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Family Law: Abuse involves Control

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Coercive Control Is A Defining Feature of Family Violence

The Divorce Act, as amended in March 2021, lists coercive controlling behaviours as a factor in best interest determinations for children. This is an important step in recognizing the serious harm of coercive control in the lives of children.

But coercive control is more than just behaviours. Framing of coercive control as a stand-alone tactic or "type" of family violence misses a critical element. Coercive control is regularly at the heart of family violence (Douglas, 2018; Johnson, 1995; Pence & Paymar, 1993) and coercive control has been characterized as the golden thread running through all abuse (Myhill & Hohl, 2019).

The Family Violence Protection Act of Victoria offers a comprehensive definition of family violence highlighting control as inherent to abuse. "Any behaviour that occurs in family, domestic or intimate relationships that is physically or sexually abusive; emotionally or psychologically abusive; economically abusive; threatening or coercive; or is in any other way controlling that causes a person to live in fear for their safety or wellbeing or that of another person."

Abuse involves control

Regardless of what form or tactic is used, it is impossible to dominate someone emotionally, physically, sexually or economically without undue control.

Viewing coercive control as specific behaviours or as a “type” of violence conceals the central role that control has in family violence. Coercive control is very often a defining feature of family violence even though the tactics and individual behaviours used by perpetrators and the experience for each victim (adult or child) is unique.

Reducing coercive control to specific behaviours risks missing the power and control dynamics in a separating family or co-parenting dynamic. It risks misidentifying and misunderstanding a victim parent or child’s complex and unique experience of coercive control and the deeply harmful effects.

When coercive control is conceptualized as specific behaviours or events, it reinforces incident-based responses to family violence rather than considering the totality of a victim’s experience and the pattern of abuse that has been perpetrated against them. The underlying dehumanizing, and cruel attitudes that drive the use of abusive tactics to obtain and maintain power and control are important considerations in parenting plans and best interest determinations. These attitudes and beliefs of entitlement can be obscured when looking at family violence through the lens of specific behaviours. Almost universally, these attitudes and beliefs are foundational to the controlling abusers mindset and they manifest in harmful ways in their parenting and co-parenting.

Developing an understanding of the centrality of coercive control to family violence can support family law professionals in identifying and responding effectively to family violence.

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