Coercive control, non-physical violence and relationship red flags

Get to know the “hidden” forms of abuse in families and intimate relationships.

Across Australia, we have a skewed view of what violence in intimate relationships actually looks like. What comes to mind is physical violence, or sexual violence – something that is much easier to categorise as “not okay”.  

But that type of behaviour typically doesn’t appear out of thin air. It usually follows non-physical violence – insidious behaviour that breaks down a person’s boundaries, instincts and self-esteem to gain control over their independence, autonomy and judgement. This is also known as coercive control.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a pattern of ongoing, continuous abuse over time that’s often covert and difficult to identify. It’s used by a person to control, dominate and intimidate another person, usually an intimate partner.  

Coercive control can describe non-physical abuse (psychological, emotional, financial, cultural, spiritual), as well as physical and sexual abuse. It is a key element of family violence and violence against women and embodies the gendered drivers of men’s violence.

While coercive control may coincide with physical or sexual violence, it can be an extremely harmful feature of a violent relationship long before any physical violence takes place. It is not less serious when it is not physical.  

This non-physical abuse is predominantly experienced by women and perpetrated by men – but it can happen in any kind of relationship. It can happen in intimate relationships, in families, between parents and children (and adult children and their older parents), and in other carer relationships.

Recognise the relationship red flags and the early warning signs of abuse

Coercive control is abusive behaviour that no one should have to live with. It can also be an indicator of more frequent and worsening physical and emotional abuse to come, and part of an answer to the too-common hypothetical: “Why didn’t she just leave?”.

Being able to recognise this abuse – at the start of a new relationship or during a long-term relationship, in our own lives or in our loved ones’ – is an important role in putting an end to all violence against women and family violence. 

Legal approach to coercive control in Victoria

Victorian law does not explicitly criminalise coercive control. Instead, coercive control is addressed through our existing family violence laws.

Current community discussion about coercive control represents a growing awareness, and better understanding about the manifestations of family violence and violence against women.  

Learn more about coercive control in Victoria