Sex & Relationships

How To Get Out Of A Highly Controlling Relationship

Document everything.

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Coercive control is a pattern of behaviors that are meant to make you feel stuck, which is why it can be so tough to figure out how to leave a toxic partner, and officially get out of a coercive relationship. According to Rachel D. Miller, AMFT, a marriage and family therapist, this type of control is marked by intimidation, isolation, and other manipulative tactics.

For example, your partner might limit your access to money, control your bank account, or discourage you from getting a job. They might also cut you off from family or try to turn you against them, monitor what you do on social media, or make it difficult to maintain friendships. It's all designed to affect your self-esteem so that you remain in a position of reliance.

Coercive control "is always emotionally abusive," Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, LMFT, ATR, a licensed psychotherapist, tells Bustle, which is also common for toxic partners to "turn on the charm" the moment they sense you pulling away. This only adds to the confusion, because you might wonder if it's worth it to stay a little longer, to see if they can change.

But even considering all of these, there are still ways to get past the mental and physical roadblocks, get out of a coercive relationship, and move on with your life.

How To Get Out Of A Coercive Relationship

While it might be tricky at first, the best place to start is by reconnecting with an outside support system, whether it be a friend, a family member, or even a neighbor. And the reason is this: "Coercive control will rob you of your sense of reality and your sense of worth," Scott-Hudson says.

If you have a support system, they can offer perspective and help you see exactly what's going on and why it's not OK. These people will hold you accountable and give you a dose of reality if you start to feel stuck again.

Going to a therapist can also be a big help because they'll explain exactly what's been going on and work to boost your self-esteem. If you can't get outside help right away, you can achieve a similar effect by making a list.

"Document events as they happen," Kate Ecke, LCSW, a therapist, tells Bustle. Write down what your partner does and how it makes you feel. That way, no amount of gaslighting or manipulation will cause you to doubt what's actually going on, she says.

Tell Someone About Your Plan To Leave

Eventually, you'll want to tell a trusted person about your plan to leave. "This is because leaving can trigger repercussions, such as guilt-tripping," Alex Ly, AMFT, a registered associate marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. "Having supportive people around you can strengthen you and support you when your toxic partner starts to coerce you back into a relationship or uses guilt as a means to make you feel bad."

They can also help you come up with a plan, including when to leave, where to go next, and so on. Depending on the situation, you may decide one day that enough is enough and simply grab your belongings and go. Or, you might need to be more careful, take more time, or consider other people — like your kids, if you have them. If you're in a particularly bad situation, this is when calling a hotline may be your best bet.

According to relationship expert Chris Seiter, there are safe houses available that you can stay in. "As extreme as it may sound, having an escape route and a safe place to go when you leave is the most important thing," he tells Bustle. "Call a domestic hotline for advice and for someone to advise you further how to keep the situation under control when you are ready to leave."

What To Do After You Leave A Coercive Relationship

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of leaving this type of relationship is what happens once you're finally away from the toxic situation. At that point, guilt and sadness can set in. You might even miss your ex, "even though you know you do not want to be with them," Seiter says. Ly echoes this sentiment, saying it's important to "give yourself time to grieve and heal. It is normal to feel angry and sad about what you went through."

A therapist can help in these circumstances, so you have someone to help you digest what happened. During this process, you may also want to put a pause on dating for a while, Ly says, and instead focus on rebuilding your life. "Get support from friends and family to fill the void that a missing relationship might leave behind," he says. "Remember that you can't get rid of something unless you replace it with something else."

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit


Rachel D. Miller, AMFT, marriage and family therapist

Christine Scott-Hudson, MA, LMFT, ATR, licensed psychotherapist

Alex Ly, AMFT, registered associate marriage and family therapist

Chris Seiter, relationship and breakup expert