Ending coercive control in intimate relationships

“If I limped onto the court, you’d notice. If I had black eyes and broken bones, you’d notice. If I had marks on my arms and fear in my v...



“If I limped onto the court, you’d notice. If I had black eyes and broken bones, you’d notice. If I had marks on my arms and fear in my voice, you’d notice. It’d be easy to see that I need help, to know something was wrong. But what about the abuse you can’t see?”

Serena Williams said these words in a 60-second public-service video to raise awareness about financial abuse — when an intimate partner controls access to money, including hiding assets, keeping a victim from getting a job, or denying them access to a bank or credit card account.

Williams’ video is part of a growing movement to raise awareness about non-physical forms of domestic abuse known as coercive control, which includes psychological, emotional, sexual and financial abuse.

“Coercive control deprives people — mostly women — of their liberty,” says Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes, a University of Massachusetts professor and author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.” “The freedoms that every human being should enjoy — to make the small and large decisions about her life — are not accessible to a victim of coercive control. She is hostage to the whims of her partner.”

Coercive control includes isolating an intimate partner from friends and family; depriving them of basic necessities; monitoring and controlling their activities and communications; gaslighting; frequent name-calling, degradation, and demeaning behavior; damaging property or household goods; and threatening to publish sexualized images of them.

“Coercive control is a gateway to physical violence,” says Doreen Hunter, co-founder of the Americas Conference to End Coercive Control. “A high percentage of people who engage in coercive control will eventually resort to physical violence.”

Earlier this month, the Connecticut Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB-1091 that would expand the state’s definition of domestic abuse to include coercive control. Lead sponsor Sen. Alex Kasser calls her bill Jennifer’s law, after Jennifer Dulos, whose estranged husband violently murdered her at her home in New Canaan, Connecticut in May of 2019. Dulos had sought a restraining order and emergency custody of her five children when she left her husband in June 2017, but a judge denied her request because she could not show she was physically abused.

Charged with murder and other crimes, her husband committed suicide in February of 2020. Kasser’s proposed law would make it easier for abuse victims to obtain restraining orders and protect their children.

“Coercive control legislation would enable people who have been victimized by their partners (or ex-partners) to bring the totality of experience to bear,” says Fontes. “It would expose the truth — that domestic abuse is not simply the ‘big violent assaults,’ but also the entire picture in which one person deprives another of resources and their freedom. Many victims of domestic abuse report that the physical violence was not the worst part. This new category of criminal offense would capture a pattern of behavior that current law addresses poorly if at all.”

Several countries, including Scotland, France, England, Wales and Ireland, have adopted coercive control laws over the last decade. Hawaii and California passed the first such laws in the United States last year. 

The Hawaii law defines coercive control as a “pattern of threatening, humiliating, or intimidating actions [that] … take away the individual’s liberty or freedom and strip away the individual’s sense of self, including bodily integrity and human rights.” The Hawaii law allows courts to consider evidence of coercive control when deciding whether to issue a protective order against a family or household member. Hawaii is now considering whether to make coercive control a misdemeanor.

The California law defines coercive control as a “pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.” The law applies to protective orders, but also amends the state’s family code so that coercive control will be considered in custody and visitation decisions.

The state of Washington also recently passed a law prohibiting abusive litigation against domestic violence survivors, including misusing family law cases or civil lawsuits in order to control, harass, intimidate, coerce, and/or impoverish an abused partner. The law provides the courts with tools to curb “procedural abuse” and to mitigate its harms.

Other states currently considering coercive control laws include New York, South Carolina and Maryland.

“Changing the law is not the only answer,” says Fontes. “Other changes that would help reduce the way in which people are trapped in abusive relationships include access to a living wage, affordable housing, universal health care, and a great deal of training and education for police, judges, medical providers, and the general public.”

But coercive control laws are an important part of addressing the abuse you cannot see, and preventing the physical violence that often follows from it.

For more information, Dr. Fontes is offering a free webinar “Invisible Chains: From Domestic Violence to Coercive Control,” on April 29 at 1 p.m. The link is available at: bit.ly/LisaFontes

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine.



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