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the Path to Entrapment: Insights for Family Lawyers on The Stealthy Nature of Coercive Control


Coercive control is a pervasive form of abuse that operates in the shadows, generally undetectable to those outside the relationship. Moreover, it is an insidious form of abuse that often takes years to develop and recognize. The path to entrapment is paved with deceptive tactics by the abuser.

The Deceptive Facade of Abusers

No one openly advertises themselves as a coercive, controlling abuser. Instead, abusive individuals begin relationships presenting themselves positively, displaying appealing and desirable qualities. They may appear charming, kind, and attentive, creating a sense of trust and deep emotional connection with their partner. This carefully crafted façade continues until they believe they have gained a foothold of control in the relationship.


Seemingly Innocent Beginnings: Seeds of Control

Coercive control typically begins with seemingly innocent requests or behaviours that may come across as harmless quirks in their partner's character. For example, they may make small requests or give reminders, like wiping the table in a certain way or insisting on particular routine. These initial actions do not raise immediate red flags and may seem insignificant. However, they serve as tests to gauge their partner's compliance and establish covert dominance in the relationship over time.

Under the guise of love, care, and concern, abusive individuals justify their actions, often using language that masks their underlying intentions. They might say, "I worry about you so much that I need to know where you are to keep you safe," or "I want us to have more quality time together, so please cancel that appointment." When their partner agrees to these requests, the abuser shows gratitude and appreciation. As things progress the abuser might say, "Honey, don't forget to check in with me in today," and become angry when their partner cannot talk. They might say, "Darling, hold off on calling your mom. I just want to spend the whole day together, the two of us." These statements and requests seem benign, but can advance. For example, it is not uncommon for abusive individuals to ask their partners to share location settings with them, request their passwords, know who they are talking to and what they are saying. They may also insist on driving their partner everywhere and not allowing them to have independence or control over their transportation or whereabouts. They may try to control what their partner orders in a restaurant, what outfit they wear and how they behave in public. The abuser uses these tactics to control, manipulate, and isolate their partner, ensuring they meet their needs, which is the priority. These actions are not motivated by love, care or a sense of "couplehood". They are a desire for power and control.


Coercive Control vs Loving Relationships

All relationships have their unique ways of communicating, where partners understand each other's quirks and idiosyncrasies. For example, it's common for couples to tease or nag each other to some extent. In loving relationships, couples develop expressions, gestures, and glances that have special meanings. Acceptance and compromise are important

aspects of a functional relationship.

However, in abusive relationships, acceptance and compromise do not exist. Instead, compliance and unilateral decisions are enforced through manipulation (overt or subtle), fear and abuse. Teasing is usually not about fun; rather, it is about degrading and shaming, often followed by the abuser's criticisms and gaslighting, such as, "Why are you so sensitive? It's just a joke." The use of abusive tactics is not in a one-size-fits-all style but tailored and fine-tuned to fit the dynamics of each relationship and the specific vulnerabilities of the victim.


Restrictive Measures and Manipulation

Over time, the victim may experience increasingly restrictive measures, such as requirements to account for their spending, needing permission to see friends or family or arranging a playdate for the children, constant messaging to monitor their whereabouts, or being coerced into unwanted sexual activities. In many cases, the victim of coercive control may avoid asking to go out or acquiesce to sexual demands because the consequences of not doing so outweigh their desires. The stress, cold-shouldering, verbal abuse, emotional intimidation, and guilt imposed by the abuser create a hostile environment that makes standing up for oneself incredibly challenging and exhausting. Abusive individuals may threaten to hurt their partners, children, or pets if their demands are not complied with and proceed to do it if it is deemed "necessary" for compliance.

The Language of Coercive Control

One thing that sets coercive control apart is that it tends to operate in an entirely different language, with rules, regulations, and codes that are difficult for outsiders to comprehend. As indicated by a foreboding look, the slightest misstep can trigger a rebuff, rapid escalation, perpetuating fear and subservience. The threats, intimidation, dirty looks and fear systematically undermine the victim's autonomy and agency. Yet all this may not happen overnight; coercive control can take months or even years to fully develop and entrap the victim.


Recognizing Signs and Impact of Coercive Control

As the victim becomes more entangled in the cycle of abuse, they gradually become aware of the constant self-censoring, second-guessing their intentions, monitoring their words, mental gymnastics and tippy-toeing they engage in to navigate the abusive environment. They realize that their daily choices are shaped by an unspoken set of rules that they must follow to avoid consequences imposed by the abuser. This realization often occurs after they are deeply entrenched in the abuse and controls around them, impacting almost every aspect of their life. In addition, the abusive partner is usually effective at instilling a sense of dependency and isolation in the victim. Gradually, the victim loses their sense of self and becomes estranged from their own life, by no fault of their own, trapped in a twisted reality that distorts their identity and severs their connections to the outside world.

Coercive Control: Hidden Everywhere

No matter intelligence, education, or social standing, coercive control can happen to anyone. Victims could be the person you casually see with their dog at the local park, in the gym, greeting you as you pass on the hiking path, and, of course, in your family law practice; And just as these people are everywhere, hidden in plain sight, so too are their abusers. They may be the co-worker in the office beside you, the person ahead of you in the queue in the coffee shop, the parent chatting with you at the soccer game or the new client asking to retain you as their family lawyer. Abusers defy stereotypes, appearing unremarkable to outsiders.

This unsettling truth prompts reflection on how easily one can unknowingly represent individuals who perpetrate such harm or suffer such entrapment. Unfortunately, these dynamics are at risk of being seen as "high conflict". However, this is domestic violence. Domestic violence and high conflict are different experiences.



Coercive control thrives on secrecy and manipulation, making it challenging to identify and address. However, by shedding light on the elusive nature of coercive control and the path set by perpetrators to entrap their victims, family lawyers can better understand and recognize the intricate dynamics at play and provide essential support and legal advocacy for those trapped in these toxic relationships.

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