Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Coercive control motivation in relationships

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Coercive control in relationships:
What motivates coercive control in relationships and what can be done about it?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever felt so humiliated and degraded that you feel worthless? Do you feel like you are constantly being monitored and controlled? These are common experiences for victims in coercive control relationships, but what motivates this behaviour?

This chapter explores the motivational factors that drive coercive control in relationships. It will look at the patterns of coercive control and provide examples of what affects motivation to engage in abusive behaviours. Motivational theories will be discussed to help explain why people exercise coercive control over their partners, as well as the gender differences that influence a perpetrator’s motivation. It is hoped that by understanding what motivates coercive control, more effective measures aimed at acknowledging and reducing rates of domestic violence can be established.

Focus Question:
  • What is coercive control?
  • What role does motivation play in coercive control relationships?
  • What can be done about coercive control?

Understanding coercive control and motivation[edit | edit source]

Defining coercive control and motivation is important to develop an understanding of these terms, as well as exploring the relationship between the two to consider the motivational factors. Coercive control is understood as an internal motivational drive with a cognitive intention, which has an outcome or an effect (Hamberger & Larsen, 2017).

What is coercive control?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. A woman experiencing abuse

Coercive control is a form of psychological abuse. Relationships where one exerts patterns of intimidation, isolation, and control by restricting the other person’s freedoms demonstrates coercive controlling behaviours (Johnson, 2006). Additionally, the perpetrator may exercise control through physical abuse, sexual assault, and verbal abuse such as threats, coercion or humilation (Kelly & Johnson, 2008). Essentially the aim of coercive control is to reduce the victim’s independence, limit their relationships with others, degrade them, control aspects of their health and body, and jealous accusations to guilt trip (Ehrensaft, O’Leary & Lawrence, 1999). Coercive control is associated with both physical and psychological violence (Robertson & Murachver, 2011). This type of abuse is very harmful towards one’s identity as they are deprived of their rights and resources critical to developing their personal identity (Libal & Parekh, 2009). The psychological effects of coercive control are low self-esteem, depression, fear, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress (Kirkwood, 1993). A perpetrator will threaten their partner with information they have vulnerably shared in their relationship to exploit them so they can exercise coercive control over their partner (Stark, 2006).

The domestic violence literature describes coercive control as including the following attributes, as detailed by Jess Hill in book ‘See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse’ (2019).

Table 1

Attributes of coercive control

Intimidation Perpetrators will exert intimidation by threatening the victim to scare them into doing what the abuser wants. They may threaten the safety of the victim, their children, pets, property, friends, or family.
Isolation Perpetrators will try to limit contact with your friends and family, so you cannot receive necessary support. They may make you move away so you are far away from your family and friends, fabricate lies about you to others, convince you that everyone hates you and does not want to talk to you, and monitor all contact with your social circle so they can cut them off if they try to intervene.
Control Perpetrators will monitor your activity throughout the day by using a form of surveillance (hidden cameras in house, location tracker on car/phone) that you have no knowledge of. They may exert control by controlling your movements or independence (for example, not allowing you to work, shop, socialise). Controlling and limiting your access to money by preventing you from having a credit card, limiting access to bank accounts, or giving you strict budgets.

What is motivation?[edit | edit source]

Motivation is a central concept for the world of psychology. Motivation is facilitated by energy, direction, and persistence (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Moreover, motivation contributes towards understanding why people behave the way they do (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Essentially, motivation is a dynamic process combining one’s internal motive status of needs, cognitions and emotions and their environmental context to produce energy, direction, and persistence in their behaviour (Reeve, 2018). Engaging in goal-directed behaviour is commonly understood as a motivational state (Black & Deci, 2000). Therefore, a perpetrator may have an internal motivational state that they seek to satisfy by controlling their partner (Felson & Outlaw, 2007).

What is the relationship between coercive control and motivation?[edit | edit source]

People who view controlling behaviours as normal may be more motivated to control others (Ehrensaft & Vivian, 1999). The construct of control as a motivation indicates that the perpetrator experiences an internal state that they strive to satisfy (Hamberger & Larsen, 2015). However, control as a motivational factor can be also categorised as a functional outcome for both perpetrator or victim (Hamberger & Larsen, 2015). For example, where the undesirable behaviour is performed the perpetrator abuses the victim, yet when the victim performs desirable behaviour the abuse may be avoided. A study of college students examined both males and females who had high motivation to control or dominate their partner, with findings suggesting those students were at an increased risk for inflicting coercive control towards their partners (Rouse, 1990). Therefore, controlling a victim or avoiding abuse by a perpetrator indicates a mediated relationship between control and internal motivation.


Case study

Julie is a 29-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted by a close family member when she was a child. Julie confided in her new partner about her sexual abuse and had never told anyone previously as she was ashamed. 4 months into Julie’s new relationship, her partner threatens to disclose her secret if she does not meet his demands.

Julie is experiencing intimidation.

Motivational theories[edit | edit source]

Psychological theories of motivation can be applied to the focus question to determine why perpetrators are motivated to exercise coercive control over their partners. Here the social learning theory, cognitive dissonance theory and the self-determination theory will be discussed.

Figure 2. Albert Bandura

Social learning theory[edit | edit source]

Social learning theory was theorised by Albert Bandura (1977) who proposed that behaviours can be acquired through observing and imitating others. In his theory, behaviour is influenced by how cognitive and environmental factors interact. According to Bandura (1977), behaviour is learned from observational learning and cognitive processes mediate the learning process to determine where a new response is acquired. Therefore, one observes the behaviour (stimulus) and chooses to imitate the behaviour or not (response). The theory of social learning has been applied to explain why perpetrators of coercive control posits such behaviour and provides an explanation of behavioural patterns that emerge through family interactions that foster violence and abuse (Rakovec-Felser, 2014). Learning often occurs with significant figures, therefore children are likely to imitate behaviour of someone who they strongly identify with (for example a parent, older sibling, relatives), as this person provides familiarity and demonstrates approval (Hoffman & Edwards, 2004).

A finding by Bandura proposes that adult males performing aggressive behaviour is more likely to be modelled by children, and familiarity influenced boys more than girls (Bandura, 1973). For example, if a father exercises aggressive and coercive behaviours towards his wife, sons are found more likely to model this behaviour with their siblings and the son acquires this behaviour (Pagelow, 1984). Individuals exposed to family violence as children use familiar people as examples of how to manage conflict in relationships (Mihalic & Elliott, 1997). Moreover, coercive control has been proposed by the social learning theory as a learned means of conflict, subsequently reinforced by its consequences (O’Leary, 1988). However, individuals who exercise controlling behaviour as a means of conflict resolution may not view such behaviour as controlling, rather, they may see it as an effective means of obtaining desirable outcomes (Ehrensaft & Vivian, 1999). Therefore, the social learning theory does help to explain how coercive behaviours are acquired through observing and imitating others.  


Case study

Josh was 12 years-old when he started noticing his father abusing his mother. Initially it started with shouting, then he began threatening her and displaying controlling behaviour. Over the years, Josh noticed that his mother no longer worked, stopped seeing her friends, and only left the house to shop for groceries. Josh really looked up to his father. When Josh was 18, he had his first girlfriend, Amy. Three months into their relationship, Josh began shouting at Amy, and threatened Amy that she could no longer see her friends anymore.

Josh is experiencing social learning.

Figure 3. Cognitive dissonance theory

Cognitive dissonance theory[edit | edit source]

Cognitive dissonance theory was proposed by Leon Festinger (1957), who theorised that dissonance occurs in an individual with conflicting cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent. Cognitions are defined as beliefs, actions and values held by an individual. According to Festinger (1957), dissonance creates feelings of psychological discomfort, causing an individual’s innate motivation to reduce their dissonance by modifying the cognitions that produce conflict to maintain self-consistency.  

Cognitive dissonance theory can be applied to understanding coercive control and explain what motivates perpetrators to maintain their self-consistency between their thoughts that are evaluated against their personal values and societal norms (Stone & Cooper, 2001). There is a disequilibrium between the perpetrator’s thoughts or actions that forces them to alter negative conditions towards their relationship and their victims (Nicholson & Lutz, 2017). Despite limited literature on cognitive dissonance experienced by perpetrators, research does suggest that they justify their actions in various ways. Perpetrators may rationalise their behaviour to avoid responsibility (Dobash & Dobash, 2010). Therefore, the perpetrator is motivated to reduce their cognitive dissonance by altering their cognitions to validate their actions, despite them being immoral.


Case study

Ryan and Casey have been dating for eight months. Last weekend Ryan and Casey had a fight because Ryan was convinced that Casey was cheating on him with her boss. Casey is filled with confusion as she loves Ryan, but deep down she knows that Ryan is fabricating lies to get her to do what she wants but she fears being apart from him.

Casey is experiencing cognitive dissonance

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Self-determination theory

The self-determination theory (SDT) is derived from studies of the humanistic perspective, which can be applied to the motivational processes behind perpetrators. This model focuses on people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs, which fosters the basis for their self-motivation and personality (Ryan, Kuhl & Deci, 1997). Self-determination theory proposes that people have intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

Intrinsic motivation concerns one’s inherent tendency to seek out challenges to exercise satisfaction within themselves, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity to attain a specific outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000). For example, being paid to do a job refers to extrinsic motivation, while one’s internal desire to succeed in a task will fuel their drive to complete it. The self-determination theory facilitates optimal functioning, social development, and personal wellbeing (Deci, 1975). Ryan and Deci (2000) identified three needs that facilitate one's well-being through competence (for example, need for challenges to assist in personal growth), relatedness (for example, need for feelings of connectedness with others, and autonomy (for example, need for one’s own behaviour as self-endorsed).

An optimal environment for one’s personal growth is when one’s competence, relatedness and autonomy needs are all met (Neighbors, Walker, Roffman, Mbilinyi, & Edleson, 2008). When feelings of competence are not satisfied, they are associated with low self-efficacy or feelings of hopelessness, which in turn, can create motivations to control their relationship (Neighbors et al., 2008). Similarly, if the need for relatedness is not met, the perpetrator may create maladaptive strategies to satisfy their needs by exerting force and coercion over their partner (Neighbors et al., 2008). Lastly, if the need for autonomy is not fulfilled, an individual may feel motivated to exercise power and control over their partner (Neighbors et al., 2008). Where fulfillment of basic psychological needs is met, the presence of coercive and abusive behaviours is decreased (Knee, Hadden, Porter & Rodriguez, 2013). Therefore, fulfilment of needs may hinder and undermine a perpetrators motivation to coercive control their partners.


Case study

Liam has dated his partner, Isabella for two years. This weekend Liam is running a half marathon as he has been training for six months. The other morning before he left for this morning run, Isabella said to Liam “there is no way you will be able to complete your half marathon this weekend”. This really hurt Liam and damaged his need for competence. As a result, Liam feels a sense of hopelessness and a motivation to control Isabella.

Liam is experiencing self-determination.

Gender roles and motivational differences[edit | edit source]

Control motives differ between genders. Some of the key influential factors of why females and males abuse their partners will be discussed, with the focus on heterosexual relationships.

Male motivation[edit | edit source]

The control motive behind why men abuse and coerce their partners will be explored. Men’s motivation to abuse is characterised by a desire to control their partner (Johnson & Ferraro, 2000). Violence by men is found more likely to be attributed to coercive control, rather than women (Hamel, Desmarais & Nicholls, 2007). Additionally, Swan and Snow (2002) found men to be the primary perpetrators of coercive control. Kernsmith (2005) found that males reported using coercive and abusive behaviours when their partner was nagging them (40%) or started an argument (32%) and being under stress (28%). Research that takes a feminist perspective has attributed violence by men against females to a control motive, as their goal is to use coercion for control because a patriarchal society has taught men to believe that they are supposed to be dominant in the family (Dobash, 1977). However, statistical evidence supporting the feminist approach is almost non-existent (Felson & Messner, 2000).

Men are found more likely to use physical means against their female partners as they are bigger and stronger than their female counterparts (Felson & Messner, 2000). A study conducted by Makepeace (1986) found that men were three times more likely to report using coercion to intimidate their partner, and the argument of men more likely to abuse in a coercive way was supported. Professionals who provide counselling services to abusive men have found that men make excessive attempts to limit their victim’s independence and decision-making power so they can feel a sense of entitlement to control them (Finkelhor, 1983).Men who coercively abuse their partners have a greater need for power and control (Dutton, 1988). Additionally, these men are sensitive and fearful of rejection, and their coercive controlling behaviours may represent attempts to avoid rejection from their victim (Downey and Feldman, 1996). Therefore, men are motivated to exert coercive abuse over their partners to feel control and power and to reduce their fear of rejection.

Female motivation[edit | edit source]

On the contrary, the motivation behind women’s abuse emerges from intricate motivations, and they often act in terms of self-defence in the context of an escalated conflict (Saunders, 1986; Kimmel, 2002). Women have also been found to exert coercive control over their partners as they have a desire to express themselves (Straus, 2006). A sample of 52 female offenders by Babcock (2003), found self-defence to be the most common motive (28%) and anger or frustration followed (20%). The offenders were later interviewed by Hamberger (1997) to find out their reasons for coercive controlling their partners with 24 out of 65 females claiming self-defence, 10% of the females stating a motive to express their feelings or tensions and the other responses indicating a coercive motive.

Similarly, women also fear rejection and use coercive tactics as a means of preventing abandonment by their partners (Laughlin, 2002). Research suggests that women are more likely to perpetrate coercive abuse as an expression of anger (Hamberger, 1993). In a sample of men convicted for their violence, findings suggest that 75% of their female partners reported the use of coercive violence in terms of self-defence, whereas 6.3% of men did (Dobash and Dobash, 2004). Females reported using coercive control when they felt disrespected by their partners (48%), their partners were trying to control them (37%) and were not listening to them (30%) (Kernsmith, 2005). Yet, female-perpetrated violence has been grossly underestimated among psychiatric emergency room workers with potentially serious consequences for victims due to a lack of suitable treatment plans for women (Skeem, 2005). Furthermore, females are more likely to report using coercive control in terms of self-defence in response to their male partner’s use of coercion, or a desire to express themselves.

What can be done about coercive control in relationships?[edit | edit source]

Several treatment options have been developed for the prevention of coercive control. Murphy and Eckhardt (2005) conducted a review of treatment outcomes with perpetrators, where they hypothesised five principles that are likely for effective intervention:

  1. A strength-based focus to build skills that develop appropriate relationship behaviours.
  2. Problem-solving training that emphasises on listening, negotiating, and expressing feelings.
  3. Encouraging avoidance of defensiveness and eliciting shame behaviour.
  4. Engaging and supporting a collaborative working environment between the perpetrator client and therapist.
  5. A client-directed change process that emphasises involvement in goal setting.

Murphy and Eckhardt (2005) found that perpetrators who feel a genuine sense of respect and feel heard by their therapist, feel a sense of desire for change as it creates a safe environment for an honest conversation.

Additionally, research in a clinical setting on male perpetrators can be examined with reference to self-determination theory, yet there is a lack of explanation to account for female perpetrators. Intrinsic motivation is associated with long-term behaviour change motives and growing awareness of oneself (DiClemente, 1999). Intrinsic motivation was evident in men’s motives to change their lives and control their own behaviour, making them better father figures for their children (Stanley, Graham-Kevan, & Borthwick, 2012) Whereas extrinsic motivation had positive effects when it was associated with reconciliation, as anticipated losses were often what triggered change in male perpetrators behaviour (Hester, 2006). Therefore, intrinsic motivation helps male perpetrators to create long-term behavioural changes, whilst extrinsic motivation elicits change in their behaviour after periods of loss. Further research should explore how intrinsic and extrinsic motivations affect female perpetrators to determine how it affects their behaviour.  

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

Which motivation theory is associated with observation and imitation of coercive behaviours?

Social learning theory
Cognitive dissonance theory
Self-determination theory


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

With various methods of coercive control used by perpetrators, it is not surprising that victims experience extreme psychological effects. The main motivations to exert coercive control are to intimidate, isolate and control victims. These motivations are based on underlying individual beliefs and values, some of which are about a desire to control and fear of abandonment, others involving self-defence and expression of frustration. The take home message from this book chapter is that there are several factors that contribute to and motivate coercive control behaviour in relationships. Research emphasises that social learning, cognitive dissonance, self-determination, and gender motives are the main motivators that influence use of coercive control in relationships. Understanding these motivations is the first step to establishing effective prevention programs for perpetrators of coercive control.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory(Vol. 1). Stanforf University.

Davis, K., Swan, S., & Gambone, L. (2010). Why doesn’t he just leave me alone? Persistent pursuit: A critical review of theories and evidence. Sex Roles, 66(5–6), 328–339. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9882-3

Dichter, M., Thomas, K., Crits-Christoph, P., Ogden, S., & Rhodes, K. (2018). Coercive control in intimate partner violence: Relationship with women’s experience of violence, use of violence, and danger. Psychology Of Violence, 8(5), 596–604. https://doi.org/10.1037/vio0000158

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Neighbors, C., Walker, D., Roffman, R., Mbilinyi, L., & Edleson, J. (2008). Self-determination theory and motivational interviewing: Complementary models to elicit voluntary engagement by partner-abusive men. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36(2), 126–136. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180701236142

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External links[edit | edit source]