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What is coercive control in a family law context?

When it comes to dangerous behavior in family law cases, coercive control is a broad category that takes into consideration both physical and verbal abuse between you and your spouse or significant other. This type of behavior can be limited to specific incidents or can become a more chronic problem for you and your family to deal with. However, being able to identify coercive control while it is happening as well as learning what to do about the control after it occurs is among the most important tools that you can have in your toolkit. 

Part of being in a romantic, intimate relationship is that you open yourself up to all sorts of behavior and emotion. Much of the time (hopefully most of the time) these emotions and behaviors are positive and affirming for you. However, in the world of family law, the attorneys at the Law Office of Bryan Fagan can tell you that this is not always the case. Unfortunately, it can be true that all it takes is one time for behavior to step over the line for that behavior to become physically intrusive and abusive. If you believe that you have been in a position where you are being taken advantage of by your spouse or significant other, then this blog post is for you. 

In extreme situations, patterns of behavior can develop where your spouse may attempt to isolate you and ultimately exploit that isolation for his or her advantage. Your being told that others around you don't like you, are angry with you, or don't accept you can be the breaking point for you mentally. With nowhere left to turn you are pushed further into the arms and the control of your spouse. Living in a state where you are constantly afraid and constantly seeking the validation of your spouse is a bad position to be in. This is a real-world example of how coercive control works in marriage. 

Coercive control is not limited to a specific type of relationship. Rather, coercive control exists in all demographic groups. Coercive control does not have to be physical though it can be. From our experience, people who suffer physical abuse at the hands of their significant other are suffering from symptoms of coercive control as well. Coercive control can make physical abuse worse considering how the mental impacts of control like this may reduce the likelihood that you seek out help or even remove yourself from dangerous circumstances.

When you are being controlled in this way you are having your autonomy taken from you. Autonomy is the ability and wherewithal to make decisions independent of another person's opinions or influence. Many times, we adults may take autonomy for granted in our daily lives. If you are experiencing coercive control, then autonomy may be something that you can’t even remember having. Who you are may be completely a part of who your spouse is and how he or she makes you feel. 

Domination is a big part of the coercive control process. We have all heard about gaslighting as an issue that frequently comes up in relationships. Gaslighting is when your partner uses techniques in your relationship to try and convince you that you are wrong or misguided about the things that you see or experience. For example, if you perceive that your spouse is being verbally abusive, your spouse may attempt to convince you that you are the one who is being verbally abusive to you. This is a problem because it can make you question your sanity and rely upon your spouse more for day-to-day things. 

You should watch out for your behavior which can change over time because of the control exerted upon you by your spouse. For example, many people who are in controlling relationships may attempt to convince themselves that they are doing just fine and do not have a need to leave their relationship for any reason. You attempt to rationalize the relationship in some way to make it seem like your spouse’s bad behavior is ok. This is not ok. Rather, you should consider what options you have when it comes to rescuing yourself from a toxic relationship. Keep this in mind when you have people in your life who are unwilling or unwilling to help you. Ultimately it is your responsibility to care for yourself and not rely upon anyone else to “save” you. 

What are some examples of coercive behavior?

Sometimes coercive behavior can be hard to identify. You may be so deep into a relationship that your spouse’s actions are hard to identify as being coercive. You may associate their behavior with your spouse just being their normal self. For that reason, I wanted to share with you some examples of coercive behavior and how this behavior may be identified. Once you have identified the behavior you have a better opportunity to do something about the treatment that you are receiving so that you can protect yourself from future harm.

For instance, we have already talked about how restricting your ability to function independently is a textbook example of coercive control. Shopping for groceries becomes a companion event with your spouse tagging along even when you are running to the store for something simple to make for dinner. Small decisions are too much for you to make on your own. Rather, your spouse must the second guess or continually check in on the decision-making with you before you're being able to move forward in one direction. Meeting with friends for lunch, traveling one weekend to see your mother or father, and even being able to work outside the house may all be issues that relate to restrictions on your autonomy. You can be tricked in a way to think that you are the one restricting yourself when it is your spouse who is restricting your behavior. In times like this, it is important to have someone in your life who can help you remain based to determine if you are the one who is restricting your activities or if it is your spouse who is doing so.

Next, if your spouse is calling you names, making fun of you, or otherwise putting you down then this is an example of coercive control. Belittling a person is a good way to make that person feel less than capable. If you are always having your habits second-guessed if your weight has become an issue of discussion if your parenting skills are being questioned regularly then this is an example of coercive control. Be aware that you do not have to accept these put-downs without doing something about it. Even if you have a good amount of self-esteem that can change over time if you allow your spouse to continually put you down. It is not acceptable for you to continually must defend yourself to your spouse- especially about subjects that you cannot control. 

Being able to care for yourself physically and mentally is a huge part of being an adult. Imagine a situation where you are continually being told what to eat, how to eat it, and how to live your life with your spouse. This is controlling behavior that can become toxic to your well-being. Many people have dietary or other health needs that must be dealt with in consultation with a primary care provider. If your spouse attempts to suddenly change how you eat or consume a medicine or if you are forced to undergo a significant change to your daily habits then this is something that you should keep an eye out for. If your spouse wants, you to change the way you dress or act in public then these are other examples of controlling behavior that may be used to force you to do things that you may not want to do. 

Parental alienation is a major problem in many family law cases. Parental alienation occurs when your co-parent attempts to manipulate your children against you in various ways. Usually, parental alienation occurs when a co-parent tells a child something negative about the other parent to drive a wedge between the other parent and their child. If your spouse has a habit of talking badly about you in front of or directly to your children, then you should make that known to your attorney if your family law case is going on. That way it can be addressed with the help of a judge. You can sometimes identify parental alienation by looking at the habits or behavior of your children. If your children are suddenly cold or distant to you when that was not the case previously then they may be victims of parental alienation. Children using atypical language is another example of a symptom of parental alienation. Your children suddenly talking like your co-parent is a good sign of parental alienation. 

Does your spouse frequently look at your cell phone to see what text messages you are sending or receiving? What about looking at a call log to see who you are calling or who is calling you? These are not appropriate activities for a co-parent to engage in. You should discuss with him or her that their actions are crossing the line in terms of boundaries. Checking out your social media use is another example of your spouse trying to spy on your behavior and keep tabs on you. Do not assume that your spouse has a right to do something like this. You should have boundaries set up that your spouse knows not to cross. By engaging in behavior like this your spouse is acting more like a parent than a spouse. You can work with your spouse to establish ground rules and boundaries as far as how to act towards one another when it comes to your social media and telephone use. If that does not work and your spouse seems overly eager to spy on your use of technology, then this is probably a good sign that your spouse is attempting to exert control over you. 

Does your spouse ever make accusations towards you about behavior that is extremely out of character or seemingly not based in reality? This is a way to catch you off guard and constantly keep you on the defensive about your relationships, habits, and your commitment to the relationship overall. Your spouse is going to want to keep you feeling like you are not able to remain in a stable situation with your circumstances. Do not underestimate just how critical it is for you to be able to work through these issues alongside your spouse. If he or she is unable to or unwilling to work with you on this, then that is a good sign that there are more significant issues in your relationship that you need to seek professional help on. 

Limiting your ability to access your bank account and otherwise spend money is a good sign that there are ongoing issues in your relationship. One of the most debilitating feelings when it comes to your relationship is not being trusted to spend money. Many times, we see these problems come to the forefront when you are trying to do simple things like purchase groceries and your debit card is denied or declined. If your spouse also requires you to have frequent budget meetings where every single cent that you all spend is gone over with a fine-tooth comb that may also be a sign that your co-parent and spouse are attempting to be overly controlling. You are the only one who can answer the question about whether this type of behavior is appropriate or something that you can tolerate.

A major warning sign of coercive control Is when your spouse attempts to isolate you from the people that are most supportive of you including your close friends and family. If you find that your spouse is attempting to keep you from interacting with this close group of confidants and advisers, then you should be wary about his or her behavior and attempt to address it with them directly. There are different ways that your spouse may attempt to control your behavior both directly and indirectly. Here are some signs regarding your interaction with your friends and family that may be an issue that should be addressed with your spouse.

One trend that I have observed in recent years is spouses who utilize the same e-mail address or social media accounts. Sometimes people may do this to coordinate conversations and social activities with others on the Internet. However, you may also be in a position where your spouse attempts to coerce your behavior by manipulating you, your friends, or even your extended family into feeling a certain way about your marriage or your relationship with your spouse. You should be on guard if you see that your spouse attempts to contact your family when that is out of character for him or her period he or she may be attempting to manipulate or alienate your family from you or vice versa.

What you can do to stop this behavior

Ultimately, you have control over the situation even when you do not think that you do. The first step that you can take to address these types of situations is to talk to your spouse about them. He or she may be unwilling to address the situation directly with you, however. In that case, you should begin to make plans for not only exiting the marriage but exiting your home in the short term. you can contact your extended family and friends to see if you may have a place to stay in the short term if you do feel like you need to leave the home. A spouse who is exhibiting coercive control behavior will probably not take kindly to your trying to end the relationship and move toward a divorce.

Once you decide about a divorce you can and should reach out to an experienced family law attorney to work through the issues in your case so that you can be better prepared for moving forward with a potential divorce. By working with an experienced family law attorney, you not only gain an advantage inside the courtroom but at the negotiation table as well. An attorney who has helped people through divorces before can guide you to make decisions on what to look out for in negotiation and help you by streamlining the process and not making mistakes that can cost you time and money. When you are at the point where you believe that a divorce is necessary, please consider contacting the Law Office of Bryan Fagan to assist you in your case.

Questions about the material contained in today's blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the material contained in today's blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as about how your family's circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody case.

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