While relationships can be problematic for a number of reasons, Lisa Aronson Fontes reminds us that sometimes the hidden issues can be most damaging.
In Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, Fontes explores coercive control, a term popularly introduced by Evan Stark in a 2007 book by the same name. In essence, it is a largely invisible form of abuse that strips away a victim’s independence, sense of self, and basic rights. While male dominance may have historical roots, controlling another person is the foundation of all abusive relationships, including those that are physically violent.
Fontes expands upon our understanding with several real-life examples, in-depth explanations of controlling behaviors, and exploration of the underlying pathology of coercive control. She also includes a section on specific populations, such as LGBT, teens, and military members. Her writing is clear, and allows complicated concepts to become easily understandable, making her book inviting for both the person trapped in a web of coercive control and the therapist who treats such individuals.
In controlling relationships, victims can often feel like hostages, Fontes writes. Over time, being grilled, criticized, and shamed may come to seem normal. Much of the reason that coercive control is invisible is that the men (though Fontes reminds us that women can also use coercive control) who engage in it often make a good impression in other settings. In fact, this can be one of the many ways in which an abuser manipulates his victim — by making her think she is crazy.
Fontes reminds us that the person who is being controlled cannot reach her full potential. And the control can take many forms. A man can isolate his partner, cutting off her ties to family and friends, cutting off access to employment and money, ruining her reputation, and using technology to monitor her — all with the aim to make her dependent on him. An extreme example of this is coercive entrapment, where a woman “is consumed with trying to figure out how to act better and be more pleasing in a continuing effort to satisfy her partner and escape his punishments.”
Controlling partners can also micromanage everyday life, setting rules that cause another to live in fear of making mistakes. Men can also stalk and monitor their victims, often developing elaborate schemes to know their partners’ whereabouts at all times. They can use physical and sexual violence. They can threaten. They can punish.
Manipulation is another common form of abuse: when a person seeks to, as Fontes puts it, “exert hidden power over another person.” Lying, withholding information, mind games, and gaslighting — which involves attempting to disorient another person and make them think they are crazy — are all forms of it.
Men can also degrade and belittle their partner to the point where the abuser’s physical and social needs seem central at all times. Degradation can include depriving a person of the opportunity to decide when and how to express herself. It can take the form of sexual coercion — where sex is demanded in often increasingly humiliating forms.
There are three factors, Fontes writes, that may lead a man to adopt a controlling posture in his relationship. “First, he has dominating tendencies. Second, he does not respect his partner as a separate human being. And third, he gives himself permission to act in controlling or abusive ways.”
While society generally reinforces the behaviors and ideas that contribute to men using coercive control, Fontes reminds us, control and abuse are always a choice. At the heart of control for many men is the feeling of impotence. For example, a man who is not able to control his environment may take it out on his girlfriend. Men can also feel emotionally numb and use abuse to evoke feelings: when he upsets her, he feels more alive and in control. These men may have a history of trauma. They also may also have a substance abuse problem.
Paradoxically, controlling men are often highly dependent on their partners, misunderstanding how to be in a relationship without control.
And women can become trapped for many reasons. As one of the hallmarks of coercive control is that the controlling partner gets to define the reality, many women second-guess themselves, feel a sense of pity for the abuser — especially when he paints himself as the victim — and become trapped through circumstances (such as lack of resources) and threats of violence.
In the case of teens, many fear what would happen if they were to disclose the abuse. The abuser might retaliate by spreading rumors or damaging photos.
In helping to assess coercive control, Fontes offers a series of questionnaires covering a range of subjects and severity, including isolation, personal activities, resources, intimacy, threats, and lethality. She also helps the reader decipher whether the relationship is fixable. For this, she offers tips, such as setting limits, making a list of goals, making a safety plan, and seeking outside support.
Whether the abusive partner has changed is a major factor in deciding whether to stay or leave, Fontes writes. She provides a list of signs that change has occurred. But should the relationship not be salvageable, Fontes provides guidelines for how to end it. It is of utmost importance that a woman create a safety plan, seek support, and minimize contact with the abuser — as contact, Fontes writes, “will get you entangled again.”
For those struggling to free themselves from the invisible web of control, Fontes’s book may be a life saver. And for any therapist who works with victims of abuse, it should be required reading.
Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationships
The Guilford Press, March 2015
Paperback, 220 pages