Recognising Coercive Control In Romantic Relationships

Anja Zauers on spotting the signs and what to do next

There’s nothing quite like a reality dating show to highlight toxic relationships, and one show which did just that was the latest season of Love Island. And yes before we get into it, people can have different opinions and views on how they feel one should be treated in a relationship, but it’s when this behaviour crosses a line into emotional abuse that it becomes a problem.

This year alone, the reality dating show received a number of complaints from viewers about the treatment of contestants, bullying and misogyny displayed in particular by the male contestants. “Many viewers have complained about the double standards they have seen directed at the female contestants, who are vilified and criticised when they take part in the same dating games the boys do,” explains Mary Hayes, Women’s Aid Too Into You Campaign Project Leader. “We have seen this real herd mentality amongst the male contestants with them egging each other on to ‘test the strength of their relationship’, the very thing they have criticised the women for doing,” she continues.

With such double standards, this can create a breeding ground for casual sexism, slut shaming and bullying. “When casual sexism goes unchecked it is seen as acceptable and part of lad culture. But this is not acceptable behaviour,” adds Mary. With women of all ages watching the show, it’s a concerning aspect to think that those who may be expiring their first relationship might see this behaviour and think that it’s acceptable.

“We’re seeing dangerous unhealthy dating behaviours, red flags and common warning signs of abuse, things like gaslighting and love bombing, going unchecked and broadcast as entertainment.”

Now you may think to yourself, this behaviour is harmless if it’s only a once-off, but it’s actions like this that just might be a gateway to something much more serious, that being ​​coercive control.

Women have arguably always been subjected to toxic behaviour and all of us, male, female, or non-binary, are getting a lot better at recognising it and calling it out. But dating shows can glorify such behaviour in an unhealthy way, due to the fact that we are so intently focused on the relationships depicted. Many women can be subject to coercive control without even realizing it – even if they can see and recognise it in others.

Sarah Benson, CEO of Women’s Aid explains it is “a persistent pattern of controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour,” including all or some forms of domestic abuse (emotional, physical, economic, sexual including threats) by a partner, spouse or ex, which ultimately traps the victim in the relationship, making it impossible to leave as well as seriously damaging one’s physical and emotional well-being.

Sarah expresses how serious of an impact it can have on women including the fear of violence, which can cause serious alarm and distress. “It can result in a woman giving up work, changing her routines, losing contact with family and friends, and access to resources.”

And even though it’s a highly manipulative form of abuse, because of its tedious tactics, it can often get largely hidden. “A common tactic is for perpetrators to minimise or deny the abuse is happening and to actually blame the victim themselves for the abuse (which is not their fault).” shares Sarah. “This can make it very hard for survivors to disclose what is going on – but there are signs to watch for and a woman’s support network of family friends and colleagues can be of powerful assistance to her. The more awareness we raise about these signs the more we as a society will learn.”

The belief that violence in relationships is always physical can stop us from coming to grips with and recognising other types of domestic violence, such as psychological or emotional abuse – both of which can often be a precursor to violent assault and can leave a lasting negative impact on someone’s personal development and mental health.

However, it’s vital that we are aware of the signs of coercive control so we can identify it whether it’s in our own relationships or between others.


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Some questions you can ask yourself to help recognise signs of coercive control include:

  • Do you feel like you are being isolated from your friends and family?
  • Do you think your online activity is being monitored?
  • Does your partner take control over aspects of your everyday life, such as where you can go, who you can see etc?
  • Does your partner stop you from accessing support services, such as specialist support or medical services?
  • Is your partner repeatedly putting you down such as telling you that you’re worthless?
  • Is your partner in control of the finances and prevents you from working and having your own money?
  • Does your partner threaten to reveal or publish private information about you, like private photos or videos online?

If you answered yes to any of these then you may want to consider seeking help. Talking figures, Mary shares how “1 in 5 young women aged 18-25 have been abused by a current or former male partner,” revealing that the majority of this was actually a result of emotional abuse which can be hard to spot. “This is something that we are trying to raise awareness of with our Too Into You campaign,” admits Mary. “With Too Into You, we want young people to learn the common warning signs of abuse so that they can recognise them in their own intimate relationships.”

If any of these things are ​​happening in your relationship or even if you just want to talk, the Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline is available for you on 1800 341 900.


No matter the severity of your situation, it’s important to reach out to others about what is going on and recognise that this behaviour is not just an ordinary relationship conflict, which every couple experiences. And although it may not fit the abuse stereotype that you or your friends have in their heads, it doesn’t make it any less real.

Since 2019, coercive control is now considered a legal offence in Ireland after being included in the Domestic Violence Act, which defines the legal protections available to those affected by domestic violence. This sees Ireland as only the third country in the world to introduce such a law, behind England and Scotland with the Minister for Justice and Equality at the time, Charlie Flanagan TD saying, “For too long, domestic violence has been seen primarily as physical abuse. The new offence of coercive control recognises that the effect of non-violent control in an intimate relationship can be as harmful to victims as physical abuse because it is an abuse of the unique trust associated with an intimate relationship.”

At the end of the day, intimate relationship abuse is serious and can have devastating and life-long impacts for those who are subjected to it. Never think that what you’re going through doesn’t matter or classify as ‘abuse`.

If in doubt, reach out and talk to someone. Share your concerns. As far as reality dating shows go, be wary of what you consume, don’t be afraid to start those important conversations that need to be had around relationships and call out warning signs of intimate relationship abuse.

For more information on coercive control, see


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