Home » Blogs » The Savvy Shrink » Understanding Coercive Control in Intimate Relationships

Understanding Coercive Control in Intimate Relationships

“Only a couple of decades ago, society named and recognized the problems of sexual harassment, dating violence, marital rape, and stalking. Coercive control needs to be similarly named and recognized, so we can begin to address it. We all need to learn more, so we can offer the right kinds of support and not allow victims to become isolated.” Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship







We’ve heard a lot about domestic violence, which can encompass physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and other forms of abuse. It is only recently that the term coercive control has entered the landscape of  intimate partner violence nomenclature. Sociologist and forensic expert, Evan Stark, PhD coined the term.  He described it as a fear-based compliance that is employed to dominate one’s partner in an intimate relationship. Although many studies report men as being typically in the role of the abuser, the reality is that coercive control can cross over to either gender or sexual orientation. Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes states that  “ coercive control describes an ongoing and multipronged strategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, stalking, gaslighting and sometimes physical or sexual abuse” (Ellen, 2016).




Coercive Control and Narcissistic Abuse: A new movement is also occurring where people are talking about narcissistic abuse…which could fall under the category of coercive control. The term narcissistic abuse is basically psychological abuse of a specific target (person) in love, work or family deployed by a narcissistic abuser (Schneider, 2015).  Not all people who psychologically abuse or who engage in coercive control are narcissists, but some are.  Coercive control specifically addresses intimate relationships but can also be evident in family relationships, religious institutions, cults, political organizations, and some work settings.

Coercive Control Tactics: If you suspect you are in a relationship in which coercive control might be occurring, be sure to note what you are observing, and seek safety. Stark reports that the following tactics are typical of coercive control: gaslighting (mind games where an abuser destroys a victims sense of trust in their own perception of reality, obsessive monitoring (which can include stalking and harassment), low-level violence (like shoving and pushing with no visible bruises) and sexual assault (non-consensual sexual acts imposed upon victim).

What can you do if you feel you are a victim/survivor of coercive control?

  1. Safety — if you fear for your physical safety consider seeking shelter at a domestic violence shelter in your community (800-799-7233 is the National Domestic Violence Hotline which can put you in touch with local shelters). If you are deciding to leave an intimate relationship, take every precaution and plan strategically for your exit as abusers can escalate intimate partner violence when they know their partner is leaving the relationship. Leaving is the most dangerous time. Make sure you have a safety plan in place and a support network that can help you execute your leave-taking safely.
  2. Counseling — Talk to a mental health clinician who is trauma-informed and knows how to help survivors of relational trauma, intimate partner violence, domestic abuse, narcissistic abuse, coercive control.
  3. Resources — Connect with other survivors in local or online support groups for help in reducing isolation that’s occurred as a result of the abuse. Read up on coercive control, psychological abuse, narcissistic abuse.
  4. Have Hope — It’s not your fault you were abused. Whether male or female, gay/straight/bi/transgender, all people can be targeted for abuse. With help and healing, you will be well. And it’s possible to find healthy love again.



National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 — The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization


Aronson Fontes, A. (2015). Invisible chains: Overcoming coercive control in your intimate relationship, Guildford Press.

Retrieved from: March, 2, 2019:

Retrieved from: March 2, 2019:

Schneider, A. (2015). Soul vampires: Reclaiming your lifeblood after narcissistic abuse, Bookbaby.

Understanding Coercive Control in Intimate Relationships

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW

Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently the Lead Counselor at Cal State Maritime Academy, where she counsels college students and leads Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the integrated Student Health Center. In her private practice, Andrea provides psychotherapy for individuals experiencing trauma and loss. She is also a writer, educator, and podcaster. Website:

4 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Schneider, A. (2019). Understanding Coercive Control in Intimate Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.