Recognizing the warning signs of coercive control

This is the final column in a seven-part series on the effects of domestic violence.

When it comes to identifying and protecting ourselves from coercive control, education is the best form of intervention – and the earlier the better.

Can we help our youth recognize that when their partner is checking in with them many times a day, at first it may look like love, but over time it could be a form of stalking? Is he telling her how to dress, how much makeup she should wear, who she can talk to at a party, when she can see her friends? Does she have to check in with him when they are not together, FaceTime with him 24/7? Is he asking her for intimate photos as proof of her love for him? Is he demanding the passwords to her email and social media accounts? How is she feeling after spending time with him? Happy? Confident? At peace?

Or is he disturbing her peace, getting into her psyche and making her question herself, the decisions she makes, the people she spends time with aside from him? Is she getting isolated from her other friends? Is she starting to feel anxious or depressed? Is she missing school or work? Is her performance in school or at work suffering?

If she’s five minutes late, how does he respond? Does he get moody, give her the silent treatment? If he hits her or hits on her the first date, there’s not likely to be a second. But what if that control is more subtle and incremental? Can she learn to recognize these warning signs either as a young adult or full-grown woman?

Let’s work harder to teach our little girls not to sacrifice safety for manners. Sometimes we need to stand strong and risk appearing rude to stay safe. And for our little boys, can we teach them tenderness, that they can be vulnerable and have empathy and still be a man?

Whether you come from a healthy or unhealthy home, you are still at risk of ending up in a relationship with a sophisticated, covert abuser.

Because the control creeps up slowly, incrementally, unless you are trained to recognize early warning signs, you will be in over your head before you know it – and then how will you get out? And then the question will be not why did you stay, but how will you ever get the strength and courage and outside support you will need to escape?

Knowledge is power – and if we can educate our children, ourselves and each other, we can greatly reduce the risk of ending up in a relationship with a covert abuser.
Never underestimate the danger or lethality risk of coercive control. There are many men on death row who brag that they never beat their wives. This kind of abuser confuses love with possession and when the “object” of his desire decides to leave, it signals to him that he is losing control of his property, and he will often do whatever it takes to win that control back – or else punish her.

That’s why leaving someone like this is the most dangerous time. More than 70% of domestic violence incidents take place after a woman leaves. So she must plan her escape quietly, thoughtfully, carefully over time – perhaps years.

But with enough support, and by learning about the strategies he will use to further control and punish her and how to counter them, there is always hope for her to leave and live again – this time in peace and freedom, as is her fundamental human right.

And now with Senate Bill 1141 acknowledging that right, she has even more support to do just that.

Ruthven Darlene, M.A., is founder and director of the nonprofit WomenSV, which provides a range of services for women – and some men – experiencing domestic violence. For more information, call 996-2200, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit


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