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Coercive control

Coercive control is a pattern of abusive behaviour used to control someone within a relationship through manipulation, pressure and fear.

Digital technologies are very often used as part of coercive control, to help the abuser gain and keep power over the other person and undermine their confidence, freedom and independence. It can be difficult to recognise coercive control, especially when technology is involved, so this page explains some of the common signs and how to get help.

In short:

  • Coercive control is not one behaviour or incident, but a pattern of controlling behaviour. 
  • Coercive control is almost always a factor in domestic, family and sexual violence, but can also happen between people who do not have an intimate relationship with each other. 
  • If someone uses digital technology to constantly manipulate, pressure or scare you, that is a form of coercive control and it’s not OK. It’s not your fault and help is available.

How is technology used as part of coercive control?

Digital technology allows us to connect with others online and manage our lives, environment and experiences – to work, learn, socialise, be entertained and access services. Everyone has a right to enjoy the benefits of technology without fear – such as mobile phones, computers, ‘smart’ devices, apps and games. 

But an abuser can use technology, or stop another person using it, as a ‘weapon’ to gain and keep control over them – and because technology is so common, it can affect almost every part of the person’s life. This is sometimes called ‘technology-facilitated coercive control’ or ‘tech-based coercive control’.

Tech-based coercive control is not just a single act, but a pattern of behaviour used against the person to:

  • undermine their self-worth, confidence and independence
  • cut them off from social supports such as friends, family, services and money
  • pressure or threaten them to make them do things, or to stop doing things
  • track where they are going and what they are doing
  • ‘gaslight’ them to make them feel unsure about what is real 
  • isolate them so they feel trapped and unable to leave the relationship.

The person being controlled is often aware of what is happening and tries to manage the abuser to keep themselves safe. But they may not know the extent of the coercive behaviour, especially if the abuser is using technology secretly or denying what they’re doing – for example, to cyberstalk them, access their online accounts or ‘gaslight’ them into doubting their own experiences, memories or opinions.

Sometimes the person being controlled doesn’t even know it’s happening and is manipulated to actually turn to their abuser for help.

Coercive control can have a range of impacts, including physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural, social and financial.

People who use coercive control in a relationship are more likely to use physical violence against their partner and any children involved, and there’s a higher risk of murder.

The risks may build up over time, but can rapidly increase during and after relationship separation.

For this reason, coercive control needs to be taken very seriously and anyone who thinks they may be experiencing it should consider making an online safety plan and seeking help and support from police, 1800RESPECT or another specialist counselling and support service.

How common is tech-based coercive control?

In a study of family, domestic and sexual violence practitioners, nearly all of the people surveyed (98%) said they had worked with clients who had experienced tech-based coercive control.

While anyone can experience it, women and LGBTIQ+ people are likely to be at higher risk due to social inequality and discrimination.

In a study of women who reported experiencing coercive control, two out of every five reported that their partner had abused or threatened them online or used technologies to control or stalk them (42%).

Tech-based coercive control is still not widely understood, so it’s likely that it’s under-reported and the real rate is higher. However, coercive control isn’t only used against partners and ex-partners. It can also happen in other relationships, such as when an elderly person is abused by a family member caring for them.

Is it happening to me?

Coercive control can be hard to recognise at first – especially if the abuser uses technology that doesn’t seem suspicious, such as devices and apps that are part of ordinary daily life.

At first your partner might seem to be loving, protective and caring because they are interested in everything about you, send you lots of compliments and want you to spend all your time with them. Constant texting, messaging or phone calls may begin to seem a bit needy, but not yet concerning.

Jealous and controlling behaviours may become clearer over time, as separate incidents build up into a pattern. For example, if your partner gets angry one time when you post photos from a night out that didn’t include them, that may not seem too bad on its own. But if it happens along with other incidents, like stopping you gaming unless you play with them or constantly criticising your friends and advising you to ignore their messages, you may become more concerned. Weakening your contact with your support networks, including online connections, can be a way to make you more dependent on them.

Eventually your partner may want to monitor all your communications, decide who you connect with online and keep track of everything you do. They could start cyberstalking you – for example, by installing a location tracker on your phone, putting a hidden camera in a child’s toy, checking the search history of your voice-activated home assistant or using spyware to record what you type on your device.

Abusers are often controlling in person too, so you may notice other types of manipulation happening in your relationship at the same time. For example, they may constantly criticise or make fun of you, to undermine your confidence in yourself. They may also plant ‘seeds of doubt’ to make you question your reality.

Your abuser might also become physically or sexually violent – especially if you try to confront them or end the relationship. Some people say they feel uneasy or afraid, like they’re ‘walking on eggshells’ around their partner and have to be careful not to make them angry or upset.

These controlling behaviours may seem harmless to others, especially if they only see them happen once or twice, or don’t understand the background or context that has meaning for you. Your abuser may even make other people think you are the one with a problem or trying to control them.

If you end the relationship, your ex-partner may continue to manipulate, pressure or scare you – their behaviour may even get worse after you break up.

So look out for warning signs of coercive control and trust your ‘gut’ instincts if you start to feel uncomfortable, suspicious or afraid. It’s important to reach out for help when it’s safe to do so.

Red flags to look out for

The warning signs of tech-based coercive control can be different in every relationship, and at different times in the relationship or after it’s ended. These are examples of some common ones to watch for, but you may experience others.

Love bombing you

  • Beginning the relationship by flattering you, showing you lots of attention, making big promises or telling you they love you very early – for example, even when you have only been in contact on a dating app or through online messages. Later, they may claim that any angry, mean, upset or distrustful behaviour, such as getting jealous about who you connect with online, is because they love you so much. 

Gaslighting or undermining you

  • Making you confused about what’s happening so you start to doubt your ability, skills, memory or sanity – for example, changing the settings on smart home devices so things like the heating, lights or television turn on at unexpected times. 
  • Refusing to admit they’re tracking or monitoring you, even when there is evidence to show they are, and using discriminatory terms like you’re ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ when you question them. 
  • Searching topics on your devices to create a fake internet browsing history that they accuse you of being responsible for. 
  • Posting backhanded compliments (or ‘negging’ you) on social media to damage your self-esteem.
  • Spreading lies about you – for example, posting comments or sending messages that imply you are emotionally unstable or have mental health issues.
  • Claiming their controlling behaviours and demands are healthy forms of ‘boundary setting’ and reasonable expressions of their relationship needs, and accusing you of being confused or misguided if you don’t agree. This is sometimes referred to as ‘manipulation of therapy speak’.

Harassing or threatening you 

  • Repeatedly calling or sending messages demanding to know information like ‘What are you doing?’, ‘Who are you with?’, ‘Where are you?’ and expecting you to respond immediately. 
  • Posting a comment or sending you a message that has an abusive or threatening meaning to you, even though it seems innocent to others. For example, sending you a flame emoji if they have previously threatened to injure you with fire, or an animal emoji if they have previously threatened to harm your pet.
  • Threatening to ‘out’ your sexuality or sexual preferences to all your contacts if you argue with them. 
  • Threatening to share your personally identifiable information online, also known as ‘doxing’, unless you do what they say.
  • Creating fake social media accounts in your name and posting embarrassing or abusive content to undermine you or discredit you, especially during family law proceedings.

Monitoring your activity

  • Messaging your friends or family to check up on you.
  • Monitoring your phone calls, texts, online messages and search history by accessing your accounts or devices. 
  • Constantly calling or tracking your device location to check where you are.
  • Seeming to know information from your private conversations, messages or emails, or turning up in places where you’re not expecting them.
  • Installing new cameras or security systems in your home or car that they claim are for your safety.  
  • Using a two-way surveillance system at home to tell you what to do when they’re not there.
  • Tracking where you are through your pet’s microchip. 

Isolating you

  • Telling you who you can and can’t communicate with online and offline.
  • Spreading rumours or lies about you in messages or posts, to damage your friendships.
  • Refusing to let you work or study by restricting your access to devices, transport apps or key cards. 
  • Damaging, destroying or removing technology you use for assistance, such as hearing, mobility or accessibility aids.
  • Claiming any restrictions they place on your use of technology are for your own good, or best for your relationship or their ‘self-care’.

Restricting your privacy and independence  

  • Insisting you tell them the passcode to your phone or the passwords to your devices and online accounts.
  • Accessing your online accounts without your consent – for example, by using a password you saved on your device.
  • Changing the passcode or passwords to your devices and online accounts, so you can’t use them without their help or permission.
  • Monitoring your MyGov account so they know when and where you accessed services.
  • Telling you what you can and can’t post on social media.
  • Forcing you to post photos together appearing happy and in love, so others think you are in a healthy relationship. 
  • Insisting on joining your telehealth calls with your doctor, or other online appointments.
  • Accessing your fitness devices to track your eating habits, weight or menstrual cycle. 
  • Refusing to let you know how smart devices work in your home, so you have to ask for help or permission to use them.

Financially abusing you 

  • Taking money from your online accounts without your consent.
  • Limiting your access to money – for example, by stopping you from having a separate online bank account, restricting access to your bank cards, or withholding child support payments to make it hard for you to afford essentials like food and clothes.
  • Checking your online activity to make sure you’re not applying for jobs, so you give up your career and become financially dependent on them.
  • Sending you a message via a bank transfer description that has an abusive or threatening meaning which the bank's moderators have not detected. 
  • Gambling your joint money online and blaming you for their online gambling problems. 

Being sexually violent

  • Pressuring you to engage in sexual activities online that degrade or humiliate you.
  • Sharing or threatening to share an intimate image or video of you without your consent. This is image-based abuse or ‘revenge porn’ and you can report it to eSafety (even if they use a deepfake or digitally altered image or video).
  • Creating a fake social media account in your name and using it to post sexually explicit content, or making sexual advances to people online while pretending to be you.
  • Recording you having sex or performing other intimate activities without your consent or knowledge.
  • Pressuring you to watch, mimic or participate in the creation of online pornography. This might extend to physical abuse, if violent acts such as strangulation are copied.

Using your religious or cultural beliefs to hurt you

  • Stopping you from joining online religious, spiritual or cultural practices, events or traditions. 
  • Posting an image of you without religious or cultural clothing you would usually wear in public. This is image-based abuse and you can report it to eSafety.
  • Threatening to have you deported (especially for women on spousal visas), to block divorce, to arrange your so-called ‘honour killing’ or to shame you culturally (such as hair cutting, which in some cultures is a sign of adultery).

Using your children to track, control or threaten you

  • Buying a child a digital device and setting it up to share their location, or tricking the child into turning on location sharing settings on your devices, so the person controlling you can track you. 
  • Hiding tracking, surveillance or recording devices in children’s backpacks, prams or toys to watch you.
  • Telling the child to call or text them regularly when they are with you, but not allowing the child to call you when they’re with them. 
  • Contacting a child online outside of agreed or imposed access hours by pretending to be someone else or using a gaming or social media chat.
  • Threatening to call or email social services to falsely claim you are neglecting or abusing your children. 
  • Finding out your contact information, and other details you want to keep secret, by accessing systems that hold records related to your children, such as Medicare and school apps.

Getting help

Tech-based coercive control can make you feel isolated and trapped, but remember that being abused is not your fault and you are not alone.

Stay safe

If you are in Australia and feeling unsafe right now, call the police on Triple Zero (000) or contact 1800RESPECT or another specialist counselling or support service.  

It may be best to call from a friend’s phone, if you think yours is being tracked or monitored. 

If an abusive person learns that you are seeking help and information, their behaviour may get worse, so it’s a good idea to ask a support worker to help you.

Other support is also available:

  • Stay safely connected with your friends, family and support systems as much as possible. Make sure your friends and family have your contact information and check in on you regularly. Use a safe phone or device that your partner or ex-partner does not have access to. This might be a friend’s phone or a device at their house, or a computer at your work or a public library. 
  • Follow eSafety’s steps for reporting online abuse if it’s safe to do so – it’s usually best to make a safety plan first.
  • Use eSafety’s online safety checklist to help you increase your personal safety when using digital devices and accessing your online accounts, including tips for preventing cyberstalking.  
  • Take family and domestic violence leave from work if you need it. Employees are entitled to 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave each year. This includes full-time, part-time and casual workers.

Share your experience

If it feels right for you and your recovery, you may like to consider sharing your story with the Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commission. The Commission aims to promote the voices of people with lived and living experience of domestic, family and sexual violence and ensure their stories help to shape policy and service delivery.

Last updated: 18/03/2024