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Author Examines Coercive Control as Form of Abuse in Relationships

We had a chance to interview Dr. Lisa Fontes, author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, about what it means to be in a relationship where a partner uses coercive control as a form of dating abuse.

1. Tell us briefly about your book, Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.

Invisible Chains talks about a form of abuse called Coercive Control. It occurs in personal relationships. The book is easy to read and contains a list that readers can use to assess their own relationship or a friend’s relationship to see if it’s too controlling. Readers identify with the short stories about real situations.

2. Can you briefly explain, in your words for readers who may not know, what Coercive Control means, what it entails, and whether or not you feel it’s different from terms like “physical abuse” or “verbal abuse”?

Coercive Control describes relationships where one partner systematically dominates the other. Tactics can include criticism, isolation, threats, stalking, manipulating, and sometimes abusing physically and sexually. Physical and verbal abuse are often present in Coercive Control—but not always. With young people, especially, Coercive Control may feel like love. The abuser will often say he is doing these things out of love or jealousy. I’m describing the abuser here as “he” because in heterosexual relationships, often the controlling person is the male. Coercive Control can also occur in same sex relationships.

3. Why do you say males are more likely to use Coercive Control against females than the reverse?

Certainly girls and women can be bossy. But Coercive Control is not simple bossiness—it’s domination. In our society, males as a group tend to have greater access to power including greater physical strength and better paying jobs than women. Additionally, even today, girls are raised to take care of other people’s feelings and they often try to avoid being too assertive—so they won’t be called the B-word and seen as too aggressive. Boys are generally raised to get their own needs met. There’s not much research on Coercive Control, but the research that does exist shows that teen girls are much more likely to feel threatened and trapped by their controlling partners than boys. When teen boys feel overly controlled by their partner, they are more likely to escape the relationship. Additionally, boys and men are much more likely to use physical and sexual violence against their female partners than the reverse. Coercive Control is absolutely a problem that affects more females than males, although people of all genders and sexual orientations can be victims or victimizers.

4. Why did you choose to write about Coercive Control?

I have seen women wasting a lot of energy doing everything they can to please a controlling man, rather than following their own hopes and dreams. I have also suffered through a Coercive Control relationship in my own life, and I didn’t understand what was happening. I learned the term only after the relationship was over. I think I would have gotten out of the relationship sooner if I had been familiar with the concept of Coercive Control. Especially when women are not being abused physically, they may not be able to figure out or explain exactly why they feel tense and fearful rather than relaxed and happy in their relationship.

5. How did your personal experience with Coercive Control influence this book?

I was in a Coercive Control relationship for about 4 years, and then stalked afterwards for two years. The book includes only two paragraphs about my situation. However, my experience informs every page. Readers will not find an ounce of disrespect toward people who have been victimized. I completely understand how any person can be trapped in this kind of relationship, given the right circumstances. I know how hard it is to break free and recover. And I know that it’s possible. Of course every person’s experience is different, but I know the feelings of love, I know the fear, I know the desperation, and I know about recovery.

6. Why do you feel Coercive Control may be less discussed than other forms of dating violence, such as physical violence? 

Coercive Control is often invisible to others, whereas the bruises of physical violence may be visible. In fact, coercively controlling boys and men are often quite charming and may make a good impression on others. So a victim, usually a woman, may feel trapped and uncomfortable, without being able to point to the exact source of her discontent. Without the concept of Coercive Control, she doesn’t connect the dots between the ways she is restricted, her increasing isolation, and her fears. She may feel like she has to walk on eggshells all the time and constantly work hard to please her partner, without seeing the controlling pattern of his actions. Coercive Control is a more subtle way to control a partner than a punch. It can be hard for others to spot. 

7. Tell our readers more about what you learned with Coercive Control and teenagers.

With teenagers, control is often enforced through technology, sex, and substances. A controlling teenage partner might constantly text his victim and expect an immediate response. He might threaten to expose or embarrass her through social media and track her through a GPS or apps on her phone. He may demand or discover her passwords and monitor all her online activities. Because teenagers’ lives are typically filled with technology, these forms of control are common in high schools and colleges and among young working people. In terms of sex, a controlling partner often pushes his girlfriend to engage in activities that she doesn’t want, at times when she doesn’t want to, or in ways that she doesn’t want. For instance, he may push her to have anal sex or to have sex without contraception. A controlling partner may try to get his girlfriend drunk or high, so she’ll have less of an ability to resist his advances. Of course, I’m not referring to situations where she is happy to participate! I’m referring to situations where she feels like she cannot say “no.” Or she has said “no” and he has pushed her into going along with it, anyway. This is sexual coercion and—depending on the circumstances—it may be rape. Once someone has said, “no,” that should be the end of the discussion. Coercive Control is tricky because all these behaviors may presented as “love.” For instance, “I want to know where you are at all times because I worry about you.” Or, “If you really loved me, you’d have sex with me now.” A young woman may be confused. It feels like control but he says it’s love—which is it?

8. What advice would you give to young people in middle school, high school, and college?

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself in a relationship. If you feel like you are being bullied or guilt-tripped or pushed or threatened into doing things you don’t want to do—this is a problem. Seek help from friends and also from an adult you can trust. Pushing someone to do things against his or her will is wrong. It’s not love. If your partner is isolating you from friends, family, or activities you enjoy—this is a red flag that there is trouble ahead. If you become isolated it will be harder for you to break free and live your own life again. And don’t ever allow naked photos of yourself to be taken. Period! They could end up all over the Internet, all over your school, and in the hands of your parents, the police, and pornographers. Your partner does not need a naked picture of you—even if you know you look hot. Many schools have an underground system where boys trade “nudies” or naked photos of their girlfriends and ex-girlfriends on their phones. Additionally, as laws are written in many states, if you are under 18 and you give someone a photo or video of yourself naked, you could be charged with producing and distributing child porn. And if you are over 18, once you give away that picture you may lose all legal right to determine how it is used (depending on the state). It’s better, therefore, not to share naked or overly revealing photos or videos.

9. What advice would you give to parents, educators, or other people who may work closely with young people?

Stay connected. Be supportive without taking over. Read the section of Invisible Chains that is written for people who are concerned about a young person—it has a lot of helpful ideas.

10. How have readers responded to Invisible Chains?

The response has been amazing. One reader drove two hours to meet me at a bookstore signing to tell me how much the book meant to her, as she recovered from a Coercive Control relationship she had ended four months earlier. She patted the book and said, “I didn’t know how to describe what had happened to me until I read this. This book is going to help me heal.” I did a reading at a shelter for victims of domestic violence and all the heads were nodding throughout the talk. Lots of tears. The participants confirmed that they had felt totally trapped and unfree—and this was worse, in many ways, than the blows. People who are not victims themselves often know someone who is in such a situation. People buy copies of the book for people they know. 

One of my children is a teenager and the other two are young adults. They and their friends tell me about other young people they know who are caught in Coercive Control relationships. My goal in life is to help people live with less oppression. Invisible Chains is helping some people in this direction. That makes me happy.