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Week 4, Session 2: The Cycle of Coercive Control

Hello and welcome to Week 4, Session 2 - officially halfway through our course!

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

You’ll need your thought diary for your homework, so take a moment to find it, if you haven’t already.

This week, we’ve really been getting deep into the psychology of abusive behaviour. In our first session this week, we covered why abuse really happens - or rather, we looked at the roots of abuse and control in society.

Of course, we’ve already covered what that control looks like. In Week 1, we discussed the different types of abuse; Week 2 was about the feelings of abuse in our minds and bodies; and Week 3 was a discussion of self-esteem, which our abusers’ use to repress us.

But, one thing we haven’t mentioned are the tactics that keep us so low - the methods of power that break down self-esteem. Just like abusive behaviours can be divided into types of abuse, so can the ways we are manipulated.

So, today, we are going to talk more about coercive control - specifically, the 4 categories of manipulation that come together to make us so tired, compliant, and dependent.

It’s a frustrating and difficult topic for sure, and could be associated with some uncomfortable memories - but we are here with you, and we hope you can feel empowered by the end of today’s session, with keen eyes, open hearts, full minds, and a whole team here to support you.

The goals for this session are:

  • Explain the Cycle of Coercion, or the categories manipulative control
    → We answer the question of HOW abusers stay dominant

Today’s grounding exercise will be…

Clap and rub your hands together! Hear the noise and feel the sensation in your hands and arms. You can even make heat with your hands through friction.

Also try stamping your feet. Focus on the sound that makes and how your legs feel. Maybe you can even drum out a melody. Feel free to make as little or as much noise as you want, how you want!

Fun question: What is your favourite word and why?

As we’ve been learning throughout the course, abusers are able to control us because they take advantage of low self-esteem. To do so, they either shatter another’s confidence or they target those who’ve been hurt in the past (and whose self-esteem is already lessened).

For some survivors, we may have been threatened or denied support - whether as children or during a traumatic experience. It’s natural if these experiences made us doubt our own abilities. Or maybe, we were systematically worn down to question our thoughts and feelings, rather than in a singular moment of vulnerability. Often, abuse can feel like water wearing down rock and making it smooth. It’s hard to notice how long there’s been rain, when the surface has changed. Like some invisible force.

We know that abusive behaviour can be physical, emotional or psychological, financial, or sexual. It can be in neglect or in honour-based violence. It can also be coercive - which is that “invisible” factor: the little things that add up but never show themselves completely.

Coercive abuse can be broken down into an actual cycle we’re discussing today - another list of 4 categories that works to harm our self-worth. This is known as Biderman’s Cycle of Coercion, which was originally designed to describe the feelings of those who’d survived prisoner of war camps in Korea. Incredibly, the feelings of soldiers returning from encampments and the techniques used by their captors were found to be identical to those encountered by survivors of domestic violence. Their devotion to their captors, their bonding, and their fear is the same as ours.

This is another reason why we say that ANYONE can be abused! As one of our 4 key facts! We weren’t exaggerating! Even soldiers - trained fighters, largely renowned by society for their strength and masculine-coded resilience - are vulnerable to abuse. This is also why some workers in domestic abuse now call domestic abuse ‘intimate terrorism’.

You are INCREDIBLE for putting up with the conditions you do, and for being here, and surviving - even on the days that are hard. You are a literal warrior.

In the following steps, human beings can better undermine and control the person with whom they have a relationship.

The first step is Isolation, so the abuser becomes the most important thing in a survivor’s world, and others are less able to notice or stop the abuse.

The second is Exhaustion, so it becomes too difficult to think or question the authority of the perpetrator. The survivor is literally too tired to fight back or notice what is happening to them.

The third is Humiliation, which further impacts a survivor’s self-esteem and self-worth, so it’s hard to feel they deserve better.

Lastly is the Threat of violence or death, which can include threatening to hurt children, pets, or other loved ones or friends. When a person is threatened with death - whether this threat is implied or direct - they become frightened and locked into the relationship.

What can these steps look like?

As with the types of abuse in Week 1, we are going to give you a list of examples to remember, because the actions of our abusers give them away every time!

Feel free to add them to your starry skies, too, for any examples you want to remember as we go through!

Also note that the descriptions of these behaviours, while not graphic, may be upsetting. Take care as you read, and you can always come back later if you need to step away.


  • “You’re the most important thing.”
  • Causing tension with your family, or else making themselves a key member/beloved, so you’d feel crazy saying anything negative about them to people who know you
  • Constant calls/texts/emails to check in with you – i.e. “I love you/miss you.”
  • “I’ll pick you up” – or turning up without notice
  • Interrupting individual hobbies – “Let’s do something together instead.”
  • “I’m shy/insecure/not good enough.”
  • Combining bank accounts
  • Sharing the car
  • Moving in together (quickly) or far away/somewhere remote
  • Excessive flattery – i.e. they’re the only one who knows “you’re special”
  • Being discouraging of other friendships – i.e. “testing” your loyalty to them, rather than allowing for other healthy relationships and bonds
  • Emotional blackmail: creating a sense of obligation in the relationship


  • Responsibility for their happiness falls on you alone
  • Their needs dominate
  • Constant sexual demands
  • Pregnancy
  • Loss of sleep/sleep deprivation makes you too tired to think clearly or bring up your needs
  • Excessive housework
  • Constant criticism
  • Comparison to others
  • Jealousy must be monitored
  • Child care
  • Guilt
  • Unpredictability keeps you focused 24/7 on their needs
  • Mood swings
  • Absence from work
  • Dependency on alcohol/drugs
  • Illness
  • Depression/medication
  • Anxiety/shame
  • Loss of identity
  • You begin to hide/lie to others, because there’s too much to explain (or it’s too complicated to explain))


  • Dehumanisation
  • Rejection of food you make
  • Infidelity (you weren’t enough) – or flaunting sex with others
  • Being made to eat off the floor/sleep on the floor - or needing permission for basic tasks
  • Deprivation of toilet/sanitary wear
  • Withholding of sex/affection
  • Withholding money
  • Enforcing sex acts you aren’t comfortable with, like threesomes, prostitution, bondage, making or watching pornography, anal sex, rape, or involving animals
  • Drugs/drink – shaming you or forcing you into the behaviour; or belittling you for these habits


  • “If you leave, I’ll find you.”
  • “I’ll kill you/I’ll kill myself.”
  • “I’ll kill the children.”
  • “No one will believe you.”
  • “You are mad/crazy.”
  • “You can’t manage without me.”
  • “No one else will want you.”
  • “You have nowhere to go/no one to go to.”
  • “I’ll beat up someone else.”
  • “I’ll scar you.”
  • Giving you the silent treatment as punishment – or stonewalling
  • Giving a particular look – that you are attuned to react to, and others rarely tell/can notice
  • Threatening property damage
  • Attacking pets
  • Taking children away
  • Threatening to call social services
  • Withholding money, medication, drugs

As we did when we named types of abuse, it’s important to recognise what each step looks like, so we can identify the tactics used against us, name them, know them, and protect ourselves! We can stay pinned at the truth! This makes it harder for an abuser to confuse us.

Our abusers are not all-knowing or all-powerful - whatever they’d have us believe! - they may not be repeating these steps on purpose. But, even without realising their actions, Isolation, Exhaustion, Humiliation, and Threats are still effective methods of control.

But these methods are not inescapable, and as we’ve been learning, there are also ways we can break that cycle, and to live more fully than they ever could. And we’ve already been keeping ourselves safe.

Remember, our behaviours and feelings are still survival techniques we adopted to live in abusive environments. We have already adapted - with the same intelligence, resolve, and care - that soldiers or civilians use in situations of war. Our abusers aren’t making us do or be anything. We are the ones keeping ourselves safe in extreme, terrifying, and sometimes life-threatening circumstances.

So, please, never punish yourself for the adaptations to your thoughts, feelings, and self-esteem, that helped you navigate the abusive home.

And one final note: power can only be power. If someone is seeking to hold authority over you, they can never have real connections, equality, or love. Love requires our continued vulnerability, not just when we share past injuries or injustices with each other - which often happens with abusers. Instead, love - whether familial, platonic, or romantic needs to be about mutual growth.

We wanted to end today’s session with an unusual quote… It’s from American politics and the Nixon era. Believe us! We’re not political junkies, but we do like what journalist Robert A. Caro had to say about power…

“Power does not corrupt. It reveals.”

When people have power over us - whether because we trust them, we live with them, or we are dependent on them - they show us who they really are. And in this position of power, the abuser treated you the ways they’ve always wanted to treat you. They isolate, humiliate, threaten, and exhaust.

But now you know this. You know that the abuse wasn’t about you at all, it was about them. And with that information, you are the one with real power.

We want to directly confront the 4 methods of coercion.

This week, do one thing to undo Isolation, Exhaustion, Humiliation, and Threats.

For Isolation: Reach out to someone you love this week. Be in touch with your communities.

For Exhaustion: Commit to another act of self-care, even if it’s as basic as setting one night aside for 8 hours of sleep, or a nap when you are free!

For Humiliation: Find something to celebrate. Treat yourself to a beautiful meal or maybe add to your list of affirmations. Repeat them!

For Threats: Write down one of your favourite grounding exercises and keep them with you. If you feel unsafe or out of control, you will have something to turn to to feel calm.

Continue to add those facts you want to remember with stars - and to write in your thought diaries.

You can do this.

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