Featured Research: COVID-19 and Novel Forms of Coercive Control in Intimate Relationships

Dr. Heather Littleton Photo


by Heather Littleton, Ph.D.
Director of Research Operations
Lyda Hill Institute for Human Resilience


It likely will be several years before we can fully account for the mental health and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives. One understudied impact of the pandemic is the extent to which it served to increase individuals’ risk for intimate partner violence (IPV).  Indeed, the pandemic represents a unique confluence of stressors and social conditions which serve to create a “perfect storm” for increasing risk for IPV. 


In addition to increasing risk for IPV more broadly, individuals may also experience novel forms of coercive behaviors from their partners that exploit their fears of COVID-19 infection. Anecdotal reports from IPV resource centers documented incidents of individuals reporting that their partner prevented them from washing their hands to reduce infection risk or threatened to bar them from seeking medical care if they developed COVID-19 symptoms. Further, a qualitative study of IPV victims’ social media posts revealed that victims reported that their partners leveraged aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic to control and isolate them, including berating them for engaging in behaviors that could increase their risk for COVID-19 infection and falsely informing others that they were infected with COVID-19. Despite this initial evidence that partners may engage in coercive behaviors specific to COVID-19, to our knowledge, no extant empirical research has documented the prevalence of COVID-specific coercive control behaviors or the impact of experiencing COVID-specific coercive control, including in the context of other forms of IPV.


In this study, we examined the prevalence of individuals experiencing COVID-19-specific coercive behaviors related to being pressured to do things that can increase the risk of COVID-19 infection (e.g., not socially distance, attend a large social gathering). We utilized a sample of 2,289 undergraduate students who were currently in a relationship and participated in a study of college student relationships at one of eight U.S. college campuses in the Fall 2020 academic semester. As part of this study, students also completed measures regarding other forms of IPV they experienced as well as their recent depression and anxiety symptoms.


A total of 15.5% of students reported experiencing at least one form of COVID-specific coercive control from a partner in the past six months. The most commonly reported form was being pressured to attend a large gathering (8.1%) followed by being pressured to not socially distance (7.6%). A total of 6.4% of students reported being pressured to see their partner despite being worried their partner may be infected with COVID-19, and 6.1% reported being pressured to not wear a mask. Finally, 2.9% (n = 67) of students reported being pressured to hook up or have sex despite being worried about their partner’s possible COVID-19 infection. A majority (52.3%) of individuals who experienced COVID-specific coercive control from a partner also reported experiencing other forms of IPV, including physical (14.4%), sexual (23.6%), and psychological (44.0%) abuse. Further, individuals who experienced COVID-specific coercive control in conjunction with other forms of IPV had more symptoms of depression and anxiety than individuals who experienced either COVID-specific coercive control alone or other forms of IPV alone.


Thus, findings supported a continuing and urgent need to assess the longer-term mental health impacts of IPV experienced during the pandemic, including COVID-specific coercive control. There is also a need to examine the impact of experiencing COVID-specific coercive control on health outcomes, including on rates of COVID-19 infection and vaccination rates. What is more, there is an urgent need to identify risk factors for the perpetration of COVID-specific coercive control so that these risk factors can be addressed in IPV prevention efforts.


For additional information, you can download a detailed PDF of the publication here


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