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Home / Articles / Identifying Abuse / What is Coercive Control?

What is Coercive Control?

A Q&A with author, activist and professor Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD

  • By
  • Nov 28, 2023
What is Coercive Control?

The book, Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, is written for people in controlling relationships and those who care about them. This concept of coercive control is poised to change the way we understand and address abuse and control in relationships. We invited Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, to speak with us about coercive control and about her book. 

DomesticShelters: What is coercive control?

Lisa Aronson Fontes: Coercive control is a strategy some people use to dominate their intimate partners and maintain their privileges. It usually includes some combination of isolation, degradation, micromanagement, manipulation, stalking, physical abuse, sexual coercion, threats, and punishment. Not all of these tactics are always present. For instance, an abuser may use no physical violence and control his partner through other means. The concept of coercive control pulls it all together. Without it, we think about physical abuse and maybe emotional abuse—but it’s easy to miss a wide range of other controlling behaviors. Is coercive control the same as just being bossy or mean?

Fontes: Coercive control is about domination—not simply bossiness. Even in healthy couples, one person may control certain areas of their life together. For instance, one may be in charge of what they eat and their social life, while the other manages the finances. As long as neither person is completely silenced in any area—this kind of arrangement may work fine. The problem is when one member of the couple dominates in many or all spheres, and the partner does not feel free to speak her mind. If one person become increasingly isolated—distanced from her family and friends—this is also an indication that something is wrong. Here is a list of controlling behaviors that indicate coercive control. What are some of the early signs of a coercive control relationship?

Fontes: At first, controlling partners are often unusually attentive, romantic, and charming. A woman may feel flattered that her new partner wants to be with her at all times and seems to want to assert that she is “his.” He often takes an interest in her life and gives her advice. He may be extraordinarily helpful.

But over time, she notices that she is becoming isolated from friends and family because her new partner claims so much of her time. If she tries to spend time with others, he objects or makes it difficult, so she ends up living a diminished social life. She begins to silence her opinions because her partner becomes upset easily. She gives in to his decisions because it just doesn’t seem worth disagreeing. How is the survivor affected? What happens psychologically?

Fontes: The survivor becomes afraid to make waves within her relationship, so she silences herself. Her self-esteem tends to plummet as she is subjected to frequent criticism. She often feels depressed. Especially if the coercive control does not include physical violence—she probably blames herself for the problems in the relationship. She may develop new anxieties, even panic or social phobia. The more anxious she becomes, the less her partner needs to control her to keep her isolated. Often her concentration suffers as she devotes a great deal of energy to trying to keep her partner happy and avoid doing anything that could be seen as provoking him. She lives in fear, which makes it difficult for her to eat and sleep comfortably. She may also suffer from trauma, threats, violence or sexual assaults within the relationship.

There can be effects in the “real world,” too. For instance, many women quit or lose their jobs, their health may deteriorate from the stress, they may become addicted to street drugs, prescription drugs or alcohol, and many have their credit ruined by their partner. Some end up homeless. Coercive control also hurts the children in the household.

DS.orgWhy are women who are in relationships with men most likely to be victimized?

Fontes: Women are especially vulnerable to coercive control because of sexism. Sexism makes a relationship in which a man dominates a woman seem unremarkable. Even when we raise girls to have a career, we still usually raise them to take care of others’ well being before their own. Girls and women learn to sacrifice to make those around them happy.

Society also tends to idealize romantic love as being the most important aspect of a woman’s life. So you have a woman who aims to please and will do anything to make her relationship work. And then she’s paired up with a man who has been raised to get his needs met. It’s a recipe for coercive control. And due to sexism, women typically have less access to transportation and money, making it harder to strike out on their own. Also, because men tend to have greater access to resources, they are more likely to dominate than to be dominated by their women partners.

Finally, men’s usual greater physical strength and willingness to fight physically makes women much more likely to live in physical fear of their partners than men. It only takes one bruised arm or episode of forced sex for a woman to learn that it is easier to submit than to protest.

DS.orgWhat about when women control men?

Fontes: Sometimes women use coercive control against their male partners, usually in situations where the man is disempowered because of a physical or psychological disability or because of his immigration status. The little research that exists on coercive control seems to show that when men are dominated in a relationship like this, they have an easier time leaving. We just don’t hear about men being held captive by their wives, or men being forced to wear certain clothes by their girlfriends—it rarely happens. Men may feel pushed around and unhappy in their relationships with women—but the degree of oppression is not the same.

DS.orgDoes coercive control exist in same sex couples?

Fontes: Absolutely, although it can be difficult for people to detect and name. Often people think that without the male/female dynamic, abuse cannot be present. This is incorrect. People in same sex couples can be unusually isolated, especially if they are not “out” about their sexual orientation or if they are cut off from their families, which intensifies the possibility of domination.

DS.orgWhy does a person who is being victimized by coercive control stay in the relationship?

Fontes: The victimized partner stays because she is trying to make her life better and keep herself and her children safe. She may remember the good parts of the relationship and think that if only she could change something in herself, the relationship could be good again. She may believe her faith requires her to stay. She stays because she has nowhere else to go. And she stays because her partner may act in a loving way when she lets him know she is “done” with the relationship. He deliberately traps her with acts of love. And she stays because she may feel threatened. Her partner has threatened to kill himself, or kill her, or take the children—if she leaves. Indeed we know that women face greatest risk when they leave an abusive partner. This is why safety planning with a domestic violence advocate is so important.

Another important question is why he stays. Why would a man want to stay in a relationship where he is constantly jealous and frequently angry? Why would he want to stay with a woman who no longer wants to be with him? Frequently, an abusive man will stalk a woman after she has done everything she can to sever the relationship. The term for this is “persistent pursuit”—when one partner pursues and stalks another after the other has made it clear they want the relationship to be over. This can be terrifying. Abusive and controlling men are so dependent on their intimate partners, they often believe they will die without them.

Illustration by Liz Bannish 

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