Coercive Control in Divorce

Although coercive control is unfortunately not a new concept, the term has become more pervasive in our culture and our courts, as our collective understanding of what constitutes intimate partner violence has evolved with time.

What is coercive control?

Coercive control in a relationship is where one partner exhibits a pattern of controlling behaviors which give rise to an unequal power dynamic in the couple such that one partner has power over the other in ways that limit the free-will and autonomy of the victim-spouse.  While coercive control is a form of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, it does not always involve physical violence.  Sometimes the physical violence, if any, is slight or fleeting such that the victims do not see themselves as victims of abuse.

What are examples of controlling behaviors? 

There are many. A few examples include:

  • Limiting a spouse’s access to funds or financial accounts;
  • Restricting or discouraging a spouse from contact with friends, loved ones, and peers;
  • Monitoring a spouse’s activities;
  • Persistently criticizing or demeaning a spouse’s efforts, intellect, or abilities;
  • Isolating one’s spouse physically or emotionally;
  • Threatening or intimidating one’s spouse with words or physical gestures;
  • Controlling the kinds of decisions an adult would normally make on their own (e.g. what one wears or says to others; where one goes or does not go when not at work);
  • Depriving a spouse of adequate sleep, rest, and/or support.

Two prevalent obstacles for victims of coercive control

First, the controlling partner’s behaviors disempower the victim-spouse, making it difficult for them to leave and get help, or believe they are even capable of so doing.  This may be for any number of reasons, such as their self-esteem has been destroyed, they were isolated and do not have a support network, or they lack information and access to help, money and other resources.

Second, for those in coercive controlling relationships who are able to get help, if the relationship has not escalated to physical violence, there are limited immediate remedies under the law to shield the victim-spouse from the continuing effects of coercive control.  This often means working to empower the victim-spouse both emotionally and strategically while simultaneously fighting to sever the marriage, which is itself a heavy emotional lift.

What can you do if you need to get out of a relationship in which there is coercive control?

If you are in, or you know someone in a coercive controlling relationship, seek immediate help.  First, working with a mental health professional to address the emotional impact of what has transpired, and how to re-orient your perspective of yourself, is crucial to the restoration of your self-esteem, free will, and critical thinking.  The therapeutic process will also provide support and encouragement for the victim-spouse through the divorce that lies ahead.

Next, you should consult a family law attorney for advice on how to sever the marriage and emancipate yourself from the oppressing spouse.  It is rare for divorces where coercive control is present to end amicably and quickly.  More often, the divorce process becomes an extension of the abusing spouse’s efforts to control the victim-spouse.  Planning and preparedness with skilled counsel can help.

Erik Arena and Erin Kopelman are divorce attorneys who handle cases involving domestic relations and family law, including custody and visitation. For more information, contact Erik at [email protected] and Erin at [email protected].