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Power Play

Power Play

Educator and activist Lisa Fontes exposes the invisible chains of control in abusive relationships. 

In the last few years, there has been a revolution in voices—an upheaval in the way power dynamics in personal relationships are talked about. Terms such as “gaslighting” and “narcissistic abuse” have joined the mainstream as ways of calling out behaviors of control and manipulation that had been hidden well under a cover of guilt and shame. Hashtags such as #WhyIStayed and #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou flood Twitter with firsthand accounts of what it is like to be an abused partner.

Invisible Chains book cover

University Without Walls senior lecturer Lisa Fontes ’92PhD has been a key contributor to that rising chorus. A community activist, workshop presenter, and researcher trained in psycho- therapy, Fontes maintains a popular blog at Psychology Today. Her book Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship (Guilford Press, 2015) is a mainstream- market guide for identifying patterns of coercion and escaping a destructive and controlling relationship.

The behaviors that Fontes catalogs in Invisible Chains have a bone-chilling effect. Although the restrictions may seem petty, in context they are nightmarish as a person’s sovereignty becomes eroded by stages: as they are isolated from their friends and family, have their communications monitored (such as their partner secretly installing a keystroke logger on their computer), have their food intake restricted, even have the way they express their emotions prescribed and proscribed.

Fontes is egalitarian in approach, taking care to point out that victims and victimizers can be of any gender or sexual orientation: she devotes an entire chapter of Invisible Chains to same-sex relational abuse. But the most common situation, one that is sadly held in place by pernicious social and economic forces that are slow to release, is of men dominating their wives and girlfriends, so she employs that language in her discussions.

Fontes found her way into studying coercive control as she was looking at issues of violence and childhood sexual abuse in families. That led her to discover intimate partner abuse as part of an invisible web of power tactics that can lace through family dynamics. “Studying violence against children naturally leads one into studying intimate partner violence, because in half of families where there’s one, there’s the other,” says Fontes.

“Coercive control moves us from the fallacy of looking at domestic violence as though it were separate episodes that were not connected,” says Fontes, “to looking at a web of tactics for controlling another human being. Some of that web includes physical violence, but a lot of that web includes factors such as psychological violence and economic control. Coercive control shows us the link between those dots.” Fontes, who leads lectures, gives workshops, and presents at conferences on domestic violence and relational issues, hopes her work will help victims of coercive control connect the dots and get free.

We sat down with Fontes for a conversation on these control paradigms and on social changes she would like to see happen on the path ahead. 

Your book came out in 2015. Since then, concepts like gaslighting, emotional abuse, and narcissistic abuse have become part of the common discourse in a way that they were not in, say, 2012. What do you think is going on? Why is this happening?

Part of it is the maturation of the field. First off, I want to give credit to my colleague Evan Stark for popularizing the term “coercive control” through his book in 2007 (Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life). The term “emotional abuse” is not adequate. The majority of what people call emotional abuse is actually coercive control. Emotional abuse is really a subcategory of coercive control. People who are not physically harmed will say, “I was emotionally abused,” but they often are failing to recognize the other forms of abuse that were there beyond just emotional abuse. There is often economic control and isolation, cutting off their access to money, or contacts, or reducing their access to transportation and other things. This is a huge issue in rural areas— people don’t have a car, or turn over their car to the abusive partner, or aren’t allowed to use their car, or their car is ruined by the abuser, or they’re not given enough money to use public transportation, if there is any. As for narcissistic abuse—for some reason, people are preferring to call an abuser a narcissist. Giving this a mental-health-sounding name feels somehow better. But I find the frame of coercive control works better. Giving abusers the label of a personality disorder lets them off the hook, and then the person being abused can say, “I just have to learn to work with the characteristics of my partner,” and no longer sees the abusive behavior as a choice. But it is a choice to act abusively against another person.

Very smart and healthy people can be controlled this way.

—Lisa Fontes

Can you talk about the term “gaslighting”? What does it mean to gaslight someone?

In personal terms, gaslighting works something like, “I did not give you that bruise. I did not say x. I did not promise y.” Deliberately distorting someone’s reality through hiding their medication, or sneaking out in the middle of the night and moving their car, or moving things in the house and then saying, “Oh, you’re so irresponsible, you don’t keep track of your stuff,” when it’s the abuser who moved it in the first place. “Why did you put the camera in the fridge? You must be crazy!” Then saying to the kids, “Your mom is losing it.” Or calling up friends and coworkers saying, “Keep an eye on Laura, she’s been behaving strangely lately,” and then everyone starts looking at you strangely, and you don’t know about these secret phone calls. It stems from the desire to totally dominate another person by eliminating her safety zones: she can’t even be safe in her own mind.

In your book, you point out that some of our inherited ideas of love actually can be potential models for abuse. What are some classical romantic motifs that could become destructive to relationships?

Ideas of romantic love can be a setup for relinquishing control, like poison candy disguised in a wrapper of love. The first red flags might be misinterpreted as love: “I want to be with you and you alone, let’s not spend time with anybody else, let’s put all our money into a joint bank account, let’s give each other our passwords” is a love narrative of two becoming one that many people, especially women, buy into.

Also, many women are willing to submit to control because they are trying to heal their partner. Think of the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey and Beauty and the Beast—her doing and not doing certain things is supposed to cure this beast and transform him into a person. Also, that love pardons everything and explains everything: he does x because he loves you—it’s a very strange message.

We need to educate young people about relationships and have better models than some of the relationships that are currently out there. I’d like to see romantic love no longer paved with dominance and exclusivity, but rather be more egalitarian and have models for that be more public so that people can see that as possible. And also fun and romantic.

“I would never be in a relationship like that.” What would you say to people who make this kind of comment? Why do some people get in relationships like this and not others?

A lot of it is luck: do they happen to be open to being in a relationship when they cross paths with an abuser? Very smart and healthy people can be controlled by their partners in this way. The person who is being victimized is not weak or stupid. They can be working so hard to keep the relationship going that they are willing to give in, to give up, to try to make it work. Often, very successful women are used to being able to make things happen, so they are giving this relationship their all, even if it means giving up their hobby: “Okay, I’ll stop singing in the choir,” “I’ll stop playing with my softball team . . . because he wants more time alone with me.” They buy into the partner’s idea of what love means and what a real relationship means. They spend so much mental energy trying to understand and appease their partner.

What should therapists keep in mind when they see couples in these relationships, or suspect a couple might be in a coercive-control relationship?

Therapists should educate themselves on this dynamic. They also need to see the pair separately. Being in couples therapy where they are seen together puts the victimized partner at risk of being punished if they say the wrong thing. I mean, you shouldn’t have to use the word “punish” at all when you are talking about an intimate relationship, but people who have been in coercive-control relationships know exactly what that is about.

Lisa Fontes

Lisa Fontes

John Solem

Do you find these behaviors mirror behaviors of people who are in cults and also cult leaders?

There are structural similarities. There’s this one person who is setting the terms of how we should be acting with each other to show that we love each other, and the person who is being victimized is trying to conform to those definitions. Then there are those loving moments that keep you on the hook. Are you familiar with the concept of “intermittent reward”? If you want a person or animal to continue engaging in a behavior, you don’t reward them every time they do it, you reward them occasionally. Then they will discipline themselves hoping for the time you will shine that beam of light on them.

In the United Kingdom, the definition of domestic abuse has been expanded to include coercive control. Why are we behind on this issue in the United States? In the 1980s, the domestic violence movement wanted to get the police and the courts to take seriously the ways women were being injured by their partners. They were saying, “It’s an assault! If we penalize someone for assaulting someone else in a bar, why wouldn’t we penalize them for assaulting someone else in the home?” That was an important moment, but the side effect of that approach was that the focus has become entirely on the physical assaults, and the courts and the police ignore everything that connects them. So, when a person is assaulted by their partner, in most states, it’s as though it’s the first time, even though there may have been many prior physical assaults, and the victim may be completely controlled, unable to have her own friends, unable to use the internet, and unable to work. In the UK, police are being trained to see incidents of domestic violence as windows through which to explore the illegal domination in the relationship.

We are not talking about legislating how nice people are to each other—what is against the law is systematically depriving another human being of their liberty and their freedom to make choices about their own life. It’s not hard to prove—it’s a pattern of events—so there is often documentation of that pattern. People notice that a woman stops going out, that she starts dressing differently, that she’s forced to leave her job, that she’s forced to turn over her bank account. Children, neighbors, and family members may witness the bad behavior. There are all kinds of ways in which this manifests itself that there can be documentation for.

In the United States currently, we don’t have laws against coercive control, specifically. But we do have laws against stalking. Traditionally, people have used stalking laws against stranger stalking, and it’s been harder to prosecute stalking with intimate partners or former intimate partners, but that’s changing. Using stalking laws is actually an effective way of prosecuting domestic violence cases without having to rely solely on the extent of the injury in physical assault.

So, are the barriers to criminalization in the U.S. legal or cultural?

In this country, we have this idea that what happens in the home is people’s private business. Remember, marital rape was not criminalized until relatively recently. Coercive control is more than impolite behavior; the seriousness of it needs to be emphasized. It’s not my desire to put people in jail, but for people who are being victimized in the worst ways to be able to live freely, sometimes that’s what needs to happen.

Think of it this way: society’s being deprived of the talents of these people who are spending all of their time worrying about pleasing their abuser instead of being able to work, contribute to their communities, or raise their children freely. Sometimes, they are even committing crimes for their abuser. Coercive control causes people to drop out, because they are not free anymore to pursue their own goals or their education. Violence against women is also a cause of child abuse and neglect. It’s in the state’s best interest to ensure women are free. 

This assessment from Fontes’ book Invisible Chains can help you determine if you are in a controlling relationship.

Top photo by Getty Images