Coercive control and manipulation in romantic relationships

Recognising the more subtle and insidious signs of abuse in romantic relationships can take time, it has a way of sneaking up on you - over many months, maybe even years. 


Perhaps you are still putting the pieces together, trying to make sense of your reality when you’ve been led to believe a false narrative. 

I’ve often noticed amongst clients, and indeed from personal experience, that the first indicator for many comes from within… a sense of ‘something isn’t quite right but I don’t know what it is…’ 

Perhaps you find yourself struggling with feelings of unease or anxiety, doubting your ability to make decisions, or maybe your mood changes in alignment with the energy of your partner. Other times the clues can be physical: Long-term sleep disturbances, waking with your jaw clenched, persistent headaches, digestion issues, and worsening of chronic conditions. 

Now, it would be remiss of me to say that by ticking the above boxes you are most definitely in a relationship that survives on abusive dynamics, but these are questions to ask yourself if you have suspicions that something is ‘off’. 

Manipulation in relationships is often less obvious than your typical Google search would lead you to believe, and unfortunately, we are in a time of pop psychology where the terms ‘gaslighting’ and ‘narcissist’ get tossed around like confetti. 

Let’s use an example… your spouse tells you a lie, it’s a big lie, a lie that might, in your mind, make you question the validity of the relationship. But just before coming clean about this lie, your spouse asked to borrow an amount of money from you, and whether you felt comfortable lending or not, you agreed to because it’s difficult to say no. 

Your spouse is now in a position of control and power, they know you need that money back, and by you ending the relationship you know that you are very unlikely to ever see it again… so what do you do? You forgive and move on.

I chose this example because the manipulator here doesn’t even need to make promises of change for you to accept the wrongdoings, they’ve managed to create a situation in which you feel like you need them, so you let them stay. 

Many people view controlling relationships as more overt, such as being told what to wear, how to behave, isolation from friends and family… all of this is of course a possibility. But what if it’s not so obvious? 

Perhaps your spouse encourages you to go and see your friends, but on returning home you find them abrasive, cold, distant. Over time these feelings will lead you to believe you are at fault – at fault for indulging your own interests, and for maintaining friendships and relationships with family members. To avoid the stomach-churning sense of anxiety and doubting yourself, you stop going out. You make excuses. Your spouse hasn’t outright told you not to exhibit a sense of independence… but when you do, even actively encouraged by them, you find yourself the subject of stonewalling or the silent treatment.

Manipulative character types present themselves in a plethora of ways, but they all have one thing in common… they create a sense of doubt and confusion so significant in their victims that just the thought of speaking out about your experience seems impossible. Where do you even begin to unravel the mess that’s been created for you in your mind? 

There is light, and there is recovery, and there is a future for you in which you meet yourself again, shake your own hand, and say “Welcome home.”

Recovering from covert abuse types such as coercive control and manipulation takes time. The difficulty with this slow-burning abuse is that, often, there is what’s called delayed realisation. The ‘penny drop’ moment of realising that you have in fact been a victim of abuse can take weeks, sometimes even months, after the relationship has ended for you to realise just how much of the intrinsic behaviour within that relationship dynamic was abusive. 

In terms of recovery, many preach going ‘no contact’ with the abuser. Which, in an ideal world, is gold-standard to aid emotional recovery from such treatment. However, in many instances, this isn’t entirely possible - what if you share children? A home? Other assets? 

Attending talk therapy can help here. Being in a safe space to identify, name, and come to terms with the abuse that you suffered can create resilience, it can help you spot the tactics used by the abuser to attempt to suck you back in or encourage contact outside of what is necessary. 

Choosing a therapist that has experience - personally or professionally - in this type of work will be essential to create lasting change, re-establish the self-esteem that was lost along the way, and help you to create and maintain boundaries with your abuser. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH16 1BJ
Written by Sarah Stovell, Dip.Couns (BACP)
Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH16 1BJ

Sarah Stovell Dip.Couns is an Award-winning Integrated Counsellor specialising in anxiety disorders, depression, and abuse. She works with a combination of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and client-centred therapy models. To arrange a consultation or for more information please contact

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Abuse

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals