The Divorce Act and Invisible Abuse: Coercive control in family law.

Date01 September 2021
AuthorLux, Glenda

Coercive control, regularly at the heart of family violence, is now listed in the Divorce Act as a factor in the best interest determinations for children.

The Divorce Act, as amended in March 2021, lists coercive controlling behaviours as a factor in best interest determinations for children. This amendment rightfully recognizes the potential harm of coercive control when determining the best interests of children.

What is Coercive Control?

Coercive control is an ongoing pattern of the use of threat, force, emotional abuse, and other means to dominate a person and get them to submit and comply. Coercive control is regularly at the heart of family violence. Research characterizes control as the golden thread running through all abuse. Coercive control tends to be more dangerous than other forms of abuse and is more likely to affect parenting.

What Does it Look Like?

Coercive control does not "look" a certain way. In family law, it often includes behaviours that create a relationship where the perpetrator micromanages the victim's parenting and everyday life. The victim's freedom to make their own decisions is also limited, often to a draconian extent. The perpetrator may accomplish this via physical violence, sexual violence, social control, control of the children, micromanagement of a victim's parenting, intimidation, surveillance, stalking, financial control, and psychological control. All these areas of control can be divided further into specific tactics. Psychological control or "nonviolent control" is common but generally the most difficult to discern. This method of control is essential to understand, especially gaslighting--a method of undermining the abused person's sense of sanity. The deceptive nature of coercive control is captured by phrases such as "walking on eggshells" and "death by 1,000 cuts."

Proving Coercive Control

Victims often have a difficult time proving their claims in court proceedings for various reasons. They may also present poorly in legal proceedings because of trauma, limited or no witnesses, limited resources, and other factors. This creates a perfect storm, when considered alongside the fact that perpetrators are skilled at manipulation and are generally able to perform on-demand for professionals and wider communities (such as school staff, other parents, and parenting assessors).

Perpetrators of coercive controlling behaviours are skilled at creating perceptions of their competence and expertise as a...

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