Domestic abuse includes coercive control

By Casey Nichols


Working with domestic violence, I find that most of my communication feels surreal. I spend surprising portions of days explaining that women are not unreasonable for wanting to go pee without supervision from their partner, that committing to a relationship does not mean surrendering the right to consent in sexual contact, and that love should be a motivator for positive behavior towards a woman, not a justification for doing her harm.

These are not women living in caves somewhere--these are strong, intelligent, educated, street-smart women with excellent survival skills, parenting instincts, and a wide range of professional skills and talents.  

I stop a shocking number of conversations with men (and women) to ask that we not follow descriptions of physical altercations with phrases such as “but you know, nothing BAD.” Not just with clients or the abusers of clients but with well-respected, well-meaning individuals of influence in their communities. 

Add to this the time I spend clarifying the complicated reality that abusiveness in a relationship isn’t just what you actually DO to me; it is how much you COULD DO, combined with how much energy you spend making sure I KNOW you COULD and

BELIEVE you WOULD so that I question my self-worth enough to be convinced that maybe you SHOULD. 

Yeah, I am really fun at parties.

What determines abusiveness is happening long before--and long after--any physical blows are struck. In these relationships, bruises are not just on the face but on the ego and sense of self-efficacy; lacerations not just to skin but to the internal sense of strength and hope; breaks not to bones but to ties with family, with friends, with resources and with one’s own identity outside of a relationship. All of these wounds are designed to make women feel unworthy of more. These wounds are insidious--virtually invisible, difficult to quantify or document, and in many cases not illegal. When used efficiently, this coercive control makes it entirely possible to manipulate, terrorize and brutalize a partner without laying a hand on that person.

A gesture, a look, a statement or silence--there are a million ways an abuser manages home, finances and logistics of daily life. These are behaviors that we have all dismissed, overlooked, and possibly encouraged or engaged in at some point.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but use of the word “violence” to describe the issue we face may cause us to exclude behaviors that research says account for 97 percent of what makes a relationship abusive and keeps a victim trapped within it.

This October, intentionally examine what you believe constitutes aggressive, violent and abusive behavior. It is time to accept that black eyes and broken bones are not all that need to stop. Eliminating domestic violence requires that any effort to manipulate, control or cripple a partner is considered unacceptable in a relationship.

If you (your family, your church, your agency) want to know more, please connect with me. It is literally my job. While I don’t love that my job exists, I am honored to engage in these important conversations until there is no more need of them.

Then I can start telling funny stories at parties.

(Casey Nichols is a counselor with the Fair Haven Domestic Violence Shelter Program, which serves Wayne, Appling and Jeff Davis counties. Her primary focus is outreach and community awareness.  Anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking information can contact Fair Haven’s 24-hour crisis line at 912-588-9999.  Let the advocate know if you would like to connect with Nichols for outreach or awareness services. )