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With Coercive Control, the Abuse Is Psychological


New York Times


Lisa Fontes’s ex-boyfriend never punched her, or pulledher hair. But he hacked into her computer, and installed a spy cam in herbedroom, and subtly distanced her from her friends and family.

Still, she didn’t think she was a victim of domesticabuse. “I had no way to understand this relationship except it was a badrelationship,” said Dr. Fontes, 54, who teaches adult education at theUniversity of Massachusetts, Amherst.

It was only after doing research on emotional abuse thatshe discovered a name for what she experienced: Coercive control, a pattern ofbehavior that some people — usually but not always men — employ to dominatetheir partners. Coercive control describes an ongoing and multiprongedstrategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation,financial abuse, stalking, gas lighting and sometimes physical or sexual abuse.

“The number of abusive behaviors don’t matter so much asthe degree,” said Dr. Fontes, the author of “Invisible Chains: OvercomingCoercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.” “One woman told me her husbanddidn’t want her to sleep on her back. She had to pack the shopping cart acertain way, wear her clothes a certain way, wash herself in the shower in acertain order.”

While the term “coercive control” isn’t widely known inthe United States, the concept of nonphysical forms of mistreatment as a kindof domestic abuse is gaining recognition. In May, the hashtag#MaybeHeDoesntHitYou took off on Twitter, with users sharing their own stories.

Last December, England and Wales expanded the definitionof domestic abuse to include “coercive and controlling behavior in an intimateor family relationship,” making it a criminal offense carrying a maximumsentence of five years. To date, at least four men have been sentenced underthe new law.

“In this approach, many acts that had been treated aslow-level misdemeanors or not treated as offenses at all are considered as partof a single course of serious criminal conduct,” said Evan Stark, a forensicsocial worker and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, whose work helpedshaped the new law in England and Wales.

Dr. Stark, the author of “Coercive Control,” noted thatthe English law pertains to a course of conduct over time. American law stilldoes not address coercive control; it deals only with episodes of assault, andmainly protects women who have been subjected to physical attacks. But in about20 percent of domestic violence cases there is no bodily harm, he said.

Coercive control often escalates to spousal physicalviolence, as a2010 study in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence found.“Control is really the issue,” said Connie Beck, a co-author of the study andan associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “If you cancontrol a person’s basic liberties verbally — where they go, who they see, whatthey do — you do not necessarily have to hit them regularly, but if a person isnot complying, then often physical abuse escalates.”

To a victim of coercive control, a threat might bemisinterpreted as love, especially in the early stages of a relationship, orwhen one is feeling especially vulnerable.

Dr. Fontes, for example, was in her 40s and newlydivorced when she met her ex-boyfriend. He was charming and adoring, and thoughhe was a little obsessive, she overlooked it. Never mind that she has a Ph.D.in counseling psychology, and specializes in child abuse and violence againstwomen.

“For a person looking for love and romance, it can feelwonderful that someone wants to monopolize your time,” she admitted.

For Rachel G., 46, a mother of three who lives outsideBoston (she didn’t want her full name used to protect her privacy), themanipulation was all-consuming. Her ex-husband made them share a toothbrush,and wouldn’t let her shut the bathroom door — ever. He set up cameras aroundthe house, and fastened a GPS in her car to track her movements. Sometimes hewould show up at her work unannounced, “always framed as him needing to knowwhere I was in case the kids needed me, or because he missed me and wanted tosee me, but it was just his way of regulating my behavior.”

She was miserable, but stuck it out for 18 years. Itnever occurred to her to leave: She had three children, and “he had convincedme that I would be unhappy anywhere,” said Ms. G., who does fund-raising for anonprofit. “I wasn’t only a bad wife — in every respect — but I was a negligentmother, or an overbearing mother, I was unsupportive of him, I was a bad cook,I prioritized work over family, my family liked him better than me, our friendsliked him better than me. The worse I felt about myself and doubted myself andinternalized his view of me and the way the world should work, the moresubmissive and accommodating I became.”

In the end, it was he, not she, who filed for divorce,after catching her in an extramarital affair. She is not proud of her actions,but she is grateful it got her out of the relationship. “I would never haveleft if he hadn’t filed,” she said. “I was afraid.” Since then, she has beentrying to re-establish connections with family members and friends.

Dr. Fontes ultimately left her partner after four years.The decision came after she spent two weeks away from him, and realized howdiminished she had become. “There were repeated telephone calls and emails everyday, but it was such a relief to wake up and go to sleep without having tocheck in with this other person,” she said. “I recovered a sense of who I wasas a separate person, my own opinions, my own perspective.”

A version of this article appears in print on 07/12/2016,on page D4 of the New York edition with the headline: When Abuse IsPsychological.


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