Placing Coercive Control at the Center: What Are the Processes of Coercive Control and What Makes Control Coercive?

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Objective: Coercive control has been studied in conjunction with physical violence, leaving unclear how coercive control itself operates and is abusive. Further, how the processes of control that are considered coercive differ from control dynamics that are part of all relationships remains uncertain. Thus, we used grounded theory methods to develop a theoretical explanation of the processes of control and what makes control coercive. Method: In-depth interviews with 22 divorced women were analyzed using open, axial, and selective coding and constant comparative methods. Power and gender theories offered sensitizing frameworks. Results: “Felt or experienced constraint” was central to the process of control, but 2 distinct patterns produced this phenomenon. Constraint through commitment involved a process of being constrained by oneself or one’s partner to uphold cultural conventions of heterosexual marriage and parenting. Constraint through force involved a process of being controlled wholly in a targeted and systematic way by one’s partner. Conclusions: Findings contribute to understanding the processes of control, whether coercive or not or violent or not, and assist practitioners and policymakers in responding effectively. Findings also inform quantitative measurement of control and reaffirm feminist scholars’ call to consider how and why gender matters in all forms of abuse.

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