Recognizing Warning Signs of Abuse and Coercive Control in a Relationship

You’re probably familiar with some forms of domestic violence, such as physical or verbal abuse. Such abuse happens when one partner exerts control over the other using threats of or actual physical assaults (slapping, punching, choking, pushing, drawing a gun or knife) or with verbal abuse (insults, name calling, belittling). But there’s a more subtle type of abusive behavior that is as harmful and at times far more dangerous to a victim of domestic violence.

What is Coercive Control?

Today, the term “coercive control” more accurately describes the way abusers can psychologically manipulate, control, oppress and ultimately terrorize their partners, entrapping them into a hostage-like domestic violence situation. But how does it work? Can victims  recognize coercive control in their relationships and get out safely? Or will they risk serious physical injury and possibly death if they do not ultimately bend physically and psychologically to the will of an abuser?

Looking at “The Warning Signs of An Abusive Relationship,” a list that I compiled and that first appeared in my book, Entering the Thriver Zone: A Seven Step Guide to Thriving After Abuse, it is clear how abusers can gain and maintain coercive control over their partner with these tactics, even without physical violence being used.

That was certainly the case with my nineteen-year-old niece, Maggie, who was killed in 1999 by her ex-boyfriend on a college campus in Michigan. She didn’t realize the danger she was in when her ex-boyfriend manipulated her to come to see him in his dorm room late one Sunday night. She went there, I believe, to tell him one more time to leave her alone but she didn’t know he had a gun. He killed her and then himself in that room that night.  Perhaps he did it because he was desperate to continue the relationship but he could no longer control the decisions and choices she was making in her life.  If he couldn’t have her, then no one else could.


Missing the signs of coercive control in a relationship can have serious consequences for the victim. A recent example is Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman who went missing in late August, 2021 in a remote area in Wyoming and later was found dead there. She, like Maggie, may have missed the warning signs of coercive control in her relationship with her fiancé Brian Laundrie. What is even clearer—tragically so— is that the police officers she encountered in Utah a short time before her disappearance missed the signs and did not properly assess the danger she was in traveling with Brian touring National Parks across the country in a van.

An autopsy found that Gabby died of an apparent homicide, strangled and throttled to death. Brian became a “person of interest” in the investigation of her death until his body was found in mid-October in a remote area of Florida. He had returned in early September to Florida where he and and his parents lived driving the van, but without Gabby.  The full story of what happened between these two people may never be known, but there is much to learn from Gabby’s situation about domestic abuse and coercive control.

First of all, the stop by the police in Utah was precipitated by an eye-witness who reported to the police earlier that day that Brian had slapped Gabby across the face while she sat next to him in the van that he was driving. As those police officers talked to both Gabby and Brian attempting to determine who had physically assaulted whom (and never really resolved it, so no one was arrested), they missed key signs of the verbal abuse and coercive control tactics Brian was using with Gabby that were in plain sight as the video of the stop from the police officers’ body cameras, now available to the public, shows.

Evan Stark explained in his book Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (Interpersonal Violence), what the police missed in Gabby’s case were the signs of a form of coercive control when “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”


While anyone can experience coercive control, since domestic violence is often grounded in gender-based privilege of men over women, reports from victims of this kind of violence and abuse come predominantly from women. While the signs of coercive control can take many forms, they fall into five recognizable categories:

Isolation, Jealousy, Possessiveness

  • He isolates her from family and friends, forbidding her to see them or limiting her access to them. (In Gabby’s case, she was traveling with Brian alone, isolated from her family and friends except for posts to her social media accounts. But as an “influencer,” Gabby rarely reported anything distressing on her accounts; she was intent on showing what a wonderful trip she was having with her fiancé in the van.)
  • He is jealous of her contact with others, particularly with other men, exaggerating her relationships with other men, accusing her unfairly of having affairs outside of their relationship. (Maggie’s ex-boyfriend used these tactics throughout their relationship, particularly after she split up with him.)
  • He wants to know where she is at all times, calling or texting her to find out who she is with. (This was also a tactic used in Maggie’s situation.)  
  • He invades her privacy by checking her cell phone, viewing her texts and email or monitoring her web pages and social media accounts.
  • He refuses to accept when she ends the relationship and may stalk her long afterwards. (In Maggie’s case, he would not accept her decision to break-up with him and continued to stalk and harass her until she agreed to come to his room late that night, putting herself in grievous danger.)


  • He destroys her things, kicks or breaks other property, making her fear that he could hurt her, too.
  • He makes her afraid of him by his looks, actions and gestures.
  • He grabs her, kicks her, slaps her, punches her, strangles her or draws a gun or weapon and threatens to kill her. These actions can evoke fear that things may escalate to an even higher level of violence if the partner resists.
  • He harms her pets or threatens to hurt or harm her pets, family or friends.
  • He stalks her with unwanted phone calls, visits to her house or job and secretly monitors her actions.

Economic Abuse

  • He controls her access to money, even her own money or money she has earned herself.
  • He refuses to pay bills or let her know about family income, investments or property.
  • He keeps her from getting or keeping a job, refuses to support their family or children.
  • He makes all the big decisions, using male privilege to get his way and insisting on rigid gender roles. (In Gabby’s case, he insisted on driving her van and continually threatened to abandon her along the way when he was displeased with her or her behavior. At one point, he locked her out of the van and when he refused to let her back in, she panicked that he’d leave her behind so she had to climb back into the van through a half-opened passenger-side window.)

Gaslighting and Stoking Fear in Victim

Another common tactic, “gaslighting” is the process of manipulating someone into questioning their own beliefs, perceptions, memories or sanity. Often an abuser insists there is no abuse or implies their partner is to blame for the abuse.

  • She feels like she is going crazy. She sees that his view of the world is not reasonable, but she’ll have little chance of convincing him otherwise and he demands her absolute loyalty to his way of thinking. (In Gabby’s case, he tells the police she is crazy, that she harmed him and he only slapped her because she scratched him first.  She tells the police he “stresses her out.”)
  • He says he can’t live without her or will kill himself if she leaves, so she fears ending the relationship.
  • He pushes the relationship too far, too fast and is obsessed with her and wants her for himself. (In Maggie’s case, this was one of the reasons she broke off the relationship, calling him “immature” because he wouldn’t accept the choice she was making to leave the relationship and live her life going forward only as his friend.)
  • He has unrealistic expectations and demands and makes her feel it is her fault he’s not happy. (In Gabby’s case, she tells the police officers a number of times that she was to blame for why Brian was unhappy. She tells them that she was sorry for distracting Brian from driving and some days she has really bad OCD.  She also minimized his behavior to the police – “that he didn’t like hit me or anything.”)

 Controlling the Sexual Relationship

  • He demands to have sex forcibly without her consent with him or with others.
  • He withdraws sex from her or makes it conditional on her compliance to his demands including wanting to perform sexual acts she isn’t comfortable with.
  • He calls her crude names, implying she is promiscuous and unfaithful sexually to him even when she is not.


Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult, but if coercive control as described above is present, it may be especially difficult to leave. These relationships rarely start out looking or feeling like abuse. Some women describe their partner at the start being so loving, so interested in everything about them until some line is crossed.  By then, using a slow deliberate process, the abusers have broken down the victim’s self-esteem, isolated them from their social support, created a financially dependent situation and made them unable to believe in or trust themselves or others’ good opinion of them and their skills.

Furthermore, when and if victims of coercive control do report the domestic violence to the police or appear in court before a judge after filing for divorce, they may have inconsistent memory of events and gaps in their recollection that should not necessarily be equated with untruthfulness. Fear, uncertainty and trauma can impact how victims describe their experiences and establishing trust can take time and consistency on the part of law enforcement.

The lack of proper training of police officers on how trauma may affect victims and account for those factors so that their initial interviews are more productive and they can earn a victim’s trust clearly hampered the ability of the police officers who stopped Gabby and Brian to keep her safe. Instead of an intervention, the police officer, perhaps not intentionally, reaffirmed and reinforced by their acceptance of Brian’s behavior that the power and control he was exerting over her was not unreasonable. In fact, the officers released them to spend the night separately and had no problem with them getting back in the van in the morning and continuing their trip.


According to the autopsy, Gabby died violently most likely at the hands of her fiancé, the man who the police had “checked out” just a few days earlier in Utah. Those officers missed the opportunity to save her life, and ultimately his life too.

If you believe that you, a friend or family member may be in a relationship where some or all of these warning signs of coercive control are present, you can get support and help from a local domestic violence crisis intervention program in your area.  To search a list of such programs, visit or call the National Domestic Violence Hot Line ( at 800.799.SAFE (7233).

Living well is our best revenge, as I say in the My Avenging Angel WorkshopsTM that I conduct to help women take the journey beyond abuse from victim to survivor to thriver!  But first, we have to live and survive!  Get help now!


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