It can be tough to tell when a relationship has turned abusive, especially when there are so many ways for a partner to be toxic — from constantly arguing, to stalking, and everything in between. But one form of psychological abuse, called coercive control, is particularly difficult to spot.
Coercive control describes someone’s need for total emotional control over their partner, and it’s often gained through subtle or sneaky tactics. "Coercive control in a relationship is, by definition, not about any of the factors that are being controlled — money, social interactions, rules in the house, individual pursuits," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle, but the actions are taken to gain control.
"As soon as coercion is involved then the goal shifts from practical to personal, from functional to emotional," Klapow says. And it doesn’t always manifest in one particular way. "Coercion is an emotional power move," he says. "It is done to influence an individual usually because the individual who is using the coercion lacks the skills or the confidence to openly discuss, compromise, or handle not getting what they want."
Here are a few signs of coercive control, according to Klapow.
One misconception about coercive control is that it’s always aggressive. Sometimes, your partner can control you through reliance, instead, which includes acting as if they are incapable of taking care of themselves.
When that’s the case, "your partner looks to you to solve all problems — they rely on you to the point where you literally have to conduct their lives," Klapow says. "They have no independence and see you as there to address their every need."
Since they seem helpless, instead of domineering, it makes it difficult to spot how toxic this situation really is. But their goal is still to gain power, Klapow says, by "essentially having you do everything."
With coercive control, one partner often ends up with too much power. Before you know it, yours might actively control your money, time, friends, and individual pursuits, Klapow says. They might demand control, but they also might gain it by tricking you into thinking it’s a good idea.
Coercion occurs when your partner claims they’re more knowledgable, or have your best interests at heart, Klapow says. They might explain that they’re only trying to help, when in reality they’re taking away your independence.
For example, they’ll say your friends and family aren’t good enough for you, so you stop hanging out with them. Or claim you aren’t good with money, so you give them access to your bank account, or agree to get an "allowance.’
These are all ploys to limit your autonomy so your partner remains the one in control. They might even full-on gaslight to try to make you question your sense of reality.
Someone who’s exerting coercive control is often trying to make you believe that your world is so terrible it’s about to fall apart — unless they have total control of it.
As Klapow says, they’ll cast everything in a negative light. They’ll doubt themselves, their relationship, and the world. And will always be on the lookout for the next problem.
While it may seem like your partner is just a bit pessimistic, it’s important to keep an eye on this type of behavior, and read between the lines. Their goal could be to scare you into relying on them, or thinking that you need them more than you really do.
Some signs of coercion come from how you feel about this person. "Do you have to think, act, or feel different than you normally do when you are discussing the topic or the situation?" Klapow says. If so, it may be a sign your partner is exerting coercive control.
It’s all about trusting your gut, which is of course easier said than done. But if you have an ongoing sense that something is wrong, you may want to consider why the relationship always feels wrong.
Similarly, another sign of control is the anxiety you’ll feel as a direct result of your partner’s actions. It might seem as if tension fills the air, weighing you down, or that you have to walk on eggshells whenever they’re around. So ask yourself a few questions.
"Do you feel frustration, tension, or anxiety frequently when you are with this person in a way that you don’t feel with other people?" Klapow says. If you’re anxious more often than not, something’s wrong.
While all relationships have ups and downs, there’s the volatility that exists with coercive control. As Klapow says, you might notice that you often feel uncertain of your relationship’s future, or as if it might "blow up" at any moment.
It’ll also feel like you have to be and act a certain way in order for the relationship to work, because "saying the wrong thing" or being yourself in the past resulted in a lot of negative side effects. Klapow says, if your relationship feels this fragile, it may be time to move on.
Dealing with the intensity of coercive control can take its toll on your overall wellbeing, Klapow says. So, even though it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of emotional abuse — sometimes even to the point where you accept your partner’s actions as "normal" — you may still be able to spot its side effects.
Similar to anxiety, take note if you always feel tired after every interaction with this person, Klapow says, as that’s not a sign of a healthy relationship.
If you feel like you’re dealing with a relationship where there’s coercive control, it’s time to start considering your options. Klapow suggests first talking with your partner about making a few changes, including looking for ways to create more balance. If they didn’t realize they were being toxic, they should be happy to make that change.
But if you don’t notice any positive results, and/or are looking to leave the relationship, reach out to a friend, family member, or professional for help.
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
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