Dating and Coercive Control

            When clients arrive to my recovery groups for women with controlling partners, it’s common for two to 30 plus years to have elapsed since their dating days.  What becomes clear in recovery is her partner’s coercive control and how it’s adversely affecting her mental and physical health.  It’s common for me to hear,  “How did I get here?”  

We start by examining a person’s dating experience before identifying coercive behaviors during the commitment period of their relationship. I’ve reviewed the courtships of a thousand women. And it’s fairly universal that the women don’t detect their partner’s coercive tendencies. This begs the question of how do women (and men) protect themselves from a controlling partner.

The Dating Period

Women with controlling partners fre­quently become entrapped during the dating period. And often, they aren’t even aware of this. While an unsuspecting partner may be seeking a meaningful connection, a controlling partner is looking for someone he can gain power over. Her heart is open, but her eyes may not see a controlling partner’s true motives. Sometimes, this is because she doesn’t know what to look for.

Controlling partners can appear strong, sensitive, and focused in their courtship behavior. His attentive facade can be almost too good to be true since he may intentionally exhibit few signs of his controlling tendencies.  

And, when a woman detects her partner’s controlling behavior, she often ascribes it to something other than psychological abuse. The courtship period is the time of “falling in love”. It’s natural to minimize or ignore some irritating traits when the positive experience is far more compelling.  What is disconcerting and dangerous is when the behaviors are not understood as coercive control. In this case, “falling” in love” can lead to a very treacherous path.

After learning about coercive tactics, the women from three recovery groups revisited their dating experience and identified behaviors (*) that were initially overlooked signs of coercive control.

      Perceived Positive Behaviors

  • He was compassionate, kind, helpful, polite, and well-mannered
  • He had a strong family background
  • He took charge and was confident
  • He was trustworthy, well-educated, and respected by others
  • I felt cared for and loved
  • He helped me feel good about myself
  • We had good communication, he talked and also listened
  • He was interested in who I am—we made decisions together
  • He was open to my friends and shared his friends
  • He was passionate—sex was off the charts
  • He wasn’t always interested in me, as he had other interests
  • I could be more myself with him
  • He was generous with his time, money, and attention
  • I looked to him to take the lead while dating, which felt okay since I was falling in love
  • My family liked him and he liked my family
  • He was respectful but also could be distant
  • We shared ideals and dreams and planned for the future
  • His direction and advice felt positive
  • He was supportive and always said, “We’ll get through it”
  • He was adoringly romantic
  • He seemed so stable, I thought, I can trust him
  • I felt he would take good care of me
  • We spent a lot of time alone together, which felt okay since I didn’t want to share him

     Overlooked Warning Signs

  • He gave me wonderful gifts that swept me off my feet*
  • He called me all the time, many times a day*
  • I spent time with his friends, but never my friends*
  • I did more of what he wanted to do to keep the peace*
  • He made his possessiveness out to be my problem*
  • His jealousy made me feel special*
  • He made me feel guilty for seeing people and doing things without him*
  • He was always there, he would just show up*
  • He came on strong when he proclaimed his love and won me over*
  • During conflicts, he would threaten to end the relationship so I gave in*
  • He deferred to me, I made most of the decisions*
  • He kept his friends away, which made me suspicious*
  • He wanted us to have privacy*

I’ve frequently seen women choose to stay involved and committed to a future with her partner because of these positive charac­teristics and experiences.  Unfortunately, the women believed in a false image of their partner that didn’t hold up over time. Once the woman commits, a controlling partner transforms. His coercive nature either shows up in earnest or develops as a slow, insidious influence that takes over her life. These powerful, positive influences coupled with missing signs of coercion make these women vulnerable to being manipulated while dating.

Knowledge Is Protection

Understanding coercive control or psychological abuse is the first step towards protecting yourself. A single sign of coercion doesn’t mean that a person will be a controlling partner.  But it does mean that one needs to be on the alert for other signs of control.  Collectively, the behaviors can contribute to a systematic approach that can take over your life.

            “A victim of abuse may initially register each individual put-down

             as trivial (“He’s tired, he’s had a bad day, he didn’t mean it”), and

             unless she has made that special effort and conceptual­ized

             the remarks as part of a whole (as a concerted campaign, whether

             planned or not, by the abuser) she will not keep track of them—

            or their cumulative effect on her self-esteem.” (Taylor, 2004, 87)

While dating, it’s important to protect yourself.  It behooves everyone (women and men) to know what coercive tactics look like. Developing a conscious awareness, being fully informed when making decisions of the heart, and choosing a partner who has your best interests in mind is paramount. 

© Carol A Lambert, MSW


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