Guest columnist Lisa Aronson Fontes: Let all people be free — including at home


Published: 04-06-2023 8:45 AM

In this Passover season, Jews savor the taste of freedom after being enslaved in Egypt in ancient times. We also pledge our commitment to helping liberate those who today are trapped by poverty, war, disease, and modern forms of confinement. We examine our own hearts for the ways we may be enslaved by addictions, fear and other forces that block our liberty.

Many of us have a friend or family member who is controlled by their partner. They may be isolated, degraded, micromanaged, and abused sexually. Whether or not the relationship contains physical violence, they may be victim of a type of abuse that is called “coercive control.”

Because of sex roles and the greater access to resources enjoyed by men as a group, coercive control is more often inflicted by men against their women partners. But people of any gender can be victims or victimizers.

It is hard to watch someone we care about suffer at the hands of a controlling partner or ex-partner. Long-term patterns of abuse and control usually require long-term support. Isolation poses the greatest risk for targets of coercive control. Simply staying in contact helps the person feel valued, capable and less alone, counteracting some of the abuser’s messages.

Controlling relationships have their ups and downs. Victims will be more willing to discuss the problems openly — and think about making changes — during a phase when they can feel the tension building, or immediately after they have suffered through a particularly bad episode.

During times when abusers act loving, targets may not want to discuss the relationship’s problems or think about leaving. Targets typically focus on pleasing the abuser, above all else.

Remember, the victim’s self-esteem has likely been hurt by the abuse and the isolation. The risk of physical danger may be greater than we realize. The abuser may monitor conversations, movements and electronic communications. We cannot “make” another person break free. To do so might put her (and possibly us) at risk. However, the following may help:

■Let the target know your concerns in a nonjudgmental way.

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■Ask what you can do to help, but do not let your commitments exceed your capabilities.

■Avoid telling the target what to do. She is the expert on her situation. She can assess her safety better than anyone else.

■Resist posing too many questions. Some parts of the experience make targets feel ashamed.

■Share materials on coercive control relationships.

■Allow the target to express a range of feelings without criticism. Feelings of love and dependence likely coexist along with feelings of fear. These feelings will sort themselves out over time.

■Encourage her to seek professional support. A domestic violence advocate can help make a safety plan, even if there is no physical violence. A psychotherapist who understands coercive control can help with the emotional piece. The police may be able to help with an order of protection. These choices are hers to make.

■Avoid giving advice. Advocates who work with controlling and abusive relationships every day will be able to offer the best advice to assure safety.

If your friend or family member seems to be completely under their partner’s control, there may not be much you can do for the moment other than to stay connected and gently point out those times when the abuser’s words do not match his actions.

Massachusetts legislators are now considering several bills against coercive control, including HD 1844 and SD 1822. Let’s let our local legislators know that we support freedom for all by supporting these bills.

Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., is a professor of interdisciplinary studies as Umass Amherst and author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.”