Being a mother is the most challenging job in the world, even with the help of a loving partner or other family member. We must recognize the additional difficulties facing mothers in abusive and coercive control relationships so we can give them the support they need to parent successfully. Most mothers who are being controlled by their partners make heroic efforts to keep their children safe and raise them well, despite the abuser's interference.
Whether he is the biological father, stepfather, or the mother’s boyfriend, a controlling or abusive man poses a risk to the well-being of any children in the couple’s life. If he uses physical violence, he might directly assault the child, emotionally or physically injure the child while assaulting the mother, or even obligate the child to hurt his or her mother. Below are some of the other ways a controlling partner might make the job of mothering so much harder.
Creating Distance. Connecting with their children makes many women feel stronger. If the mother's partner is controlling, he will drive a wedge between the mother and her children. He might obligate the mother to work extra hours so she has less time with her children. He might try to persuade the mother that her attachment to her children is unhealthy or unnatural.
Making Her Choose. A controlling man often forces his partner to choose between siding with her child and siding with him, or between spending time with her child and spending time with him. He might deliberately schedule “couple time” for moments when he knows she wants to be with her child. Women sometimes retreat under all this pressure and their relationships with their children deteriorate.
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Undermining Her Parenting. Controlling men undermine women’s parenting by finding ways to become the only authority in the house and by encouraging children to disrespect their mother. They may do this subtly by breaking the mother’s rules. Or they may do this overtly by calling her names, criticizing her, or physically abusing her in front of the child. Sometimes controlling men will tell children to respect their mother, while at the same time doing whatever they can to reduce her influence in the home. Children come to see the abuser as the source of “real” power and their mother as weak. Children then cease to follow the mother’s instructions and seem out of control, making her feel less and less capable.
Threatening the Children. An abuser often controls a woman by threatening her children’s well-being. The father or father figure may refuse to spend money on a child’s medical treatment, clothing, or other expenses, or make the child’s mother do specific things if she wishes to support these necessities. He may threaten to hurt the children, take the children and disappear, or report the mother to child protective services for imagined offenses. He may throw things, stomp around, drive too fast, or threaten violence including suicide. Mothers often give in to their controlling partners, to protect their children.
Overly Harsh Discipline. Controlling men often tell a mother that she is too “soft” with her children. He might obligate a mother to use harsher discipline than she thinks she should. Or if the children are frightened of his discipline, they may blame the mother for not shielding them from this mistreatment.
Sexualizing the Relationship with a Child or Teen. Some controlling men flirt with their partners’ daughters (and sometimes with their own daughters). This flirting alienates a woman from her daughter if it makes one or both of them uncomfortable. A woman’s partner should not flirt with her daughter, and an adult man should not flirt with a teenager. The adult is always responsible for keeping this relationship non-romantic and non-sexual.
Sexually Abusing a Child or Teen. An abuser will create rifts between a woman and her child if he plans to sexually abuse that child. The more strained the relationship between the mother and child, the greater the likelihood that he will be able to sexually abuse the child (or teenager) undetected. The child feels forced to lie to the mother to cover up the abuse and then grows angry with the mother for failing to protect him or her.
Turning Children Against Their Mother. Children learn to accommodate the behaviors of a controlling man as a survival strategy. To satisfy the adult they perceive as powerful and possibly dangerous, children often laugh at a controlling man’s putdowns of their mother and gang up with him against her. Children may be bribed, pushed, or just inspired into degrading or spying on their mother or even hurting her physically. In effect, the children are forced to extend the reach of the controlling man.
Even without physical violence, when a controlling man deprives a mother of the resources she needs to protect and provide for her child properly, he is placing her children at risk. For instance, her children suffer if he denies her access to education, transportation, or a job.
The above ideas are meant to improve understanding of the predicament of women who are dominated by their partners and stimulate commitment to providing them with the safety, resources, information, and support they need to break free. Of course most men are not controlling in this way, and abuse can occur in same-sex relationships, too. This list is not exhaustive. If you have seen this problem show up in other ways, please feel free to add your observations below as a comment.
Interested in learning more about Coercive Control and its effects on children, including how to help children recover after such a relationship ends? Please check out my book Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
Editor's Notes: Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Massachusetts and Author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. Illustration by Liz Bannish.
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