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explainer

A woman carries a placard reading '8 weeks, 8 femicides, it's enough' during a moment of silence prior to protest march against domestic violence in Montreal, in April, 2021.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Though physical forms of intimate partner violence or domestic violence are well known and easy to detect, there are more covert forms of psychological abuse that are not always recognized as violence.

Coercive control can be an early indicator of relationships that will escalate into physical or even lethal violence. In Canada, researchers who looked at femicides from 2015 to 2019 found coercive, controlling behaviours such as stalking, isolation and threats were frequent. On average, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control is a pattern of behaviours intended to isolate, humiliate, exploit or dominate a person. This can include emotional, verbal and financial abuse – like preventing someone from going to work or school, or limiting their access to finances. It could also include gaslighting, intimidation and belittling.

A recent House of Commons report cited experts who described it as “a course of intimidating, degrading and regulatory practices used by abusers to instill fear and threat into the everyday lives of their victims.” In these situations, victims of coercive and controlling behaviour are deprived of their liberty and autonomy. The intent is to gain and maintain power and to “strip away a person’s freedom and their sense of self.”

What are the warning signs to watch for?

Coercive control can sometimes be referred to as “invisible chains” – but the warning signs are actually quite visible, if you know what to look out for. These can include:

  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Monitoring of activity
  • Monitoring whereabouts using devices such as GPS
  • Threats, belittling or humiliation
  • Jealousy
  • Gaslighting
  • Sexual coercion
  • Controlling use of social media
  • Threats to harm a pet or child
  • Threats of suicide if the person leaves
  • Restricted access to money or food
  • Barrage of text messages

How can I protect my phone or laptop from my significant other?

So much of our daily lives and movements can be traced online. As a result, phones and laptops can be used by abusers as a surveillance tool. Don’t share passwords, and look out for tracking apps on your devices or unusual activity on your social media. For more resources, check out Love Is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US, and Apple’s personal safety guide.

Is coercive control illegal in Canada?

No. Some countries such as Scotland have passed legislation recognizing coercive control as a crime – and some experts believe that this should happen in Canada as well. But coercive behaviour does not currently constitute an offence under the Criminal Code.

One way that coercive control can be addressed through the courts is with protection-order legislation. This allows people who are experiencing these controlling behaviours to seek a protection order (like a restraining order) from a judge, barring their abuser from contacting them. So while the behaviours are not themselves illegal, the abuser could be arrested if they breach the terms of the protection order.

Where can I turn to if I am experiencing coercive control?

The Government of Canada website offers a list of crisis lines for each province and territory, as well as resources on finding family violence services.

Here are some other resources that can offer support:

Assaulted Women’s Helpline: Toll Free: 1-866-863-0511

Canadian Women’s Foundation

Shelter Safe

SOS in Quebec: 1-800-363-9010 or text 1-438-601-1211

Video: How to spot signs of coercive control

What are the warning signs of coercive control? Watch to learn how to spot manipulative behaviour.

The Globe and Mail

Podcast: Elizabeth Renzetti on The Decibel

Elizabeth Renzetti spoke with The Decibel about the debate around whether to criminalize coercive control. Subscribe for more episodes.