scorecard2 therapists explain how they spot coercive abuse in relationships and work with victims to help get them out
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2 therapists explain how they spot coercive abuse in relationships and work with victims to help get them out

Julia Naftulin   

2 therapists explain how they spot coercive abuse in relationships and work with victims to help get them out
LifeScience3 min read
  • Coercive control is a psychological abuse tactic that can involve name-calling, gaslighting, , and love-bombing.
  • If therapists see a power imbalance in the relationship, they focus on helping the victim of coercive control.

When trauma therapist Amelia Kelley works with couples and one partner comes in with a laundry list of complaints about the other, it's her first sign that their dynamic could include coercive control, a psychological and emotional abuse tactic.

In 2015, UK domestic violence prevention advocates coined the term "coercive control" and successfully campaigned to make it a criminal offense. Though coercive control isn't a legal offense in the US, the term can still describe the insidious nature of emotional relationship abuse, therapist Stephanie Sarkis, author of the upcoming book "Healing from Toxic Relationships: 10 Essential Steps to Recover from Gaslighting, Narcissism, and Emotional Abuse," told Insider.

Coercive control is a type of non-physical abuse used to make a target feel unsure of their own reality so they become dependent on their abuser, Insider previously reported. Tactics may include gaslighting, name-calling, withholding money or access to medical care, and threats of violence.

In therapy, when there's a pattern of one partner speaking and acting aggressively, while the other is always appeasing them, it's a sign to examine their relationship more closely, according to Kelley, who also co-authored "What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship."

Once therapists identify victims of coercive control, they focus on keeping them safe, cutting off contact with their abuser, and helping them regain their sense of self and boundaries, Sarkis said.

Therapists can spot signs of coercive control early on

When a couple comes to see Kelley, she can usually tell from the energy in the room whether they both feel safe, she said.

If the conversation centers on one partner who always messes up and apologizes, or one partner's desires are always the priority in the relationship, Kelley said she'll dig deeper into their dynamic to see if there's a pattern of abuse.

If someone verbally abuses their partner during couples counseling, or says "We didn't agree to discuss that here," when their partner brings up an issue, these are obvious signs of coercive control, Kelley said.

When a coercive control victim comes to a session alone, they might say they don't know what they're doing wrong in their relationship, but feel desperate to fix it, according to Sarkis.

"And we start talking and it turns out that they're being told on a consistent basis that they're not good enough. You discover there's been a gradual ramp up of power and control in the relationship," Sarkis said.

Once a therapist identifies an abuser, they stop working with them

When a therapist has enough information to suggest one of their clients is a perpetrator of coercive control, they stop the therapeutic relationship, according to Kelley.

That's because individual or couples therapy with an abuser can give them ideas about how to further emotionally and psychologically manipulate their target, Kelley said.

She added that she declines requests from previous clients' abusers, who have called her asking for individual sessions after she's seen their partner or worked with them as a couple.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline also cautions people against attending couples therapy if they know their partner is abusive.

Therapists help victims rebuild their sense of self and boundaries

Once a therapist is aware of a coercive control victim's situation, they help them find physical safety, Kelley said.

This can include creating an exit plan, looping in a trusted friend or family member for added support, and helping them get medical attention they couldn't access while in the relationship, according to Kelley.

If possible, Sarkis recommends her clients cut off contact with their abuser completely, including blocking them on social media. Sometimes, this isn't possible because of a co-parenting situation or divorce court proceedings, she said.

Once they secure physical safety, they focus on discussing a victim's personal interests, goals, likes, and dislikes to help them reconnect with their sense of self. They also explain that they can relearn boundary-setting in relationships, and that it's not their fault for being in an abusive situation where they were unable to uphold their boundaries, Sarkis said.