Do you engage in coercive control without realizing it?
What is coercive control?
Coercive control is about how we use power – abuse it to achieve something. The idea of having ‘power over’ versus ‘power with’ is something that the men I work with really struggle to grasp when they join my program. We can think of power the same way we could think of privilege. One of the privileges we have is that we don’t have to know that we are privileged. Likewise, we don’t always know we have the power. The interesting and complicated thing about coercive control is that most of the people who perpetuate it do it because they feel helpless, but feeling helpless and being helpless are not the same thing.
Coercive control can be difficult to define because what one person considers control can be interpreted differently by someone else. At the end of the day, if someone feels mistreated, that’s what matters.
When an abuser is violent or verbally assaulted, they are actually saying to their victim, “I can’t stand it when you bring me anything conflicting or challenging. I don’t have the guts, I haven’t learned the skills to deal with this, so instead of going out of what I know and learning how to deal with it, I’m going to control what I can and change your behavior.
What are the behaviors to watch out for?
In men’s behavior change work, we tend to set parameters and say, ‘here’s what’s going on, so it’s called that’, but it can be problematic because every person and every practitioner has a different perception, so the settings we try to incorporate people do not always work very well.
A man’s attitude towards his behavior is a useful indicator. For example, if his attitude is “she does the wrong thing and therefore I have to make her different”, or if he always raises his voice and says “she gives as much as she gets”, they are justifying the behavior and not wearing a level of awareness of what they are doing. This in no way excuses the behavior, but this is where labeling specific behaviors in one way or another can be problematic, as we try to reach people whose behavior always points to a justification. Removing these justifications takes a long time.
If we are to alert someone to their abuse of power, there are questions they need to ask themselves – “Am I ashamed of myself?”, “Do I feel less than how I behave? my behavior? “is a common thought” If it were different, would it be okay? We need men to start asking these questions, and if the answer is yes, I would suggest asking ‘aid.
What should you do if you start to notice these behaviors?
If you find that you are justifying behaviors that your partner or others have identified as abusive or problematic, or if you don’t perceive the situations they describe as they do, you should look for someone to talk to. This could be a doctor, a counselor, or a provider of men’s behavior change programs, which exist across the country.
In men’s behavior change programs like the one I run, we try to understand what happens when a man behaves abusively. To borrow a great analogy from abuse and trauma expert Maggie Woodhead, three things happen when abuse takes place – inside he gets smaller and more and more frightened, he actually gets more desperate. At the same time outwardly, it becomes bigger, more aggressive and more dangerous. The third thing that happens is the terrifying experience of the woman. You can think of these elements as a Venn diagram, where the three circles overlap in the middle as they are all happening simultaneously.
Our job is difficult, as most of the men in our programs are only aware of what is happening to them internally, and to be completely honest there are very few people who are interested in hearing her internal experience. because of what he’s doing outside. But to help him change his abusive behavior, we need to consider what matters to him and what is going on inside. So effectively, in a behavior change work like mine, we stand at the intersection of these three circles and hold space for his experience. We don’t collude or agree with him, we don’t allow him to justify the way he acts, but neither do we vilify him. Because taking either of these extremes will only further anchor their behaviors. We have to find a place somewhere in the middle. What’s going to help this man is someone who says, “I hear what you are saying, and also the way you touched her was horrible.” Your outward behavior was totally disconnected from what you felt on the inside. What we need to determine is how we can help you meet your own needs, so you don’t demand that she do it for you. It can take years and years of work, because at the end of the day, we are working to undo years of learned behavior.