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Coercive Control: The Dark Thread Linking Domestic Abuse, War, and Genocide


Welcome to a discussion on an issue of grave importance yet often overlooked: coercive control. The term may sound foreign to some, but its manifestations are all too familiar, particularly in the context of domestic relationships. Coercive control is a pervasive form of non-physical abuse that can have devastating consequences on victims. In this article, we will delve into the intricate dynamics of coercive control and explore its startling parallels with warfare tactics and even genocide.

Understanding Coercive Control in Domestic Relationships

Coercive control is a pattern of behavior that seeks to take away an individual's liberty or freedom, making them subjugate themselves to another's will. It can include acts such as stalking, cyberbullying, manipulation, threats, violence, and isolation from friends and family.

Victims often experience severe psychological trauma and feel a sense of entrapment, similar to living in a hostage situation. The power dynamics involved in coercive control are complex and are often rooted in societal norms and structures that reinforce gender inequality.

Indeed, the parallels between coercive control in domestic relationships and war tactics are stark and can be seen in many forms. Let's explore some specific examples of these tactics:

Coercive Control in the Context of War

In war situations, one party often seeks to assert dominance over another through various forms of coercive control.

Psychological Warfare

Much like in domestic situations, psychological warfare is a common tactic used in conflicts. For instance, during the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union used propaganda to spread fear and confusion among the enemy ranks[^1^]. This tactic is parallel to a domestic abuser who manipulates the victim's perception of reality through gaslighting, and triangulation creating a constant state of insecurity and doubt.


Isolation is another tactic commonly used in both war and domestic coercive control situations. In the war context, this could mean physically isolating the enemy, such as during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, where German and Finnish forces isolated the city, causing widespread famine and hardship[^2^]. In domestic settings, an abuser might isolate their victim from friends and family, creating a sense of dependency and making it more difficult for the victim to seek help.

Resource Control

In war, controlling and restricting resources is a common strategy to weaken the enemy. For instance, during the Gulf War, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was largely motivated by control over oil resources[^3^]. Similarly, in domestic abuse situations, an abuser may exert financial control over the victim, limiting their access to money and thereby reducing their ability to leave the abusive situation.

Coercive Control in Domestic Relationships

In domestic relationships, coercive control manifests in various forms that mirror the tactics used in warfare.


Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where the abuser causes the victim to doubt their own memory, perception, or sanity, often by denying or distorting factual information. This mirrors the use of propaganda in warfare to manipulate perceptions and spread confusion.


As with war tactics, abusers often isolate their victims from friends and family to increase dependence and control.

Financial Control

Just as resource control is a key strategy in warfare, financial control is a common tactic in domestic abuse. The abuser may limit the victim's access to funds, control all financial decisions, or prevent the victim from working, thereby creating financial dependency.

Coercive Control and Genocide

The grim reality is that coercive control doesn't stop at warfare; it also forms the underpinning of genocide. Genocides are meticulously planned events where coercive control is employed to manipulate, isolate, and eventually exterminate a particular group.

The Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and Armenian genocide are glaring examples of how coercive control can escalate to the most horrific atrocities. The aftermath of genocide leaves indelible scars on survivors and societies, with the effects of coercive control lingering for generations.

Coercive Control in Domestic Settings

Coercive control in domestic settings is an insidious form of abuse that involves a pattern of behavior encompassing acts of assault, threats, humiliation, and intimidation. It is designed to harm, punish, or frighten the victim, often leading to severe physical, emotional, and psychological damage[^4^].

In the most extreme cases, coercive control can escalate to homicide or death due to persistent poisoning. It's not uncommon for the abuser to resort to violence to assert dominance and maintain control over the victim. Furthermore, dosing poisoning is very common and can be employed as a covert method of control and dominance, causing gradual harm to the victim that ultimately leads to death[^5^].

Cult Tactics and Coercive Control

The tactics used by cult leaders provide a stark example of coercive control. Cult leaders employ psychological manipulation, isolation from friends and family, and the creation of a 'us vs them' mentality to exert control over their members[^6^].

These tactics mirror those used in abusive domestic situations, where the abuser seeks to isolate the victim from their support network, manipulate their perception of reality, and create an environment of fear and dependence. Just as in genocides, the aftermath of coercive control in both cults and domestic situations can leave long-lasting scars on the victims and the society around them[^7^].

The Intersection of Power and Violence

Coercive control serves as a stark reminder of the dangerous intersections of power and violence. Power, when unchecked, can lead to coercion and violence. Societal norms and structures often play a significant role in perpetuating power imbalances, thereby providing fertile ground for coercive control to flourish. Let's look at some specific examples:

Societal norms—commonly accepted behaviors and conventions within a society—can inadvertently encourage or condone coercive control.

Gender Norms

Traditional gender norms, such as the belief that men should be dominant and women should be submissive, can create environments conducive to coercive control. For instance, societies or families or religious groups, that uphold patriarchal norms may implicitly sanction male dominance and female subordination, providing a fertile ground for coercive control[^8^].

Victim Blaming

The societal norm of victim-blaming—holding victims responsible for the abuse they suffer—can also contribute to coercive control. It not only makes it difficult for victims to come forward but also reinforces the abuser's power and control[^9^].

Structural Factors and Coercive Control

Structural factors, such as laws, policies, and institutions, can also play a significant role in perpetuating power imbalances.

The U.S. legal system, while generally robust, can still inadvertently support coercive control in several ways. Here are a few examples:

Incomplete Recognition of Coercive Control

While many U.S. states have laws against physical abuse, not all recognize coercive control as a form of domestic abuse[^10^]. This can make it challenging for victims to seek legal recourse if they are subjected to non-physical forms of abuse.

Restraining Orders

While restraining orders are intended to protect victims of abuse, they often require the victim to have experienced physical violence or credible threats of violence. This can overlook victims who face psychological abuse or coercive control without physical violence[^11^].

Child Custody Battles

In child custody cases, courts sometimes fail to recognize coercive control. An abusive partner may be granted custody or visitation rights, enabling them to continue their control and abuse[^12^].

Legal System Complexity

The complexity of the legal system can itself be a barrier. Understanding legal rights, navigating court procedures, and affording legal representation can be challenging for victims, especially those under coercive control[^13^].

While these examples point to ways the U.S. legal system may inadvertently support coercive control, it's important to note that many states and organizations are working to address these issues and better support victims of abuse.

Economic Structures

Economic structures can also contribute to coercive control. For example, in societies where women have less access to employment or are paid less than men, they may be more vulnerable to financial coercive control[^14^].

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is often used as a form of coercive control, especially among low-income populations. High food prices, limited access to quality food, and policies that restrict food assistance can keep low-income individuals in a state of dependency and vulnerability[^15^].

Health Care Access

Health care can also be a tool for coercion. In the U.S., where health insurance is often tied to employment, low-income individuals may be reliant on government-provided health care or remain in unfavorable jobs to keep their health insurance[^16^]. This can lead to a form of coercive control, where fear of losing access to necessary medical care keeps individuals in oppressive situations.


Access to quality education is another area where coercive control can manifest. Schools in low-income areas often receive less funding and resources, leading to inferior educational opportunities. This educational disparity can limit future employment prospects, reinforcing a cycle of poverty and making individuals more susceptible to coercive control[^17^].

In addressing coercive control, it's crucial to reform these economic structures that perpetuate power imbalances. This could involve policies that increase food security, ensure universal health care, and promote equitable education funding.

The Role of Society in Combating Coercive Control

Societies must strive to dismantle structures that perpetuate inequality and allow power imbalances to persist.

Promoting Basic Equality

Promote basic equality by ensuring equal access to resources and opportunities regardless of race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status. For instance, the implementation of policies like income-based school funding can help promote educational equality[^18^].

Legal Measures

Enact and enforce laws against all forms of abuse. For example, the 'Duluth Model' in the United States was one of the earliest attempts to address domestic violence through legal means[^19^].

Access to Justice

Ensure victims of coercive control have access to justice. This might involve creating safe spaces for victims to report abuse and providing necessary support and aid throughout the legal process.

The Role of Individuals in Combating Coercive Control

Individuals can play a crucial role in identifying and responding to coercive control.

Recognizing Red Flags in Society

Learn to recognize societal red flags which might include:

  • Systemic Inequality: Unequal distribution of resources or opportunities among different groups in society.

  • Normalization of Abuse: Tolerating or making light of abusive behavior in media or everyday conversations.

  • Victim Blaming: Holding victims responsible for the abuse they suffer.

Recognizing Red Flags in Domestic Relationships

Recognize signs of coercive control in relationships, which might include:

  • Isolation: A partner limiting your contact with friends and family.

  • Monitoring: A partner insisting on knowing your whereabouts and checking your communications without your consent.

  • Degradation: Regular belittlement, insult, or humiliation by your partner.

  • Control: Your partner dictating your actions, from your wardrobe to your social interactions.

Taking Action

If you recognize signs of coercive control in your relationship or someone else's, seek help from local authorities or non-governmental organizations. In the U.S., the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides support for victims of abuse[^20^].


In conclusion, coercive control is a sinister form of abuse that permeates all levels of society, from domestic relationships to global conflicts and genocide. Understanding this dark thread is crucial in our collective fight against oppression and violence.

Let us be vigilant in recognizing signs of coercive control in our surroundings, be it at home, in our communities, or in global events. Let's strive to build societies where power is not wielded as a weapon but used responsibly for the well-being of all.

Knowledge is power. By understanding coercive control, we empower ourselves to fight against it. Together, we can break the shackles of oppression and foster a world free from violence and coercion.


[^1^]: Osgood, K. (2006). Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad. University Press of Kansas.

[^2^]: Salisbury, H. (1969). The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. Harper & Row.

[^3^]: Yetiv, S. A. (1997). The Persian Gulf Crisis: The Cold War Heats Up. Greenwood Press.

[^4^]: Heise, L. L. (1998). Violence Against Women: An Integrated, Ecological Framework. Violence Against Women.

[^5^]: Hayes, R. M., Lorenz, K., & Bell, K. A. (2013). Victim Blaming Others: Rape Myth Acceptance and the Just World Belief. Feminist Criminology.

[^6^]: World Health Organization. (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-partner Sexual Violence.

[^7^]: Stark, E. (2007). Coercive Control: The Entrapment of Women in Personal Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

[^8^]: Davis, R. C., O'Sullivan, C. S., Farole, D. J., & Rempel, M. (2008). A Comparison of Two Prosecution Policies in Cases of Intimate Partner Violence: Mandatory Case Filing Vs. Following the Victim's Lead. Criminology & Public Policy, 7(4), 633–662.

[^9^]: Bancroft, L., Silverman, J. G., & Ritchie, D. (2011). The Batterer as Parent: Addressing the Impact of Domestic Violence on Family Dynamics. SAGE Publications.

[^10^]: Ptacek, J. (2009). Restorative Justice and Violence Against Women. Oxford University Press.

[^11^]: Adams, A. E., Sullivan, C. M., Bybee, D., & Greeson, M. R. (2008). Development of the Scale of Economic Abuse. Violence Against Women.

[^12^]: Stark, E. (2007). Coercive Control: The Entrapment of Women in Personal Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

[^13^]: Wilcox, P. (2012). Is Domestic Violence a Crime? International Review of Victimology.

[^14^]: Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. (2006). Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships. Bay Tree Publishing.

[^15^]: Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books.

[^16^]: Jackson, C. K., Johnson, R. C., & Persico, C. (2016). The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(1), 157–218.

[^17^]: Coleman-Jensen, A., Rabbitt, M. P., Gregory, C. A., & Singh, A. (2020). Household Food Security in the United States in 2019. USDA ERS Economic Research Report No. (ERR-275).

[^18^]: Sommers, B. D., & Oellerich, D. (2013). The Poverty Trap of High Medicaid Premiums. Health Affairs.

[^19^]: Reardon, S. F. (2011). The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations. Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children's Life Chances, 91–115.

[^20^]: Duluth Model. (2021). What is The Duluth Model?

[^21^]: National Domestic Violence Hotline. (2020). Get Help.

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