Coercive control

Understanding coercive control

Coercive control is almost always an underpinning dynamic of family and domestic violence: Perpetrators exert power and dominance of victim-survivors using patterns of abusive behaviour over time that create fear and deny victim-survivors liberty and autonomy.

There is no single agreed definition of coercive control. However, research consistently identifies that the behaviours and tactics associated with coercive control can be subtle, difficult to identify and different in each relationship. Coercive control manifests and is experienced in various ways in different class and cultural contexts. The impacts of coercive control are pervasive, and can be physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural, social and financial. Impacts are also intersecting and cumulative, rather than incident-specific. Victim-survivors commonly describe coercive control as feeling like ‘walking on eggshells’ and report they need to ask permission to do small everyday things and fear the repercussions of not fulfilling their abuser’s expectations or demands.

Use of retaliatory violence or self-defence against a perpetrator are not coercive control.

Coercive control is mainly perpetrated by men against women . Perpetrators can exert power and dominance over victim-survivors in current and former intimate partner relationships. Coercive control can also be perpetrated in broader family relationships, such as against children or young people by parents or relatives, against parents or elders by adult children or grandchildren, or between siblings. Coercive control is particularly prevalent in relationships where there is an imbalance of power. Professor Evan Stark has described coercive control as “a pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control” victims.

The behaviours associated with coercive control can take many different forms including any of the forms of domestic and family violence considered in this benchbook. Common behaviours that may be used by perpetrators as part of coercive control include but are not limited to:

As coercive control depends on context, evidence or information about the context may assist the decision-maker to identify coercive control and help ensure the victim-survivor is not misidentified as a perpetrator.

In situations involving coercive control the abuser draws on their specific knowledge of the victim to entrap the victim, and the tactics used to assert control may change over time:

  • The abuser may target the victim’s children to extend their control over the victim, sometimes using children as a tool of surveillance or intimidation.
  • The abuser’s attack on the victim’s autonomy can involve utilising systems, including the legal system (sometimes referred to as ‘systems abuse’).

Research has identified that domestic and family violence is rarely a single incident, rather it is a pattern of behaviour that may or may not include physical force, and extends beyond the home and beyond the duration of a relationship. These patterns of behaviour may occur throughout a relationship, or may be initiated or exacerbated at times of heightened risk, for example, pregnancy, attempted or actual separation, and during court proceedings.

Some judicial officers have considered coercive control. A selection of examples are contained in the Cases tab attached to this subsection.

In some relationships physical violence is part of the pattern of coercive control but incidents of physical violence may be routine, minor and frequently repeated. Other victims-survivors report that physical violence is rare or a once off or occurred early in the relationship, but establishes the abuser’s capacity and potential for physical violence. Some people who experience coercive control do not experience physical violence.

Coercive control can be damaging even when there is no physical violence. Many victim-survivors identify that non-physical abuse deeply impacts on their sense of self and freedom, and often continues to affect them years after separation. Many victim-survivors of domestic and family violence report that the most difficult forms of abuse they experienced were non-physical forms of abuse, especially emotional abuse.

The community and broader service and response system, including law enforcement and the courts, can typically focus on physical violence and single or episodic acts of violence in isolation, rather than considering patterns of physical and non-physical behaviour over time and their cumulative impacts. This can make it easy for perpetrators to hide their actions from systems and can lead to a perpetrator’s subtle and highly contextualised abuse, and the compounding impact of coercive control, being overlooked and/or minimised. Incident-based responses can also heighten the risks of misidentifying the victim-survivor as the perpetrator.

Researchers have suggested that coercive control is a common thread running through risk identification and assessment for domestic violence.

In NSW, a detailed analysis of intimate partner homicides between 2008-2016 demonstrated that 99% (111/112) of the homicides were preceded by coercive control. The Queensland Domestic and Family Violence Review and Advisory Board in its 2018-19 Annual Report reported evidence of controlling behaviours by 39.4 per cent and obsessive and/or jealous behaviours by 37.8 per cent of family and domestic violence homicide offenders between 2006 and 2018 (see also Death review.