by Darby Strickland
Some forms of abuse are loud, even violent. Most of the more commonly recognized forms of verbal and physical abuse would fall under this category. Other types are quiet and subtle, but they can be equally destructive. Regardless of the type of abuse being enacted, abusers always seek control. Oppressors are all about getting their world the way they want it, and they will use any means necessary, no matter how cruel, to achieve their goal.
We typically think of abuse as physical assaults, threats of violence, or verbal attacks intended to bring their victims to submission. But there are many more ways that oppressors control their victims. One way is to instill fear in their victims, which leads them to comply. This type of abuse is called coercive control or controlling abuse.
Controlling abusers seek to take away a victim's God-given freedoms and dominions, thereby diminishing their personhood. Abuse of this kind is particularly disorienting for victims. Motivated by fear, they comply with their abuser's spoken and unspoken demands.
While violence can be used as a tool for coercive control, abusers also use many other tactics, such as isolating, playing mind-games, monitoring, and degrading. Typically, controlling abusers enslave their victims to a set of rules that they must keep, or they will face punishment. The rules are often changing, seemingly endless, and sometimes unspoken.
For example, controlling abusers often dictate who a victim talks to, how she dresses, how often she exercises, when and how she engages in sex, how she keeps house, how (or even if) she accesses healthcare, how she uses finances, or what she talks about at small group. Controlling spouses also constantly monitor and criticize their victims, instilling fear to motivate them to keep up with all the “rules.”
Being controlled in this way can make someone feel like they are a non-person without preferences—or worse, a hostage with no freedom. Sometimes a victim is not even aware it is happening. Controlling abusers often use various tactics to leave their victims with the impression that they made choices when they were truly not free to choose anything other than what the abusers wanted.
An example might be helpful to illustrate how this can occur. Sara has a great relationship with her family. Soon after she gets married to Bill, he says he wants to make her family his own. A few months go by, and now he joins every phone call and insists upon group texts. Bill says he just wants to be included!
Then he begins to sow seeds of doubt about her family relationships, leading Sara to believe that her family thinks she is stupid. He lies about the conversations he has with them, and soon Sara even believes that her family is a threat to their marriage. Eventually, because of her husband's urging, Sara stops calling and visiting her family.
She believes that she is doing the right thing for her marriage because she has no idea about her husband's lies and manipulation. Bill successfully isolated Sara from her ‘family's support and love by coercing her into making choices that she believes were her own.
Paul warns against people who manipulate others for their own gain: “For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve [vulnerable] people”(Romans 16:18). It is easy to fall prey to manipulators' deceit, as they are masters of disguise: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15).
Coercive control is also hard to spot because it plays upon the victim's trust. Sara had no reason to think that her husband was lying; he seemed deeply concerned about her and their marriage. She was vulnerable to him because he portrayed himself as one who could be trusted.
On the other end of the spectrum, coercive control can have a more overt, terrorizing aspect. Some oppressors strive to create a world in which the victim is intrusively monitored, with their every move scrutinized and criticized. These oppressors make themselves seemingly omnipresent. They might track their victim' s location, install security cameras, watch their ‘car's mileage, use two-way cameras, ceaselessly text to ”'connect' throughout the day, or read their emails. They might even go so far as to stalk their victims when they are out or at work.
Sometimes victims are electronically surveilled without their knowledge, with some oppressors even going so far as intrusively spying on them with hidden cameras in bathrooms or bedrooms. This type of monitoring is intended to dominate and breed fear. While these actions might seem extreme, abusers find ways to justify what they are doing. Excuses like home security, jealousy, or a strong desire to always be with their victims might be offered to normalize what they are doing and to disorient their victims.
Christians sometimes mistake a husband' s rule-setting and monitoring as an issue of submission, which leaves victims vulnerable to believing that they must comply with their husband' s wishes. I want to be clear—coercive control is about creating a climate of fear. If you are doing things to please your husband out of fear, that is not submission; it is enslavement. Remember, Jesus' s submission to his father was voluntary; it was characterized by humility and righteousness, not fear.
A husband should never subjugate his wife. That is not the picture of marriage we find within Scripture; instead, we are told, “husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). A husband is supposed to reflect Jesus' s sacrificial, serving, selfless love for his bride. Controlling abuse turns this on its head, so that wives are enslaved to a pride-filled and selfish person who is willing to harm them and their personhood to have their own way.
If you or someone you know is experiencing coercive control, it takes tremendous endurance and courage to gain clarity and figure out how to respond. It is good and wise for victims to seek the input and prayers of others outside the marriage who understand abuse. If you do not know anyone, look for a support group for victims of domestic abuse, many are online these days. It is also helpful to read about abuse, to learn about and understand the dynamics at play, and their impact on victims. Strive to understand the purposefulness behind your spouse's behavior. Being a victim of coercive control feels a lot like being lost in a maze. My prayer is that you can find a gentle and wise guide to help you find your way out.
Darby Strickland, Author Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims and CCEF Counselor. www.darbystrickland.com