“The judge essentially said, ‘A marriage license does not give a person permission to subjugate their spouse,’” said Lisa Fontes of the landmark ruling against coercive control, a type of domestic violence.
Ms. Magazine/August 31, 2023
By Carrie N. Baker
In September 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed Senate Bill 1141, one of the country’s first laws explicitly allowing courts to consider coercive control as domestic violence in family court matters. The law defined coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.” On Aug. 10, Vanessa A. Zecher—a judge of the Superior Court of Santa Clara County— entered a permanent restraining order against a man for coercive control domestic abuse.
“This case is one of the first cases in the United States where coercive control was considered domestic violence in the absence of physical abuse,” said Lisa Fontes, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, an expert on coercive control and author of the second book ever written on coercive control, Invisible Chains. “The judge essentially said, ‘A marriage license does not give a person permission to subjugate their spouse.’”
With campaigns for similar laws moving forward in several states, the case gives advocates concrete evidence of how coercive control laws are critical for freeing survivors from the grasp of abusive partners.
‘A Denial of Free Will in Almost All Aspects of Her Life’
The facts of the California case are shocking. The husband gave his wife pages of instructions and demands about how she had to behave. In her ruling, Zecher described how the husband used “written documents, edicts and pronouncements” to control his wife’s every move, “right down to the way she was supposed to wash the dishes.”
Zecher described the documents as “directives which literally control every aspect of the petitioner’s life from how she cooks and keeps the house, including the kitchen, to the times which things need to be done … and pre-empts her from engaging in any decision making in her own home.”
The husband required his wife to meet with him each evening at 8:30 p.m. to discuss whether she had met his demands. In the documents, the husband complained of his wife’s “transgressions,” “including waking up a few minutes later than ‘promised’ and getting breakfast on the table a few minutes later than ‘promised.’” The wife testified that her husband’s behavior was “demoralizing, demeaning, and exhausting.”
Zecher noted that the husband was a software engineer, and “as such he may write code to control how machines work,” but that the “same skill cannot be applied to human relationships without implicating domestic violence actions related to coercive control.”
Zecher ruled that the man’s behavior was coercive control domestic violence because it impeded his wife’s right to “freedom of thought, action and decision making.” The husband “engaged in a pattern of behavior which controlled and regulated [his wife’s] daily behavior, communications and economic resources” and “engaged in a pattern of domination, intimidation and deliberately impeding the rights” of his wife.
“When a human being has to worry about or consider an intimate partner’s reaction in every facet of their life, including whether the intimate partner approves of that action, then that human being really is not free in either decision making or movement,” Zecher said of the ruling. “This is where the line is crossed from micromanagement or an attempt to control external circumstances … to the control of another human being or coercive control.”
Zecher focused, in particular, on the husband’s threats of punishment. “Whether intended or not, the use of the words ‘punishment’ and ‘violations’ have no place in a spousal intimate relationship and the use of those words have the effect of creating a circumstance where the victim spouse is ’emotionally battered’ to the point where the lines are blurred between what the victim spouse really wants versus what the victim spouse believes will please the other spouse to avoid an argument or to avoid being placed in a financially desperate situation with a child.”
Fontes suggests that a judge referring to someone as “emotionally battered” in itself is groundbreaking, and may have implications for future rulings.
“That is not freedom of thought,” Judge Zecher continued. “The lack of freedom of thought leads to the lack of freedom of movement. Respondent’s actions amounted to a denial of petitioner’s free will in almost all aspects of her life.”
The judge entered a domestic violence restraining order against the husband and maintained sole legal and physical custody of the child with the wife. The father retained unsupervised visitation with the child, pending future court hearings.
The use of the words ‘punishment’ and ‘violations’ have no place in a spousal intimate relationship.
The Harms of Coercive Control
The wife’s attorney, Rebekah Frye, describes coercive control as a “slow, creeping, insidious form of abuse” that destroys a woman’s independence and self-esteem.
“Different from other forms of intimate partner violence,” she said, “coercive control seeks to eradicate the subordinate partner’s sense of self and operates to make the subordinate partner fully dependent upon the dominant partner through more subtle forms of abuse that leave no physical scars—though the emotional scars and loss of self of the subordinate partner often run much deeper and are more difficult to health than bones that are broken.”
In her trial brief, Frye explained that coercive control is the “micro-regulation of everyday life such as monitoring phone calls, dress, food consumption, and social activities.” Coercive control “erodes independent, autonomy, self-thought, confidence and self esteem in the victim.” Victims are “forced to follow ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’ that impose strict, unwavering demands of compliance—or else.” Frye described the husband’s hundreds of pages of detailed mandates and nightly meetings to enforce them as “militaristic,” leaving “no margin for flexibility or freedom to deviate from the imposed mandates.”
Particularly excruciating for the wife was how her husband required her to use force if their daughter was not immediately compliant with his rigid requirements for brushing her teeth, using the toilet, going to sleep and getting dressed. At one point, he blocked the mother from comforting her child by standing in the doorway of the child’s bedroom and refusing to let her pass.
Coercive control harms children as well, Frye argued. “We don’t want these kids growing up, thinking that this level of micromanagement and control and fear of punishment is normal. We have to break that cycle for these kids.”
Coercive control seeks to .. make the subordinate partner fully dependent upon the dominant partner through more subtle forms of abuse that leave no physical scars.
The Importance of Naming Coercive Control
Frye told Ms. that having laws that explicitly address coercive control helps judges see and understand this behavior as harmful. “I have been working on domestic violence cases for most of my career, about 28 years, and there’s always a component that had no label. It was called financial abuse. It was called emotional abuse, or psychological abuse or gaslighting. Now we have something that encompasses what it’s like. Having that label brings a difficult-to-prove element to the forefront of the minds of the judicial officers that we’re in front of, giving them something tangible.”
Frye said the law also helps survivors recover. “Adding coercive control to the statutory scheme gives people some hope. The legislature and the court are recognizing that it is not okay. It is empowering to have somebody recognize what you went through and validate that it was bad. It wasn’t normal. It’s not what should be happening in a relationship. It gives these women a way to start rebuilding their self-esteem.”
While several California courts have decided cases under California’s coercive control law, there has been only one published civil decision using the law so far: the case of Hatley v. Southard, decided on Aug. 1, 2023. In that case, a California appeals court decided that attempts to control, regulate and monitor a spouse’s finances, economic resources, movements and access to communications are abuse.
In the last three years, five states have passed coercive control laws: Hawaii, California, Washington, Connecticut and Colorado. Another 10 states and the District of Columbia have laws that cover coercively controlling behavior. These laws usually relate to protective orders and/or family law. Many more states are considering coercive control legislation, including Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Vermont and New Jersey.
“I hope this case gives other victims hope that there is a pathway out,” said Frye. “I hope they will recognize that what they may think in their head or heart is normal—that they will realize it’s not. And then hopefully at some point in time, if they choose to leave, there will be a court, an attorney, a professional out there that will help them get out.”