What is coercive control?

Woman with hearing aid working at laptop

The complex nuances of violence against women are poorly understood. Other forms of abuse such as psychological, financial and coercive control are often disregarded and seen as less serious.

People readily understand that physical violence is a form of intimate partner abuse and is wrong, but other forms of abuse such as psychological, financial and coercive control are often disregarded or seen as less serious.

Women often report that these non-physical forms of abuse lead to high levels of fear that, in turn, make them more susceptible to ongoing abuse by their partner because they are too afraid to reach out for assistance.

Fortunately, changes to both the Divorce Act and the Children’s Law Reform Act last year include a broad and inclusive definition of family violence that explicitly includes coercive and controlling behaviours as well as behaviours that cause the victim to fear for their own or someone else’s safety.

What is coercive behaviour?

Generally, coercive behaviour is a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation, intimidation or other forms of abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten a woman.

Often, the abuser is able to create and maintain his control without ever using physical force.

Coercive behaviour encompasses:

  • Threats and intimidation (i.e. if you call the police, I will kill your children).
  • Surveillance (i.e. monitoring who she speaks to, when and for how long).
  • Stalking (following her everyday movements such as where she goes to work, who her coworkers are, her friends, where they might go for dinner, etc.).
  • Gaslighting (i.e. he tells her that she is crazy or is blowing the issues in the relationship out of proportion, he tells her one story and then tells other people a very different one).
  • Cyber-stalking (i.e. monitoring her social media accounts, creating fake accounts to try to gain access to her personal life).
  • Sexual violence (i.e. if you do not give me sex, I will not pay for groceries or the rent).

What is controlling behaviour?

Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour. Controlling behaviour often starts slowly and subtly;  the woman does not realize she is being abused and may believe her partner is simply insecure or jealous, she may explain or justify his behaviour as being romantic, overprotective or caring. He may increase his micromanagement over everyday household tasks such as cooking or cleaning, he may complain that the house is not tidy or she is not a good mother for not making three fresh meals a day.

Coercive control

Coercive control includes acts of both coercion and control. It is overwhelmingly perpetuated by men against women and works to eliminate a woman’s sense of freedom and autonomy. This type of violence is continuous, and the resulting harms are cumulative over time.

Coercive control can include:

  • Isolating the woman from her friends and family
  • Controlling how much money the woman has and how she spends it
  • Monitoring her activities and her movements
  • Repeatedly putting her down, calling her names and telling her she is worthless
  • Threatening to harm or kill her child
  • Threatening to post information about her on social media or to report her to the police or authorities
  • Damaging her property or household goods

Family Law

The prevalence of post-separation abuse and the trauma experienced by survivors need to be understood and acknowledged throughout the family court process. Often, women who have been subjected to coercive controlling behaviour minimize their own experiences or trivialize them because there have been no criminal charges filed against their ex-partner.

However, if the woman has experienced coercive controlling violence, it is important for her to address this in her court materials. Where children are involved, the court is required to consider coercive control (as part of family violence) in making a determination of parenting time and decision-making authority. 

Records of text message exchanges, copies of any letters, notes as well as any verbal exchanges and details about any instances where her ex-partner has not followed the terms of a court order or agreement are important records to submit to court. If the woman’s ex-partner has been charged with a criminal offence, the court should be made aware of this, as orders for shared decision-making or parenting time are likely inappropriate. For example, there may be bail conditions that require her ex-partner not to come near her or communicate with her directly or indirectly, which would mean that a third party would need to help facilitate her ex-partner’s parenting time with the children.

While lawyers are not obligated to screen for coercive controlling behaviour in family law matters, it is nevertheless encouraged. Having a lawyer screen for coercive controlling behaviour will allow the lawyer to have a complete picture of the woman’s experiences, the right strategy to use as well as how best to approach the case. Some lawyers may not be equipped with the tools to recognize coercive controlling behaviour or may inadvertently trivialize the woman’s experiences because her ex-partner was never charged with a criminal offence while they were together. You can support the woman and her lawyer by ensuring the lawyer has information about family violence; in particular coercive control, assisting the woman to gather and organize her evidence, supporting her to plan for appointments with her lawyer and attending those appointments to assist her in staying focused. You can also assist the woman to be assertive with her lawyer or, if she does not have a lawyer, connect her with the Virtual Legal Clinic.