Revealing the Invisible Cage: Understanding Coercive Control Through the Eyes of Survivors in the Era of COVID-19
Coercive control (CC) is a pervasive, systematic pattern of behaviors used by an intimate partner to exert power over, manipulate, intimidate, control, and undermine a victim’s ability to leave the relationship. Compared to intimate partner violence (IPV) involving physical violence alone, abusive relationships marked by CC are linked with more long-lasting psychological consequences and an increased risk for more severe physical injuries, including domestic homicide. Dutton and Goodman (2005) created a theoretical model outlining distinct and interrelated components involved in the development and maintenance of coercively controlling relationships. In this qualitative study, I investigated whether components of this model reflect survivors’ lived experiences of CC. I also examined survivors’ experiences of physical IPV and CC broadly, the sequence in which CC and physical IPV occur in, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on survivors’ experiences of IPV. Trauma-informed interviews were completed individually with 12 Canadian women (age range, 23-56; M = 39.8) accessing women’s shelters. Transcripts were analyzed using Braun and Clarke’s (2021) reflexive thematic analysis. Themes described survivors’ lived experiences of sexual coercion and CC marked by pervasive, frequent, ongoing patterns of CC that deprived women of freedom. Components of Dutton and Goodman’s (2005) model of CC were captured, including grooming methods and the use of demands, threats, and surveillance as coercion tactics. Themes described CC preceding physical IPV or both forms of IPV emerging together early in relationships. Experiences of IPV during the COVID-19 pandemic encompassed pandemic restrictions facilitating CC, reduced opportunities for survivors to leave or seek support, and increases in physical IPV connected to increased isolation. These findings have implications for partner aggression research, prevention strategies, and educational initiatives aimed at reducing IPV in romantic relationships.