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A Domestic-Violence Expert on Eric Schneiderman and ‘Coercive Control’

Eric Schneiderman. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Much of the abuse described in yesterday’s New Yorker story about former New York attorney general Eric Scheiderman, who resigned hours after the news broke, was physical — slapping, choking, non-consensual violence during sex — but some of it was not: Among other things, former partners of Schneiderman’s recounted name-calling, control over diets, forced alcohol consumption, a demand that a tattoo be removed, threats about what would happen should they ever leave him.

As authors Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow noted in the piece, these types of behavior are abuse in their own right, citing forensic social worker Evan Stark’s book Coercive Control: “[Stark] argues that domestic abuse is just as often psychological as it is physical,” they explain. “Abusive men, he writes, often ‘terrorize’ and ‘control’ their partners by demeaning them, particularly about the traits or accomplishments of which they are proudest.”

But when I reached out to Stark to talk about psychological abuse, he was quick to clarify that that isn’t the right descriptor for the behavior Scheniderman’s former partners allege. (“No,” he said when I asked him to explain psychological domestic violence. “That’s not what we’re talking about here.”) Instead, he said, the collection of abuses Mayer and Farrow outlined could best be understood as coercive control, a more wide-ranging phenomenon with the end goal of total control over one’s partner. Psychological abuse, he explained, is about hurting the other person; coercive control is about dominating them. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Can you tell me about the difference between psychological abuse and coercive control?
In domestic violence, force and emotional abuse are the dominant tactics, and they’re used much in the way that you think they are — to hurt, to control, to humiliate, to punish a partner. They’re most often used situationally, in situations where one person wants to gain advantage or there’s a conflict.

In coercive control abuse, you have a range of acts over time, a broad range of non-consensual and non-reciprocal tactics — isolation, intimidation, sexual abuse, stalking. And they’re not just used to hurt someone or to hurt their feelings, but to subjugate them in ways that make them unable or unwilling to escape, or to effectively resist a partner’s demands. The aim of emotional abuse is to hurt someone’s feelings so badly that they feel ashamed of themselves, and the aim of [physical] domestic violence is to hurt someone physically and make them afraid to resist in that situation, but the aim of coercive control goes beyond that. It uses a range of tactics to subjugate them, to make them dependent. The aim is total domination, rather than simply to win compliance on a particular issue.

Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, but I think that’s a misnomer. Psychological abuse is not defined to include the elements of coercive control, such as taking people’s money, such as stalking, such as physical violence, such as sexual abuse. So all those other elements of coercive control aren’t really elements of psychological abuse as I understand it. And in coercive control, there always is the element of fear. It’s always fear-based. Psychological abuse may not be fear-based. It may just be based on denigration.

This is an example I give in my book: I had a client who was a softball pitcher, and when she would strike out a number of batters, her boyfriend would come out on the field and say, “Darling, you’re cold, here’s your sweatshirt,” and she would fall apart and she would stop pitching well. Ostensibly, it looked like he had psychologically belittled her. But what was really going on was, they had a rule that she would not make him jealous, which he became when she was successful in his presence. He interpreted her being successful in his presence as taking attention off him and toward her, which he couldn’t stand. So by offering her his sweatshirt, he was threatening, essentially, that she would have to cover up her arms that night because he would abuse her. What makes it manipulation is not the psychological part of it, but the structural power relationship in which he has threatened her.

One of Scheiderman’s former partners said in The New Yorker that he belittled her political activism, which lines up with what you mentioned in your book, that coercive controllers tend to fixate on undermining the things their partners are proudest of. Why is that?
The thing about domestic violence, and to some extent emotional abuse as well, is that it tends to be very generic. One hit is like another. People insult people in all usual ways they see on television or in the movies. But when we’re dealing with coercive control, it’s highly individualized. It’s designed to hurt that particular partner in ways that only someone who’s intimate — who knows her secrets and is familiar with how she has developed her pride — knows will hurt her the most. In one of my cases, a woman was a top-flight scientist and [her partner] was constantly undermining her ability to take pride in her work. In another, it was her accounting skills. In each case, it’s the particular skill or particular trait about which she either felt the most uncomfortable or the most pride. That became the one that he picked out to denigrate, so that when he denigrated that particular trait, he got to the very core of her sense of dignity, her sense of self-respect.

One detail that stuck out to me in the New Yorker piece was when one of the women described Schneiderman’s demand that she remove a tattoo. How common is that type of bodily control as part of coercive control?
It’s extremely common, either marking the partner with something that’s very personal — by biting them, for example — or, in many of my cases, men will make their partners wear their tattoos so that other men will see them and know they’re owned in some sense. If a woman had her own tattoo, that may means she has ownership over her own body, and that it doesn’t belong to him. So then having her remove the tattoo becomes a very important signal of possession. Coercive control is all about possession, all about making the body a personal object of yours to do with as you will.

Is physical violence typically a part of coercive control?
In about 70, 75 percent of cases, it is. But it’s not always the kind of bone-breaking violence that you see on TV or on posters. In a typical case, which goes on for an extended period of time, the typical path is low-level violence — slaps, pushes, shoves, grabbing. The significance lies in its cumulative effect. If you take a slap and multiply it by 50 times, or you put it as the single event in an encounter, it becomes magnified in its meaning.

Also, the thing about violence is it doesn’t have to be repeated to be effective. If someone hits me once and they let me know by a look that they’ll do it again if I disagree a second time, I’m not necessarily going to say no the next time. That’s very true particularly of the sexual assaults. I’ve had many clients who told me, the first time he tied my hands down and had his way, I never said no to him again.

Are there warning signs, before someone starts exhibiting coercive control in a relationship, that they might do so?Much of what we define as love in the U.S. looks like coercive control. We think when somebody wants to do everything for us, or wants to know the answers to questions we haven’t even asked yet, we think that’s a sign of love. But it may also be a sign of someone who doesn’t want to allow us to have our own sense of dignity and autonomy and respect. When someone feels uncomfortable that they’re not able to express their differences, or when they find their partner so overreacting to differences that they catch themselves before they say something, they’re in the presence of coercive control.

An Abuse Expert on Schneiderman and ‘Coercive Control’