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Situational Couple Violence Vs Coercive Control in Family Law: How to Tell Them Apart.

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Both situational couple violence and coercive control have implications for best-interest decisions. However, the classification of violence into types, has been criticized in family law contexts.

Misuse of these typologies occurs in family court when more serious abusers claim “mutual” violence and their narrative is unexamined, believed and deemed irrelevant to child contact (Meyer, 2017). Further, situational couple violence can be seen as “not so bad” when in fact, it may indicate an unsafe parent.

Neither situational couple violence nor coercive control is irrelevant to parent-child contact, or the safety and well-being of children. In addition, both can have implications for co-parenting.

Overall, domestic violence is under-detected by the family law system. Correct classification of these typologies often requires fulsome examination by a professional with specific and comprehensive training in assessing domestic violence in family contexts.

There are several critical differences between situational couple violence and coercive control. First, however, here are general definitions of situational couple violence and coercive control.

  • Situational couple violence occurs during couple conflicts where verbal aggression escalates into acts of physical violence.

  • Coercive control involves an ongoing pattern of abuse in many forms used to harm, frighten, punish, and ultimately restrict another’s autonomy. Coercive controlling abuse impacts a victim’s sense of safety, identity, and attachment to others.

The key differences are essential and may not be easy to spot. However, the following chart helps outline how different these two types of domestic violence are.

Situational couple violence can negatively impact parents or children who experience it. Its dangerousness by those who may perpetrate it in severe ways should not be underestimated. Therefore, quality information is needed when domestic violence allegations are present in family law files.

It is important to note that true abusers tend to feel they are the victims of abuse and control. They often claim their partner engages in “crazy behaviour” and alienation.

It is not uncommon to hear abusers argue that violence in the relationship was mutual. However, one must be cautious not to misclassify completely different situations.

When an individual who throws their shoe at their partner during an argument, on one occasion, and who otherwise conducts themselves in a non-violent manner, is viewed the same as someone who regularly scares, terrorizes and controls most aspects of another’s life, the best interests of children will never be met.

When in doubt, engage a domestic violence specialist for a comprehensive assessment or consultation.



Katz, Emma Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives (2022, Oxford University Press)

Meier, (2017) Dangerous Liaisons: Domestic violence typology and custody litigation. Rutgers University Law Review, 70(1), 115 to 174.


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