Abusive power and control (also controlling behavior and coercive control) is behavior used by an abusive person to gain and/or maintain control over another person. Abusers are commonly motivated by devaluation, personal gain, personal gratification, psychological projection, or the enjoyment of exercising power and control. The victims of this behavior are often subject to psychological, physical, mental, sexual, or financial abuse.
Abusive power and control are forms of violence characterized by their continuity, insidiousness, and common prerequisite of intimate partner relationships. They are a pattern of domination through which the abuser uses coercive and controlling tactics, which may or may not involve physical, psychological, or sexual violence, to entrap their victim. Professor Evan Stark has demonstrated that coercive control is gendered, in that it is mostly men who resort to it against their female intimate partners. Professor Janet Mosher refers to it as the “micro-regulation of women’s everyday lives.” The tactics deployed by the abuser can comprise emotional blackmail, threats, gaslighting, physical force, surveillance, stalking, insults, and other means. Researchers Andy Myhill and Katrin Hohl have explained coercive control as a “golden thread” connecting all these instances of intimate partner abuse.
Evan Stark first coined the concept of coercive control in his 2007 text Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. He defines coercive control as “an ongoing pattern of domination by which male abusive partners primarily interweave repeated physical and sexual violence with intimidation, sexual degradation, isolation and control. The primary outcome of coercive control is a condition of entrapment that can be hostage-like in the harms it inflicts on dignity, liberty, autonomy and personhood as well as physical and psychological integrity.” This leads the victim to experience isolation, self-blame, and a loss of their sense of self and of their independence. Some victims have reported high levels of anxiety and panic attacks. 
Researchers Isabelle Côté and Simon Lapierre have characterized coercive control as “everyday micro-regulations” [translated]. Abusers may control their victims with a range of tactics, including, but not limited to, positive reinforcement (such as praise, superficial charm, flattery, ingratiation, love bombing), negative reinforcement (taking away aversive tasks or items), intermittent or partial reinforcement, psychological punishment (such as silent treatment, threats, intimidation, emotional blackmail, guilt trips) and traumatic tactics (such as verbal abuse or explosive anger).[page needed] The key element of coercive control is that it consists in a pattern, thus connecting multiple occurrences of abuse that may not be of the same nature. Researchers Andy Myhill and Katrin Hohl have explained coercive control as a “golden thread” connecting all these instances of abuse.
Coercive control may also be extremely subtle and insidious, and depleted of incidents of physical or sexual violence. It can exclusively consist of psychological tactics, such as gaslighting or guilt-tripping, with the common effect that the victim is constantly “walking on eggshells.” Understanding coercive control prevents interveners from wrongfully focusing on ‘isolated’ events of physical violence, and enables the understanding of abuse as a general, persistent dynamic in a relationship. Hence, Côté and Lapierre note that coercive control may include acts of physical violence, although not necessarily. If it does occur, violence is not a distinct or exceptional event in the relation dynamics: rather, it is a tool deployed by the abuser to better control the victim. In other words, the abuser may threaten to use force, and sometimes use it, as a strategy to create a climate of terror and reassert control. Plus, a single instance of physical violence can “be enough to terrorize a victim for several years”.
The vulnerabilities of the victim are exploited, with those who are particularly vulnerable being most often selected as targets.: 3  Traumatic bonding can occur between abusers and victims as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds (that are resistant to change) and a climate of fear. An attempt may be made to normalize, legitimize, rationalize, deny, or minimize the abusive behavior, or to blame the victim for it.
Coercive control is a cumulation of abusive tactics, and as such those tactics exist in relation to one another. For instance, an individual accusing their partner of infidelity does not amount to coercive control if it occurs on a single occasion in an otherwise healthy relationship. It will be constitutive of coercive control if it is a part of a larger pattern of humiliation, micro-management and isolation. 
In a familial context, coercive control is a harmful parental choice as it is detrimental to children. Children are oftentimes exposed to the abuse that their parent sustains, and may be targeted or used by their father to control their mother. For example, a qualitative study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that abusive fathers often prevent their children from interacting with their mothers and grandparents, from visiting their friends and from participating to extra-curriculars. Scholar Emma Katz has reflected that coercive control places children in an “isolated, disempowering and constrained world” which can prevent their emotional growth. Another study has documented how the abusive parent sometimes achieves control by recruiting children to undermine their relationship with their mother and further isolate her within the family unit.
The study highlights how a perpetrator may ‘joke and play, spend money on them [the children], or take them out to do things’ in order to form an alliance, which can result in children seeing the abusive parent as ‘fun’ and blaming the non-abusive parent for the abuse.
Plus, children are deprived from the emotional availability of their abused parent. Therapist Danielle McLeod has explained how an abusive father may “undermine the victim’s parental role” and attack their children’s respect for their mother. This tactic “will often leave them feeling emotionally drained and distant and as though they have little left to give as a parent”.
It is mostly men who subject their partners to coercive control. This violence often persists in a post-separation context. Breakup is an especially dangerous event for women who experience coercive control, as they then become at risk of intensified control and serious violence, including femicide and filicide.
Jurisdictions have legislated over coercive control, mostly through family law and criminal law.
In 2019, the federal parliament amended the Divorce Act, in which it included coercive control. The new Divorce Act redefines family violence to integrate any conduct “that constitutes a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour”. The definition provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of coercive control, among which forced confinement, harassment (including stalking), the failure to provide the necessities of life, psychological abuse, financial abuse, and threats or infliction of harming or killing of an animal or damage of property.
The Divorce Act now requires that courts take the presence of coercive control into account upon determining the best interest of the child, which may influence the courts’ determination regarding child custody. Upon these changes, the Department of Justice noted: “[...] while all violence is of concern, generally the most serious type of violence in family law is coercive and controlling violence. This is because it is part of an ongoing pattern, tends to be more dangerous and is more likely to affect parenting.”
In 2010, the French Parliament amended the Penal Code to include psychological violence in the offence of willful attacks against the integrity of a person. A new provision specifies that moral harassment can be the act of harassing an intimate partner by repeated remarks or behaviour aimed at or resulting in the deterioration of their living conditions.
In 2020, the Penal Code was further amended to increase the penalties for malicious and repetitive communications issued with the aim to disturb the tranquillity of others. The invasion of privacy by geolocation without consent is now punished. The act of usurping someone’s identity or using data of any kind with the goal of disturbing their peace or undermining their honour is also criminalised. The French Parliament has also criminalised the act, committed in bad faith, of infringing the secrecy of correspondence by intercepting or disclosing electronic communications or installing services that allow such interceptions. All of these offences are more severely sanctioned if they are committed in a marital context.
French family law also implicitly addresses coercive control. Since 2010, the Civil Code provides that a court ruling on the terms of the exercise of parental authority must consider the violence, physical or psychological, that one parent inflicts on another. In 2020, the French Parliament withdrew the obligation of mediation within a divorce proceeding in cases where there are allegations of violence or manifest influence of one spouse over the other.
In 2019, Ireland enacted the Domestic Violence Act 2018. Coercive control was defined as 'any evidence of deterioration in the physical, psychological, or emotional welfare of the applicant or a dependent person which is caused directly by fear of the behaviour of the respondent.'.
Coercive control is criminalised by section 76 of the Serious Crimes Act 2015. This provision is often cited as the first example of criminalization of coercive control. The offence is attentive to the serious effect of controlling or coercive behaviour, and as such occurs when the behaviour causes the victim to fear they will experience violence on more than one occasion, or if the victim is seriously alarmed or distressed to the point of having adverse effects on their day-to-day activities.
The Serious Crimes Act 2015 was supplemented by a Statutory Guidance Framework on Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship. The document provides a non-exhaustive list of types of behaviour associated with coercive behaviour.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 defines domestic abuse as controlling or coercive behaviour, economic abuse and psychological, emotional or other abuse. Economic abuse intersects with coercive control as it designates any behaviour with substantial adverse effects on the victim’s ability to acquire, use, or maintain money or other property or obtain goods and services.
The Domestic Abuse Act 2018 criminalises domestic violence, which implicitly includes coercive control. Abusive behaviour is defined as a “course of behaviour” which intentionally or recklessly causes a partner or an ex-partner to suffer psychological or physical harm. Its relevant effects are designated as making the victim dependent or subordinate; isolating the victim from their support network; controlling, regulating and monitoring the victim’s day-to-day activities; depriving or restricting the victim’s freedom of action; and frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing the victim. The offence can also happen by way of conduct towards property, and by intentional omissions rather than solely actions.
In the United States, to assist in preventing and stopping domestic violence against children, there have been laws put into place to mandate report in specific professions, such as teacher, doctor, or care provider, any suspected abuse happening in the home.
Family law is mostly under the jurisdiction of state and local governments in the United States. As such, states are unequally tackling coercive control through legislation.
Professor Janet E. Mosher calls the lack of a nuanced understanding of domestic violence an access to justice issue for victims. She identifies that this issue is widespread across all legal system actors. Mosher takes issue with “the enduring hold of an incident-based understanding of domestic violence”, through which legal actors focus on discrete incidents of visible physical violence rather than abusive patterns, which may or may not involve physical violence.
Mosher has also documented “the failure of legal actors to curb men’s strategic use of legal systems to further their power”. Abusive men may strategically engage with the legal system to retaliate for a separation and/or to further their control. Examples of this include procedural abuses, self-representing to cross-examine an ex-partner, and dragging out proceedings to deplete the survivor of their financial and emotional resources and to impede the resolution of conflict.
Another example of this manipulation of legal processes is the non-empirical parental alienation syndrome, through which abusive men are enabled by the legal system to deflect the blame of their abuse onto their ex-partner. In the words of legal scholar Suzanne Zaccour, the parental alienation syndrome theory is used “to explain a child’s refusal to see a parent (often the father)”, and “has led courts to order sometimes drastic custody transfers and prevent any contact with the child’s preferred parent”. Zaccour has documented that domestic violence is prevalent in parental alienation cases, and that courts fail to identify the violence that mothers try to protect their children and themselves from. In doing so, courts obliterate domestic violence and punish mothers for ‘alienating’ their children.
Relatedly, experts Nico Trocmé and Nicholas Bala have observed: “There is widespread misperception that there is a high incidence of intentionally false allegations of child abuse made by mothers in the context of parental separation and divorce in order to gain a tactical advantage or to seek revenge from their estranged partners.” In their landmark study, Trocmé and Bala found fabricated cases of child abuse were rare, and that fathers were about 16X more likely than mothers to make false allegations against their co-parent.
Mosher has also denounced “the host of complications that arise when women navigate multiple intersecting legal systems”, a phenomenon also referred to as ‘legal fragmentation’. Victims must engage with various courts when they report their abuse. For example, the same set of facts may give rise to proceedings in a criminal court, a youth protection court, and a civil court, which requires victims to recount their abuse multiple times and may result in contradictory judicial decisions.