Our perceptions about domestic violence are often shaped by the media, which typically portrays intimate partner abuse as graphic and salacious. The truth is there are no obvious answers to what domestic violence looks like because it is very complicated. Every story is unique with many facets.
At its core, domestic abuse is about gaining and maintaining power and control over a partner. The abuse often includes acts and threats of violence but sometimes does not. While punching, slapping, kicking, or harming someone with a weapon leaves physical proof of abuse, there are more covert aspects of domestic violence many do not recognize.
Recognizing Coercive Control
Coercive control is nearly always at the core of domestic abuse. Coercive control refers to the way abusers nonviolently manipulate, oppress, and intimidate their intimate partners. It is part of a deliberate and systematic pattern of behavior used to limit a person’s freedom and ability to act on their own behalf in conjunction with their personal needs and values.
The overarching goal of coercive control is to generate a threat that forces compliance, and instill a sense of confusion that destabilizes the victim’s belief in themselves. While violence and threats of physical harm are effective ways to intimidate and manipulate, they are not necessary if there are other ways an abuser can dominate without facing legal and social consequences.
Abusers inflict coercive control over their partners (and sometimes other family members) in a variety of ways, diminishing their ability to live freely. These tactics can be just as effective as violence and cause even more psychological trauma.
Aspects of coercive control include:
Isolation from friends and family
Controlling daily behaviors
Not allowing a victim to go to work or school
Depriving a victim of basic needs and financial resources
Spying, monitoring, and stalking
Threatening to take away or harm children or pets
Controlling aspects of a victim’s health and body
Intimidation, manipulation, and constant humiliation
Coercive control is a deceptive and powerful approach that is hidden in plain sight and happens behind closed doors. While it leaves no telltale signs such as black eyes, broken bones, or marks on the victim’s arms, it can be a steppingstone to physical violence, especially when a survivor is attempting to leave an abusive situation, or after they have ended the relationship.
The Hidden Nature of Abuse
Abusive people live among us as our coworkers, neighbors, and sometimes even friends and family members. They do not appear as monsters to the outside world. In fact, they are often charming, calm, and convincing. Abusers take control of the narrative and easily assume any given role that suits their needs, even pretending to be the victim.
People with controlling, unhealthy, and abusive attitudes know their behavior is not okay. They don’t show this side of themselves to most people in their lives or treat others the way they treat their partner. The hidden nature of coercive control creates additional obstacles for survivors because they fear they won’t be believed or taken seriously if they do come forward or speak out about the abuse.
The absence of physical violence often pushes domestic abuse into a gray zone even victims sometimes fail to grasp. A person may not recognize they are being controlled or manipulated until their identity, self-esteem, sense of safety, and autonomy have been completely undermined. Civil legal and criminal justice systems also typically overlook aspects of coercive control as domestic violence, leaving victims without the protections and services they desperately need.
How to Support Survivors
The person being abused is typically confused, ashamed, and takes on blame for what is happening to them. Further reinforcing their self-blame are those around them asking, “Why don’t you just leave?” This type of victim blaming is not only unhelpful, but also perpetuates dangerous myths about domestic abuse.
Individuals living with domestic violence never have the luxury of simply “walking away.” They know that no matter when or how they physically leave, the aftershocks will impact every part of their life. They also know that if they don’t get out, they might end up dead–and removing themselves from the relationship will not guarantee a different outcome. The most dangerous time for someone fleeing an abusive relationship is when they are planning to leave and during the first year after separation.
Survivors deserve to be met with compassion, support, accurate information, and safe options. Sometimes, intimate partner violence does not appear the way we expect, but that doesn’t make it less real. Instead of focusing on the victim’s choices, which are severely limited, we must shift blame to the person who is in control and responsible for the abuse.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, advocates at The Friendship Center are ready to help. Call 406.442.6800 to access our free and confidential services 24/7. Visit our Domestic Violence resource page to explore resources for victims and advocates and learn more about our services.