Explaining Coercive Control to People Who Don't Quite Get It: A Series. Part 2.
The Myth That Coercive and Controlling Domestic Abusers Can Be Adequate Parents
This is part 2 of my series Explaining Coercive Control to People Who Don't Quite Get It. Part 1 can be read here. This series will explain why the common responses that people have to victims-survivors and to perpetrators are often based on misunderstandings, and how these misunderstandings can be really harmful and hurtful for victims-survivors (and helpful and emboldening for perpetrators). It’s my hope that readers might be able to show this to someone in their life who doesn’t quite understand coercive control, and that it might be eye-opening for people who previously haven’t read much around this subject but who are willing to learn about it now. It is also my hope that victims-survivors who’ve been on the receiving end of harmful, hurtful responses will feel validated by what they are about to read in these pieces.
Who am I?
Before we get started, let me explain why I’m qualified to write about coercive control. I am an academic specialising in researching and teaching about violence and abuse. I have spent nearly 15 years researching domestic violence and abuse, and I was delighted to publish my first book on the topic with Oxford University Press, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, last year. This followed many specialist academic papers I authored which have been well-received by victims-survivors and by organisations in the domestic violence and abuse sector and beyond.
The myth that domestic abusers can be adequate parents
Here are some common statements that are said to victims-survivors:
‘He may have been violent with you, ma’am, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good father to the children.’
‘Yes he hit you, but he never hurt the children; he’s no danger to them.’
‘The domestic violence is in the past — you need to stop dwelling on it, move on, and focus on co-parenting in the present.’
‘You are the problem for talking about domestic violence. You are standing in the way of the children having a healthy relationship with their father.’
We know that these kinds of statements, and the myths upon which they are based, are translating into very concerning real-world actions.
In the US, federally-funded research into family court cases by Professor Joan Meier et al (2019) found the following: In about 1 in 7 cases (14%) where courts were convinced that the father had perpetrated domestic violence against the mother, courts took custody from the mother and gave it to the father. This is shocking enough. However, things were much worse when fathers made claims about the mother ‘alienating’ them from the children. In family court cases where mothers claimed fathers were domestically violent but fathers were able to convince the courts that the mother was engaging in ‘parental alienation’, more than half (60%) of mothers in these circumstances lost custody to the father. Even in the cases where the court was convinced that the mother had been subjected to domestic violence from the father, but the father meanwhile managed to convince the court that the mother was engaging in ‘parental alienation’, fathers still took custody of children from mothers in almost a third (29%) of cases. Clearly, family courts in the US are frequently taking the view that a father who is a domestic violence perpetrator is the better parent to have custody of the children.
In the UK, joint research by CAFCASS and Women’s Aid (2017) identified that more than 60% of family court cases involve domestic abuse (and this is probably an under-estimate). Yet less than 1% of UK family court cases result in an order of no contact. That means that nearly all alleged and proven domestic abusers in the UK are being granted some form of on-going contact with children.
The statements listed above, and the family court outcomes about which you have just read, are partly being fueled by the following myths, misunderstandings, and over-simplified beliefs:
The severity of the abuse can be determined by looking at the severity of the incidents of physical violence.
The violence and abuse is caused by a bad dynamic in the couple’s relationship, and so the end of the relationship will bring about the end of the violence and abuse.
Children are not seriously harmed when they have one parent who attacks and abuses the other. The violence and abuse perpetrated by this parent has no significant impact on the child’s day to day life.
A parent who commits violence and abuse against their child’s other parent is capable of parenting in adequate ways.
In the next section below, we are going to see why these myths, misunderstandings and over-simplifications are so problematic.
Myth 1: The severity of the abuse can be determined by looking at the severity of the incidents of physical violence.
The severity of any incidents of violence is nowhere near enough to tell us about the full scope and severity of the abuse. Many people who are violent and abusive don’t just use physical violence, they also use many other tactics of abuse. These can include:
psychological and emotional abuse
isolation of the victim-survivor
sexually abusive behaviours
tracking, monitoring and stalking
threats and intimidation
micro-managing of the victim-survivor's daily life and behaviour
abusing children, pets, or other loved ones as a means of distressing and controlling the victim-survivor
using laws and systems against the victim-survivor to harm them
This is not an exhaustive list. Some abusers use very little or no physical violence, but still do tremendous, life-damaging harm with the other abuse-tactics described above.
Before we come to any conclusions about how severe the abuse was, we must do a detailed screening to find out which of the above tactics were used by the abuser, for how long, in what ways, and what harms the abuser caused via these tactics to the targeted victims-survivors and their loved ones.
If a victim-survivor is telling you that they are still experiencing several of these tactics in the present day, even if the last incident of violence was a long time ago or the couple has separated, this should be taken very seriously, because they are telling you that the abuser is still abusing them. They are telling you the abuse is still harming their lives, and that the abuser is quite possibly still committing crimes against them.
Myth 2: The violence and abuse is caused by a bad dynamic in the couple’s relationship, and so the end of the relationship will bring about the end of the violence and abuse.
This myth needs breaking down in several ways.
Firstly, we need to ask what category the violence and abuse falls into. Broadly speaking, violence and abuse by an ‘intimate partner’ falls into three categories: situational couple violence, coercive control, and resistance to coercive control.
Situations that should be classed as situational couple violence are ones where the violent or abusive behaviour was not carried out with a motivation of getting control over the victim-survivor’s life. In these situations, the victim-survivor’s fundamental liberty and autonomy should remain intact: They should still, for example, be able to wear what they like, talk with whoever they wish to talk, pursue their chosen career-path, and be free to move around without being monitored. In other words, the victim-survivor should not feel any need to start changing many different aspects of their daily lives to try to avoid future violence or abuse. Note, the severity and negative impacts of situational couple violence — and its implications for parenting — can vary widely depending on what happens, how frequently it happens, and the effects that occur as a result.
Situations that should be classed as coercive control are ones where the violent or abusive behaviour is carried out by someone who is strongly motivated to get control over the victim-survivor’s life. The coercive controller may, for example, want the victim-survivor to wear or not wear certain clothes, talk to various people a lot less, submit to situations that are bad for their economic status, and allow the coercive controller to monitor their whereabouts excessively. In these situations, if the victim-survivor does not comply, the coercive controller will then behave in ways that cause the victim-survivor distress. The victim-survivor’s liberty and autonomy therefore becomes weaker and weaker over time, as they are in a situation where they feel they need to start quite radically changing several aspects of their lives to try to keep the coercive controller calm. This is not the victim-survivor’s fault: the coercive controller is cleverly manipulating them and entrapping them in a web of abuse. There is no such thing as non-severe coercive control: Coercive control is by its very nature very severe and harmful. Coercive control’s impacts on parenting will be discussed in detail in the next two sections.
Situations that should be classed as resistance to coercive control are ones where a victim-survivor of coercive control has used violent behaviours, or has spoken stridently to try to defend themselves or to try to resist the crushing harm of the coercive controller’s abuse of them. These are actions that might — if taken out of context — look abusive. However, resistance to coercive control should be seen in the same ways as we would view the resistance of someone who has been kidnapped or is being held hostage. Resisting coercive control is not associated with harmful parenting, and victims-survivors can be protective, loving parents.
Given that this blog is about coercive control, let’s focus on the situations that should be classed as coercive control. In these situations, the violence and abuse is not being caused by a bad dynamic between the ‘partners’. It is being caused by the coercive controller’s deeply held attitudes, belief systems and expectations. The coercive controller will believe they have every right to abuse their ‘partner’, and also to abuse their ‘partner’s’ children, pets or other loved ones as part of that abuse. They will have a very strong sense of entitlement (that is, a higher than average feeling that the world revolves around their wants and needs). In other words, it is the coercive controller who is the source of the problem, not the relationship, and not the victim-survivor.
The coercive controller’s beliefs, attitudes, expectations and over-entitlement will have been present long before they met the victim-survivor. And, importantly, they won’t fade away when their ‘relationship’ with the victim-survivor comes to an end. The coercive controller will feel like they own the victim-survivor, and if the victim-survivor tries to break free, they will in all likelihood continue in their attempts to control them, or will embark upon a years-long mission to punish the victim-survivor for daring to break free.
This is called post-separation abuse. Post-separation abuse can be at least as severe, and sometimes even more severe, than pre-separation abuse. Make no mistake, the coercive controller is still terrorising the victim-survivor, even if they are now living under a different roof.
So, in cases of coercive control, it is fundamentally inaccurate to assume that the end of the relationship equals the end of the abuse. Victims-survivors need to be protected from post-separation abuse like their lives depend on it (they do). Professionals and systems should be prepared to take actions that cut off the coercive controller’s campaign of post-separation abuse, whether they are trying to maintain that campaign through economic abuse, through the children, and/or through some other means. Professionals should ask two questions:
Could this circumstance be used by the perpetrator to maintain control?
Is the victim-survivor trying to raise the alarm that the perpetrator’s current actions are part of their campaign of abuse?
In protecting victims-survivors from post-separation abuse, professionals should listen to the voices of victims-survivors themselves. Consider that the victim-survivor probably knows best. After all, they’ve been living through this for years.
Myth 3: Children are not seriously harmed when they have one parent who attacks and abusers the other. The violence and abuse perpetrated by this parent has no significant impact on the child’s day to day life.
Coercive control has major negative impacts on children. It damages their everyday lives. Every tactic that the coercively controlling parent uses against the victim-survivor parent harms the children’s lives.
There is one basic logic to everything that happens in a situation of coercive control: the coercive controller will be doing something because they think it will get them more power and control and will weaken any resistance they face.
A warning before we proceed here: the following contains descriptions of how children are harmed by domestic violence. This may be upsetting. Don’t read this if you think doing so might cause you more harm than good. If you are a victim-survivor parent, please know that the harms to children were not your fault: the responsibility lies with the coercive controller.
If a coercively controlling father (the majority of coercive controllers are men) economically abuses the mother, then the children are likely to experience deprivation too. The father may have ensured that the mother is left to live on meager amounts of money because he has taken her wages, made her spend all her money in family court trying to keep the children safe from him, driven her into debt, and/or left her with an inadequate financial settlement in their divorce. All this adds up to the children being impoverished too. The father might leave the children impoverished some or all of the time. He might manipulatively offer the children all the things that his economic abuse has left their mother unable to afford: expensive gifts, money, and, in time, cars and tuition for higher education, but only if the children met his conditions — conditions that will harm them and their mother.
The children may live in dread of the father’s threats to hurt the mother: They may hear the threats he makes in person to burn the house down; they may see the threats he writes online or by text; they will read the threats like ‘dead bitch’ that he graffiti’s onto their garden gate. They sometimes see him raging and behaving in a menacing way.
The children may be there when dad psychologically torments or physically harms their beloved pets, or any other animal he has encountered. Terrified, they think to themselves: ‘if he would do that to this animal, what might he do to me if I don’t constantly try to keep him happy?’
The children anxiously monitor their dad’s moods, often lying awake at night to listen for sounds that suggest danger. They may be overly quiet and subdued at home, not crying as babies, being slow to talk as infants, and not running around excitedly as young children. As they get older, they might opt to stay out of their own homes as much as possible to try to avoid their father; or, on the other hand, they might stay close-by to try to protect their mother and siblings.
Their father may have unrealistic expectations of what the children can and can’t do at their age. He might expect them to be able to do things they are too young to do, and be highly intolerant of mistakes, leaving the children feeling inadequate and scared to learn new skills in case they get things wrong and get punished. His punishments may include acts of child abuse, like beating the children, verbally humiliating them, stopping them from eating, and keeping them in cold rooms.
When Dad sometimes locks their mother in the house or throws her out of it, the children may be locked in or thrown out alongside her, experiencing the full terror of these events.
The children may hear their father telling their mother that she is stupid, miserable, crazy, incompetent, mean, a whore. They may even start believing these things about her themselves. They might realise that they gain more of Dad’s favour if they treat Mum disrespectfully like he does. On the other hand, they might hate the way he treats their mum and develop strong negative feelings for him.
The father might also seek to undermine the children’s sibling relationships. He may treat one sibling more favourably than the other, creating rivalry and resentment. Strong sibling bonds present a danger to his control: The siblings might one day turn around and put up a united front against him. He does his best to make sure that they will always be too divided to do that.
The children might be afraid to go to school: What might Dad do to Mum while they are away? If Dad punishes Mum if she goes out after a certain time, she won’t be able to take the children to any activities that finish after that time. The children may be unable to play sports or pursue hobbies or activities that finish after that time. If Mum can’t take them to visit their friends at home without being accused of having an affair with the friend’s father, then the children may be deprived of those experiences with friends. They might be scared to invite their friends to their own home because Dad might become overtly abusive while their friend is there. Their time with their friends is really limited. Their mother might know that their father will be furious if she takes the children to visit her parents, so the children almost never get to see their grandparents either. They are isolated and lonely.
Whenever the children try to have fun with their mother or be affectionate with her, Dad might come along to interfere and break up the fun. He might do this so much that the mother and children start to feel distant and disconnected from each other. He may insist that the mother show very little affection to her sons, saying they need to be treated with toughness or they will be ‘sissies’. He may tell his daughters that they need to be submissive. He may obsess about his daughter’s sexuality, telling her not to be a ‘slut’ like her mum.
The father might promise the children exciting trips and then cancel at the last minute, or ruin their holidays with abusive behaviour, leaving them terribly upset. The children might be left longing for their father to fulfil his promises, putting them in a very vulnerable, easy-to-manipulate state.
The father might deny any health needs their child has; for example by telling them that they don’t have ADHD, autism, allergies, and so on. They might tell a child who is struggling at school that they are making a fuss about nothing. They may refuse permission for the child to have therapy or to take medications. Furthermore, they might tell the child that their mum is the one who is being ‘controlling’ by trying to get them the medical or educational support they need. He may sabotage her attempts to try to keep the children in a healthy routine. The father’s motivations here might be to distress the mother. Additionally, he may want to keep the child in a more vulnerable state with their needs unmet. (Coercive controllers love exploiting vulnerabilities.)
In the meantime, the father might be posing as the victim himself, telling the children that their ‘cruel’, ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘nasty’ mum is so mean to him, and that the children are the only ones who love him. He may strongly imply that he will become seriously ill or die if they don’t attend to his every need. Fearful and concerned, and being very aware of the scary consequences that ensue if their father feels wronged in any way, the children may take it upon themselves to put aside their own feelings and needs to cater to their father — a situation which is profoundly unhealthy for them.
If the father wants to monitor and stalk the mother pre-or post-separation, he may well use the children to do this. He may interrogate them about what their mum has been doing while he was absent. Has she spoken to other men? He may demand that the children send him pictures of what she’s doing. He might even conceal spyware on the children’s tablet devices or hide GPS trackers in their bags as a means of spying on their mother. If the father physically stalks the mother post-separation, her and her children’s movements will be restricted and there will be a climate of fear in the home. All of this can greatly affect the children: They may live under the same shadow of stalking that their mum does.
If the mother has to flee the local area to try to get away from the father’s abuse, the children may suffer a very painful uprooting: losing their neighbourhood, school, home, local friends, and all of their personal possessions that couldn’t be taken at the time of fleeing. For children who have already been subjected to so much, this is another very upsetting experience.
Considering all this, it is clear that children are seriously harmed when they have one parent who attacks and abuses the other. The parent’s violence and abuse has a major impact on the child’s day-to-day life. Every aspect of the coercive controller’s abuse will be affecting the children.
What you have just read above is a relatively brief summary of how children are affected by coercive control-based domestic violence and abuse. For a more detailed research-based analysis of this, see my book Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives, especially chapters 2, 4, 5 and 6.
What does it say about the perpetrator as a parent that they create and maintain a situation where their children are growing up like this? Are these the actions of an adequate parent? Responsibility for the harms caused to children in this situation lies with the coercively controlling parent: they were the one in the position of power. They could have chosen to stop the abuse whenever they wanted. The victim-survivor parent had much less power by comparison.
Family courts may see it as unreasonable when a child does not want to see a domestically abusive parent post-separation, or when a victim-survivor parent is concerned that post-separation contact with the abuser won’t be safe for the children. The above analysis sheds light on why these stances are actually very reasonable and proportionate on the part of children and victim-survivor parents.
Myth 4: A parent who commits violence and abuse against their child’s other parent is capable of parenting in adequate ways.
The analysis of myth 3, above, already debunks the idea that parents who carry out coercive control-based domestic abuse can parent in adequate ways. However, let’s take a deeper look in this final section by exploring what key research studies have found about the parenting of domestically-abusive and coercively controlling fathers.
Harne (2011) recognized that coercive control was central to the fathering practices of many male domestic violence perpetrators: “Children and young people [describe] a catalogue of fathers’ cruel and emotionally abusive behaviour towards them, such as destroying school work, school reports and toys, harming pets, not allowing children out of the house, not allowing them to speak to their mothers and not allowing friends to phone or come to the house. Some fathers are shown to deliberately emotionally abuse children and young people, insulting them and humiliating them in a similar way to their mothers” (Harne, 2011, p. 28).
Øverlien’s (2013) research also provided important insights into how perpetrators’ domineering interactional style was present in their interactions with children. Øverlien found that coercively controlling fathers/stepfathers were using psychological abuse toward children — continually constraining and monitoring them in a weblike regime: “[Fathers/stepfathers] dictated what the child could wear, or if… [they could] socialise with friends and participate in activities. Their behavior, appearance, and schoolwork all had to be flawless and lots of things were ‘forbidden.’ One child described how: ‘If I set a glass on the table, it has to be put right there and not there, I am not allowed to do this and this, I have to do everything without a single mistake’” (Øverlien, 2013, p. 280).
Callaghan et al’s (2018) research with children who had experienced domestic violence in four European countries found that both children and mothers had to ceaselessly “manage what they said and what they did, as a way of preventing themselves from being too visible, too loud, and too noticeable to the abuser” (Callaghan et al, 2018, p. 1564).
Mohaupt et al (2020) researched how partner-abusive fathers talked about their own experiences of fathering young children. This study’s findings highlighted these father’s anger towards the children, their weak ability to put themselves in their child’s shoes and to see events from the children’s point of view, and their willingness to take advantage of the children’s vulnerabilities. “Compared to non-abusive fathers, partner-abusive fathers rate themselves higher on anger, and as more likely to express anger aggressively toward their children… Partner-abusive fathers often show limited ability to take the child’s perspective and may use their awareness of their children’s vulnerable emotions to punish or intimidate them” (Mohaupt et al, 2020, p. 863).
Research suggests that abusive fathers’ inability to consider their child’s point of view continues post-separation. Mackay (2018) found that they “are dismissive of children’s fear of them — perceiving it to be an idea placed in the child’s head by their mother, for whom they feel intense resentment… Domestically abusive fathers are dismissive of the idea of their children being individuals in their own right, capable of formulating and expressing their own view, or indeed dismissive of the idea that a child’s views are relevant to the issue of contact” (Mackay, 2018, p. 148).
Clements et al’s (2021) American research found that domestically abusive fathers’ willingness to use the children as tools of abuse continues post-separation. A total of 69-76% of victim-survivor mothers in Clements et al’s study reported that the children were still being used by the father to stay in their [the mothers’] lives, intimidate them, keep track of them, harass them, and frighten them. Recent research by Laitinen et al in Finland and by Dragiewicz et al in Australia shows coercively controlling fathers subjecting their children to terrifying and distressing campaigns of post-separation stalking. Children and mothers described fathers making use of contact time to threaten the children’s lives, and to intrusively obtain information from children about mothers’ new lives.
Even where fathers were not using contact time with children to stalk, threaten or physically harm mothers or children, fathers’ emotionally abusive and manipulative behaviours towards children during contact time could still leave children severely psychologically distressed and struggling to go to school. This is an extended quote from a 14-year-old child victim-survivor which can be found in my book: “[During our family court ordered weekend visits to my father] he’d say ‘oh your mum makes me cry, your mum makes me do this stuff; I can’t see you because of your mum’, he’d just paint such a bad picture of her… he blamed her and us for everything… He said he was on antidepressants because I wasn’t seeing him often enough… I felt very small and bad… [After our weekend visit with our father, my sister Zoe] would be off school most Mondays because she felt so ill, she was on the sofa being held by mum and crying… He would call [my sister Zoe] and say ‘you’re the only one who really loves me’… I was just so drained and I felt like crying all the time” (Katz, 2022, p. 197).
Finally, Xyrakis et al’s (2023) systematic review of all previous research on coercive control and child outcomes came to the following conclusion: “CC [coercive control] was associated with increased parental psychopathology, poorer family functioning, harsher parenting and higher levels of child abuse, strained parent–child relationships, children used as tools and co-victims of CC, increased risk of child internalizing and externalizing problems, limited socializing opportunities, increased bullying, poorer perinatal outcomes, limited access to healthcare, and increased risk of child mortality. Evidence identified CC as a unique contributor to adverse child wellbeing outcomes, independent of exposure to IPV more broadly. Results indicated that the impacts of childhood exposure to CC are complex, far reaching, and, in some cases, devastating” (Xyrakis et al, 2023, p. 1).
Overall, then, what research strongly suggests is that there are many harms associated with the parenting of coercively controlling domestic abusers. The ways that these perpetrators behave has severe adverse impacts on multiple domains of children’s lives.
This can be tough to hear. We want children to have two good parents who love and support them. However, it’s important that we face up to the reality. By burying our heads in the sand, we leave children in the firing line of abusive parents.
Protecting children is often not something that victim-survivor parents can do on their own: They need professionals and systems to step up, ask the right questions, join up the dots, and protect victim-survivor parents and children from the domestic abuse perpetrator parent’s on-going abuse. They need professionals who are willing to investigate domestic abuse, who understand its harms and risks, who take post-separation abuse seriously, who are willing to put the child’s need for safety and peace above the desires of the domestically abusive parent, and who understand how manipulative and untruthful perpetrators can be. Professionals who do this can have a major positive impact on children’s lives, freeing them to have the kinds of healthy, safe childhoods that they deserve.
Goodbye for now
This post has covered some really heavy subject matter. The harm that domestic abusers cause is incalculably high.
Having just read this, now might be a good moment to do something nice for yourself, perhaps enjoy a bit of nature, eat something nice, cuddle up to something warm, or put on a TV show that you find fun and lighthearted.
I really hope you found part 2 of this series helpful. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, it’s here. Feel free to let me know your ideas for what future parts in the Explaining Coercive Control to People Who Don't Quite Get It series could include. You can comment here on Substack or by responding under my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn posts for this blog. I’m keen to get your ideas about what other coercive control myths I could write about, so do go ahead and leave a comment.
Goodbye for now.
Re other topics, maybe one for professionals on how to spot coerc control?
Excellent article as always. We really need to clone you Emma!!!