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  • Michaela Patel


Updated: Jun 2

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The waters of coercively controlling relationships are very muddy. In the case of covert abuse, victims have no idea what is really happening until years into post separation period when abuse typically intensifies. Living with an ongoing, unresolved trauma makes victims more vulnerable. Which is why when they finally escape a more overtly violent abuser they end up in a new relationship with a covertly abusive aggressor whom they perceive safer in comparison. Victims of this kind of insidious, chronic abuse end up feeling like they are drowning on a dry land having no clue the one they are devoted to is treating them so poorly.

Having been coercively controlled by number of people in my life, I feel equipped to take a deep dive back into these treacherous waters. This time with, luckily for me, an entirely different pair of goggles with a perspective of my own. It took years for me to start seeing clearly and call things correctly - not how I was told they are by people who were working exclusively for themselves.

Who are coercive controllers?

They are people of a disordered character with traits enabling them to exploit others. The exploitation of their victims is mostly hidden behind their carefully crafted image. Very resourceful in upkeeping it, they work tirelessly to make sure they are perceived in the best possible light by others. Even if it means the victims are wrongly accused of the abuser's transgressions. They live amongst high flying achievers, couch potatoes, and everywhere in between. Found amongst devoted parents, respected teachers, or intriguing strangers their intentions are so well hidden that even people who live under their roof for decades cannot lay their finger on what is truly occurring. Which is why when victims of domestic abuse finally come forward, it is crucial to validate their revelations instead of questioning their reality and an, already weakened, sense of trust in themselves.

Preventing the victims from exercising their basic rights is at the core of coercive control.

Coercive controllers use persistent PRESSURE (a way of creating an imbalance of power in relationship) through expressing their disapproval. It can be in a form of an occasional mockery, subtle put downs, or ongoing criticism. The pressure is relentless and always ramps up whenever the perpetrator feels like they are losing control somewhere. When things don't go well for them in other areas of their life (which they are bound to!) they must pick a fight. Determined to win, through withdrawal of love and the use of contemptuous language, they force the victim (and their children) to capitulate.

Who are the victims?

Sharing space with their abusers, the victims tend to be highly sprung and exhausted, confused and anxious. They worry incessantly not to make a mistake, yet they happen to be the most capable people who cannot see their awesomeness simply because of the ongoing devaluation by the abuser. Although they have been conditioned by the perpetrator to say yes to his every demand, they have been labelled difficult, stubborn, tight, and manipulative. Unbeknownst to them, they are being regularly accused of what the perpetrator is up to, being treated well only to upkeep the illusion of their relationship being well.

quote about coercive control
unhealthy power dynamics enabling exploitation

My personal experiences with coercive control equals living alone in an invisible golden cage. I seemed to have everything, yet wasn't afforded the luxury of exercising my basic human rights for safety and freedom.

Coercive controllers display a combination of overt (outward, boldly displayed) and covert (cleverly hidden) abuse as a way of seeking superiority over others who are chosen for their particular personality characteristics. They all fall into categories such as highly empathic, very loyal, naturally optimistic with a 'can do' attitude who are trusting and trustworthy. Possessing this particular combination of personality traits makes them reliable and highly AGREEABLE - a vital element to enable oppression. Abusers can only control easy going people who are conflict averse, vulnerable individuals who are more likely to go along with things without challenging the aggressors choices, and children who know no different.

What happens when the victim does challenge the abuser?

The coercive controller hates to lose. He can be only up or down, but never steady. The abuser’s mind is conditioned to compete. Equality is a foreign concept to an aggressor who can never feel at ease around others or just go along with things out of fear of being taken advantage of. (Unless being agreeable serves securing the image of embodied kindness and care he indeed lacks.) During conflict he preposterously accuses her of actions and attitudes of his own. Projection is his daily bread as his damaged psyche cannot deal with owning up to the truth or accept any responsibility.

She is made to feel very uncomfortable every time she dares to have an opposing opinion which the abuser perceives as an attack on his very existence. The more manipulative (covert) abuser may seem to be at first unfazed by her resistance, party agreeing with (or even interested in) what she has to say, only to dismantle her version of reality (gaslighting) in due course. She is made to feel bad and ends up regretting ever mentioning things. The more overt the abuser (the typical bully who thinks is untouchable), the greater his tendency to boldly display anger and contempt, becoming agitated or violent as a way of frightening her into submission. In both cases, she is mostly wrong whilst he is mostly correct. Through the monopolisation of perception her views are scrutinised, ridiculed, and otherwise undermined which contributes to her growing confusion.

Depending on his personality traits and personal traumas, each manipulator has his tried and tested method for gaining the upper hand - a practice he mastered in the course of his life time with the number of people he managed to convince by force into seeing things his intended way. Some use more immediate force than others who 'work' the victim over time. All relational abuse is mostly covert at the beginning in a form of testing the waters to find out what they can get away with. To have it their way, whenever they are losing their grip in situations, covert abusers tend to display passive aggression: They adopt more of a victim mentality ostentatiosly displaying disappointment or sulk. Alternatively, they cast themselves into a role of ‘the cooler person' (as a way to rise above others) through mocking or dishing out underhanded comments to their victims. When done in the presence of others these unpleasant, humiliating tactics serve to create alliances (false connections) with others against the victim to increase the perpetrators credibility, exerting more pressure on the victim. The bystanders (other family members, children) who perceive the perpetrator as more powerful will align with the abuser against the victim to secure their own safety.

Coercive abusers systematically control and undermine their children’s perception of the victim parent painting them in a negative light.

The more covert the abuse, the more conditioned [read brainwashed] and confused the victim becomes. When children are abused this particular way since birth, not knowing any different, it is almost impossible for them to spot that something isn’t right. Sadly, they learn that living in fear is normal and that to be accepted and seen by others they must please them. The relationship may look fine on the outside, ticking all the right boxes, because the perpetrator likes to play happy families, but living inauthentically feels perpetually bad. Multiple betrayal traumas are the result of emotional abandonment in situations where children need an emotional support and healthy guidance in order to learn how to self-regulate without reaching for the next new thing. Going through difficulties, where many are purposefully created by the abusive parent to establish control, being left wildly dis-regulated without anyone to turn to (plus being shamed for an authentic emotional expression), is gravely damaging to a developing brain. Being left totally emotionally overwhelmed and to their own devices is an experience so profoundly frightening for a child and an empathic mother who feels the confusion and anguish of her child ten fold.

Victim parents, given their traits, are naturally very protective of their children. During co-habitation or co-parenting with an abuser, these parents are permanently in a protective mode and on high alert trying to prevent conflicts. Whilst they cannot escape they learn the best method of protecting themselves, and their children, from abusive exchanges is by fawning to prevent unnecessary drama. In becoming more agreeable she becomes more pliable, making it easier for him to exert more power over her. In time the frequency of abuse and its severity increases because she believes she has no other option than suffering through it with the vision of the better days. Indeed, the days will come when the abuser realises that to keep the victim under his spell he needs to be on his best behaviour.

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the illusion of normality, safety and empowerment

Experiencing repeated betrayals feeling trapped, victims of abuse find themselves living in a permanent state of survival characterised by the ongoing anticipation of danger.

An un-traumatised person has four different ways of responding to an immediate danger available fit for given situation. When danger becomes chronic, depending on its nature, we adopt coping strategies which work together with our personality traits to best protect us. When fawning becomes our default response it is because we are trapped in environments where fleeing, fighting , or freezing make no difference in getting us out of danger. If you are a fawn-er (pleaser) it is because you haven’t been able to assert yourself in other ways. Your anger wasn’t welcome or its authentic expression was punished. You weren’t allowed to retreat into a safe space or you didn’t have one. And although you could temporarily drift away in your mind (overthinking) or into an activity (overdoing), because freezing wasn’t a long term option you have developed maladaptive habits like OCD, perfectionism, and workaholism which perpetuate your anxiety.

Chronically traumatised women (and men) worry chronically on many levels. Their self-esteem is non-existent with their trust in tatters, most fearing abandonment by the one they were made to totally depend on. They dread change because of the unpredictability and instability they are forced to live with every minute of their every day. They panic at the thought of harming their children and pets. They are used to others making important decisions for them, having no clue about what they actually want. All the above in combination makes it extremely unlikely for them to leave their perpetrator. And even if they eventually find the courage to leave, it takes years of undoing the psychological harm of living in a permanent state of danger.

It is hard to imagine the end of a perpetual struggle when struggle is all we know. When the only predictable part of our life is being abused while everything else hangs in the air, the abuse itself can become a strangely familiar anchor...

Read more about how I experienced being controlled here, and most importantly learn your basic rights.

Thank you for reading. If my article contributed to understanding yourself, please be generous and share it with others.

Copyright © 2024 Michaela Patel


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