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What is Coercive Control?

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

  • October 08, 2015
  • By domesticshelters.org
What is Coercive Control?

The new 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.

DS.org: 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.

DS.org: 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.

DS.org: 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.

This is part 1 of 3 articles interviewing Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD. See part 2 and part 3.

Illustration by Liz Bannish