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Coercive Control 101

I've been divorced from an abusive partner for sixteen years now and have been doing some serious unpacking of all that baggage for the last eight of those years. I understand so much more about my own history, how it left me primed for someone like my ex to swoop in, and how I so quickly lost myself. All these years of learning and unpacking and it is only within the last several months that I'm hearing the term "coercive control" used consistently in the context of domestic violence or intimate partner abuse. Finally.

A quick Google search gives us this definition: "Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim." Or "A pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship". Basically, it's the term for all of the non-physical abuse often gets lumped into the category of emotional abuse--which never felt quite right. I mean, it's right, but it's so much more. It's coercive control.

That first definition presents a pretty clear image of someone angry, yelling, flailing around, while the intended target cowers in the corner, terrified. But that second definition--"...pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic"...that's the tough one to put your finger on and it's the one that creeps up on you. In fact, most don't even see it until they're away from the coercive controller. It's insidious and so, so damaging.

One example might be your partner putting the responsibility of managing the finances on you, but then spending recklessly and getting angry, calling you incapable of managing money when you get into a financial bind. Though I think the simple example of feeling like you're walking on eggshells around someone is probably the best and easiest. That is coercive control in a nutshell. When someone has created an environment, through patterns of behavior, where those around them feel like they have to walk on eggshells to keep the peace or not upset the controller.

So why does it matter what we call it? Because the Family Court System is failing protective parents and children by not recognizing coercive control as domestic violence. Judges are giving custody of children to their abusers every single day in family courts across this country--because coercive control isn't recognized as domestic violence. And if it's not even recognized as abuse, then how can we even begin to address the fallout of what it is doing to us...and our children.

Growing up with a parent who displays coercive control tactics creates an environment where the child is on guard at all times...the fear becomes a normal part of their lives and will impact them as adults for decades without therapeutic interventions. Black eyes and broken arms aren't the only measure of abuse. It's time the courts start recognizing coercive control.

The effects of coercive control, especially as it relates to our children as we leave unhealthy, abusive relationships, have always been at the heart of my work as a coach. It is the one area, way back in 2008, when I discovered what narcissistic personality disorder is and what it looks like in relationships that I wanted more of. I found so much aimed at adult children of these kinds of disordered or abusive parents, but nothing that told me what to do or how to help them while they were still children.

Today as I sit here, I am enrolled in a certification course being offered by Dr. Christine Cocchiola of Coercive Control Consulting, Inc. and will soon be empowered with the knowledge and the tools to support healthy parents leaving relationships with coercive controllers. I am going to be one of the voices that I was so desperately searching for back in 2008. And I could cry just thinking about it.

You can be sure there will be more in this space about coercive control. If you do find yourself identifying with any of this, or if you are trying to co-parent with an abuser who is using coercive control on your children, please go follow Dr. Cocchiola on the socials. You can find a link to her page and resources (there are so many!) here: Dr. C's Resources

Coercive Control Certification: Coming May 2024

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