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Coercive Control as a Social Phenomenon

Over the last few months I have noticed a disturbing narrative that argues strongly against having specific resources available for women navigating domestic violence. The argument is around how having tangible supports for women specifically (not equally including men) is ironically a means of harming and marginalizing men. I am professionally involved in a charity that assists women in religious circles to navigate violence. I also work in my private practice with diverse and intersectional populations. As a practitioner I am always critically unpacking the overt and covert shift of power dynamics within relationships.


What about men dealing with the impacts of emotional put downs or behavior that attempts to distort their realities?


In essence this is not only about social categories; "abusers" have these predispositions that are not delegated around their social class, their gender identity, their religious affiliation or the color of their skin. This is not only about the psychology of the abuser though (their narcissisms for example), it is also about the social structure in place to be able to actualize those inherent issues. If for example a so called "black, woman" with the inherent need to control was born into the deep South during the Era of Slavery, the environment (social norms, courts, laws) during those times was not set up for her to be a fluid lived "abuser".

On the other hand the environment during that historical period was one of patriarchy and racism, which would in turn be perfect fertile territory to feed, foster and reinforce a man born into white privilege with those narcissistic tendencies. In this light having resources to support more specifically black women in that time period would provide a more socially related need to balance out the systemic imbalance of race and gender related power built into the system. Does this mean that there are not marginalized white males dealing with controlling women during this historical period. Intersectionality would explain that those white women, in contrast to black women (yet less than their white male counterparts) have more structural ability (social status) to control their partner.


In my own professional experience, especially working in child welfare twenty plus years ago I found myself caught up in the "he said, she said" custody and access disputes. It was not uncommon to have the narrative around " She is mentally unstable", or alternatively "He is abusive". The argument would be that under the guise of protecting female rights, we have traded in male rights.


These discussions have truth to them however one still cannot overlook the built in structures that may afford more real power to someone based on their gender, race or religion. So it is not about arguing how the psychology of control runs beyond social categories, but rather taking cognizance of the very real way society or certain communities shift power ( who has the decision making powers? Based on what?). If a potentially controlling personality is homeless or in jail that person has way less real impact on others', than if he is a community leader, a principal of a school or a CEO of a multi-national company for example.


To further illustrate the social construction impacts of control, when I worked in Western Canada many years ago, I co-facilitated both perpetrators of abuse and survivors of abuse programs. I noticed the similar attached life-style and cultural context of the survivors group. For example a common narrative amongst these survivors was " I need to keep peace in the home at all costs", Regardless of how I feel, to be a good wife I need to put my own needs aside", " My husband knows what is best for me, and he is the final authority on who I should communicate with, or on the specific activities that I am involved in". These ideas were reinforced by their attached cultural communities core beliefs and put in place by the religious leaders. During those times and even over the last several years in my own community, I have spent many hours trying to explain the subtleties of controlling behaviors to community leaders; usually it is only when these behaviors become physical is it viewed by the "system" as a red flag.


In the wider context today we use the term intimate partner violence to highlight gender fluidity as the notion is that society is changing gender norms along with the idea that structural changes around gender control have shifted too ( new Bills being passed, more resources to step-in etc.). However in certain culturally specific communities gender continues to covertly be played out through structural control; for example men have the tangible, built -in means to withhold a religious legal divorce from their partner, so she cannot remarry. To understand the covert nature of power along intersectional lines we should possibly relook more critically and ask "Who are the decision makers?", "Which players take up space", "Which voices are heard?", Which voices are diluted", "How do major life decisions get made in our community ?" "Is there a gender element in who interprets the law in the religious courts? If so, is this even a potential issue and for whom?".


We truly need tangible structures to support those navigating trauma and thus make a space for all survivors to be seen and heard regardless of their social category. Simultaneously though we need to take cognizance of how our society uses its systems to either validate or to marginalize certain groups to a greater or lesser degree. Ultimately we want to support families as a whole to heal and thrive, however deep rooted systemic power imbalances cannot be ignored.

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