Coercive Control: The Bottom Line in Domestic Abuse

Coercive Control Photo

Coercive Control: The Bottom Line in Domestic Abuse

By: Joan LeMole, Development Director 

Domestic abuse research and reporting often focus on physical violence. But this narrow frame may be misleading. Between 60% and 80% of domestic abuse survivors seeking outside supports (i.e., from police, shelters) experience what advocates call coercive control. Coercive control is a pattern of behavior that limits someone’s freedom, like being able to say what they want or interact with whoever they choose. It is a style of behavior that underlies nearly all forms of domestic abuse and, according to researcher Evan Stark, is both intentional and targeted. Coercive control may include a mix of various forms of abuse like repeated physical violence, intimidation, sexual degradation, financial abuse, and isolation. It often continues even after separation, and may precede, motivate, or increase the likelihood of violence. Over time, it robs victims of their very identities.

Intimidation is a key part of coercive control. It can last for months or even years and is meant to imply that the abuser is always near. In their definition of coercive control, Brennan and Mayhill include threats, monitoring, and shaming meant to generate fear and dependence. Here at New Hope we often hear victims talk about abusers threatening to destroy something they care about, or having to choose between their own safety, their children’s safety, and the safety of pets. We hear about abusers withholding or parsing out items like food, clothing, and medicine; stealing victim belongings and taking their mail; sabotaging their phones and other electronics; searching drawers; and monitoring victim whereabouts with cameras and tracking devices. Financial control, isolation, and submission to strict rules are frequent. Stalking serves a double purpose; it is used to terrorize and to monitor.

Many want to make coercive control a legal offense. But researchers like Walby and Towers find that the term “coercive control” confuses the issue since all forms of domestic abuse are coercive and controlling. There are also procedural challenges. Coercive control does not always include physical acts of violence, yet prosecution is far more likely when there is a clear, violent act. Duration and frequency, key aspects of coercive control, are difficult to track. But the Civil Enforcement High Code Enforcement Group is clear that having access to personal details about a partner can create vulnerability and make it easy to misuse this information.

Coercive control ultimately wears people down and crushes their spirit. It’s confusing, highly personal, and can lead to mental illness, and threats and infliction of self-harm. Here at New Hope, we provide an unbiased, listening ear that helps clients sift through – and make sense of - their experiences. We help victims sort out the challenging pieces that make coercive control complicated while helping them to balance safety with restoring freedom, autonomy, dignity, equality, and a sense of empowerment. Our advocates help victims report their concerns and plan for their safety. We walk people through options that can include seeking remedies or protection through the criminal or civil legal systems, but may also include paths forward that lie outside of the legal system altogether.

New Hope believes in a coordinated community response to domestic. Advocates help clients create a wide network of support by including healthcare professionals, client family and friends, and school personnel in safety planning. Callaghan, Alexander, and Fellin note that children exposed to coercive control may become “collateral damage” and experience behavioral and emotional challenges. New Hope’s specially trained advocate in Child Protective Services supports children’s well-being and assists with keeping families that have children and are involved with the Department of Health and Human Services cases safe.

Domestic abuse and the coercive control that serves as its foundation touch all aspects of a person’s well-being. As Walby and Towers explain, an oppressive infringement on human rights, the hallmark of coercive control is a persistence that can render victims hostages in their own homes. Advocates at New Hope Midcoast are available round-the-clock at 1.800.522.3304 to support and to listen to victims and concerned others across the region.

New Hope Midcoast is one of Maine’s Regional Domestic Violence Resource Centers and a member of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. The nonprofit organization supports people impacted by domestic abuse, dating violence, and stalking through housing and legal advocacy, education and prevention programs, and a 24/7 helpline. New Hope empowers clients by providing options and treating everyone with care and respect. The organization serves Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, and Waldo Counties.


1“Looking Beyond Domestic Violence: Policing Coercive Control,” Evan Stark in Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 2012

2“Re-presenting Battered Women: Coercive Control and the Defense of Liberty” by Evan Stark, PhD, MSW. Prepared for Violence Against Women: Complex Realities and New Issues in a Changing World, Presses de l’Universite du Quebec, 2012

3”Coercive Control: Patterns in Crimes, Arrests and Outcomes for a New Domestic Abuse Offence,” Iain Brennan and Andy Myhill inThe British Journal of Criminology, Volume 62, Issue 2, March 2022, Pages 468-483

4 ”Untangling the concept of coercive control: Theorizing domestic violent crime.” Sylvia Walby and Jude Towers in Criminology and Criminal Justice Volume 18, Issue 1, 2018.

Walby et al., found that an increase in reported violence against women in the United Kingdom was due to a growing number of “high-frequency repeat female victims,” not to an increase in the number of unique individuals reporting.

5”Coercive control and vulnerability.” Excel Civil Enforcement High Court Enforcement Group. CIVEA Code of Practice and National Standards, 2014.

6”Coercive Control: Update and Review,” Evan Stark and Marianne Hester in Sage Journals Volume 25, Issue 1, Dec. 16, 2018.

7 “Protecting the Invisible Victim: Incorporating Coercive Control in Domestic Violence Statutes.” Kristy Candela in Family Court Review: An Interdisciplinary Journal, January 21, 2016.

8 “Beyond “Witnessing”: Children’s Experiences of Coercive Control in Domestic Violence and Abuse,” Jane E. M. Callaghan, Joanne H. Alexander, […], and Lisa Chiara Fellin in Sage Journals, Volume 33, Issue 10, December 10, 2015.