized as being as harmful as physical violence. Notably, within jurisdictions such as Scotland, in the UK, coercive control is recognized as a criminal offense, with penalties reaching up to 14 years in prison.

(This article is part of the series: Unhealthy Relationship Patterns: Categorizing the 21 types)

Understanding Partner Perspectives

Controlling Partner:

  • Perception: Often perceives their actions as necessary for the “good” of the relationship or the other partner. They may believe they know what’s best and feel justified in their controlling behaviors.
  • Emotions: May experience anxiety, fear of loss, or insecurity, which drives their need to control. They might feel validated or powerful when their partner complies.
  • Behaviors: Engages in monitoring the other partner’s activities, making decisions on their behalf without consultation, and using emotional or psychological tactics to ensure compliance. This could include belittling, guilt-tripping, or making threats.
  • Rationalizations: They might believe that their partner is incapable of making the “right” decisions on their own, or that their control is a form of “protection” or “love.”

Controlled Partner:

  • Perception: Feels constantly under the dominant partner’s scrutiny, leading to a sense of diminished self-worth and agency. They may feel trapped, always trying to avoid confrontations or actions that might trigger the dominant partner’s controlling behaviors.
  • Emotions: Predominantly experiences fear, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness. Over time, they may come to doubt their own capabilities and judgments due to the persistent dominance.
  • Behaviors: Tends to be submissive, often sidelining their own needs or desires to appease the dominant partner. They may also withdraw from social circles or activities to avoid potential conflicts.
  • Rationalizations: They might convince themselves that the dominant partner’s actions stem from love or concern. Alternatively, they may blame themselves, thinking they’re the reason for the dominant partner’s behaviors.

Is it a Controlling Relationship or something else?

This relationship type shares similarities with five others, yet it has its unique distinctions. Read on to discover what sets the controlling type apart from its counterparts.

  1. Manipulative Relationship: Both involve a partner who seeks to influence or guide the other’s actions or feelings. However, while manipulation may use subtlety, indirect tactics, or emotional games, the coercive and controlling type is more overt, employing direct force, explicit threats, or strict rules to restrict their partner’s freedom.
  2. Emotionally Abusive Relationship: Both can erode the self-esteem of the affected partner. But while emotional abuse predominantly uses verbal degradation, ridicule, and criticism, coercion and control focus on actively limiting the partner’s autonomy through direct means.
  3. Financially Dominated Relationship: Here, the control is exerted mainly through financial means, restricting or overseeing access to financial resources. The coercive and controlling relationship type is broader, with the control extending to various aspects of the partner’s life, not just the financial.
  4. Isolating Relationship: This relationship type involves a partner deliberately cutting the other off from their friends, family, or support groups. While isolation is a tactic in coercive and controlling relationships, it’s not the only one. The distinctiveness of the isolation type is the focus on separating the partner from their external ties.
  5. Walking on Eggshells/Dysregulated Relationship: In both types, the affected partner might feel anxiety about their partner’s reactions. However, while the “eggshells” dynamic is more about unpredictable outbursts or reactions, coercive and controlling relationships involve a constant, predictable pattern of control.

Unique Indicator of “Coercive and Controlling” Relationships

The hallmark of the “Coercive and Controlling” relationship type is the overt restriction of freedom and autonomy across various facets of life, backed by explicit or implicit threats. It’s not merely about influencing feelings or limiting specific areas (like finances) but about a broader domination that encompasses a partner’s actions, associations, and sometimes even their thoughts.