21 June 2023

What is coercive control?

As laws are passed in NSW making coercive control a stand-alone offence, coercive control is a term you may have heard a lot more of lately in the media and on the news, but what really is it?

Coercive control is a pattern of abusive behaviours designed to achieve dominance and control over the other person or people. It underpins intimate partner and family violence, and is sometimes simply referred to as ‘abusive behaviour’

Coercive control is used with the intention of degrading, manipulating, intimidating, humiliating or isolating victim-survivors. It can be used by anyone close to you, for instance intimate partners, family members, friends, roommates, and carers.


So, what does coercive control look like?

A person using abuse will tailor their abusive actions to meet their own needs, and what has the most impact on a victim.  It can involve physical or sexual violence but it doesn’t always. Some of the forms of violence used in patterns of coercive control can include:

  • Threatening to use violence
  • Manipulating or controlling a person
  • Engaging in, or threatening to hurt a person’s child
  • Monitoring or tracking a person (including tracking their activities, communications or movements) via tracking devices, physical stalking or other methods
  • Repeated derogatory taunts
  • Damaging property
  • Causing injury or death to an animal, or threatening to do so
  • Depriving a person of their freedom, restricting a person’s freedom (for instance by restricting someone financially or physically)
  • Unreasonably controlling or regulating a person’s day-to-day activities
  • Using the systems in place to protect victim-survivors against them
  • Emotionally abusing a person with comments directed at their identity
  • Making decisions about the other person’s body (like forcing someone to keep or terminate a pregnancy)

Sometimes, behaviours that seem ‘subtle’ to outsiders can be forms of coercive control. For example, if someone using coercive control has threatened to hurt their partners dog, yanking on the dog’s leash while out on a walk could be a threat, even if it seems harmless to someone walking past


Meg’s Story: Coercive control in an LGBTQ+ relationship

The beginning of Meg’s relationship was filled with affection, calls, texts, and gifts. She felt loved and desired, but also uncertain that things were moving too fast. Toni, her partner, told her this was what love was like and that Meg’s past romantic and family relationships left her guarded.

Meg moved in with Toni and her children because of the 2 hour distance between them, she had to quit her job to do this. Shortly after, Toni proposed to Meg, who accepted. Meg later said she felt pressured but didn’t want to lose the relationship.

Meg started noticing Toni talking about and treating others in a concerning way. However, if Meg brought this up Toni would call those people, or Meg, manipulative and controlling.

Meg started to feel more unsure about Toni’s behaviours especially when alcohol was involved. Sometimes this resulted in Toni blowing up at Meg or the children. Meg was isolated, away from her LGBTQ+ community, sports groups and employment. Toni told her all they needed was each other.

Toni became more jealous, possessive and controlling, questioning and monitoring Meg’s contact with friends. She also expressed insecurity about Meg’s feelings for Toni. Things continued to escalate, and this happened in cycles. Toni would get extremely distressed, yelling at Meg and gaslighting Meg into thinking she had started the fight. Sometimes Toni would say Meg had hit her. Toni would then apologise but say she couldn’t remember the argument or behaviour.

Toni escalated into physically abusing Meg and restricting her access to her phone, until Meg was eventually able to leave.

While Meg was recovering in a refuge, Toni and her friends sent harassing phone calls and texts. Toni made it very hard for Meg to organise her belongings and told mutual friends that Meg was at fault.

When Meg finally got her stuff back there were sentimental items broken and missing and hidden messages in the belongings, intended to be menacing and provoking.

Meg found her way to support and was brave to ask for help. She is safe now and healing. She has reconnected with community and is hopeful for a healthy relationship in the future.”


Many people who experience coercive control experience subtle forms of violence and control which may escalate over time. The subtle and slowly escalating forms of coercive control, along with displays of affection and care, can make it difficult to recognise violence perpetrated by someone close to you. Being a victim-survivor of coercive control can for this reason be isolating, difficult to navigate and incredibly impactful on one’s health and sense of safety. There are professionals who are there to support you, whether that support may be to help you respond to violence or to listen to any concerns you may have. Anyone can seek professional help, whether you have experienced abuse yourself or if you are trying to help someone who may be experiencing abuse.

If you need support here are some services who can help:

  • Rainbow Sexual, Domestic and Family Violence Helpline (1800 497 212), available 24/7
  • 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), available 24/7
  • ACON (9206 2000), Monday to Friday (9am – 6pm), for community members in NSW
  • QLife (1800 184 527), 3pm – Midnight every day
  • Find a service near you through Say It Out Loud here


If you’re worried you might be experiencing coercive control, you can take this quiz.

You can also learn about healthy relationships here.


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