Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: What’s So Domestic About Abuse?


Much of the academic work surrounding coercive control, including our own, has focused on the dynamic within the context of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV). However, central to our understanding of power and control is a belief that the experience of an abuse of power is universal. The severity of each person’s experience is obviously different based on the context of their relationship to an abuser, however there are undeniable similarities between tactics of coercive and controlling abusers and the experiences of their victims across various abusive groups and types of relationships.

We believe that the underlying dynamics of power and control are central to both IPV and the study of abusive groups and organizations, including human trafficking, terrorist groups and religious and political cults. We assert:

  1. The power and control dynamic within abusive and coercive intimate relationships is intrinsically similar to the dyadic (two people) and/or familial dynamics core to the victim experience in abusive organizations (like cults and terrorist organizations)

  2. If our insights regarding shared, underlying dynamics of coercive control ring true, these fields (along with other related fields) should not be siloed; we should be intentional about applying any insights from one field to serve another.

With this in mind, we plan to begin to introduce these concepts in a series of essays over the course of the next several weeks. We will begin with an overview of authors across these fields who acknowledge their shared theoretical foundations. We will then begin a multi-part series that looks at these similarities as they exists in these different fields.

We begin with human trafficking because we see this phenomena as containing many components of the various situations we will cover (cults, terrorism, etc). For example, the dynamics of abusive relationships are commonly found in human trafficking situations (e.g. the person exploited may believe their abuser loves them). Concurrently, human trafficking has such overlap with cultic groups it is actually now considered a “commercial cult” by both people in cultic studies and by human trafficking organizations supporting and supported by former victims.

Cults are often exoticized, but former group members and those working in the cultic studies field understand that like abusive intimate relationships and families, when you strip away the ideology and practices, cults are all about power and control. [1] While relationships characterized by IPV often involve a dyad (two people), group influence appears to serve as a powerful tool to reinforce the dyadic tie between leader and each respective follower. This dynamic can establish a powerful level of control and influence over the individual within an abusive group.

Terrorist organizations are primarily male-dominated and leaders utilize many similar dynamics of coercive and controlling behavior, including female subjugation and exploitation within some of  them (e.g. gangs with human trafficking and ISIS sex slaves). Similar to human trafficking parallels, many policymakers already commonly refer to some terrorist organizations as militant cults.

We hope you see here that we don’t find coercive abuse to be that domestic, nor do we see the abuse found in cults, terrorist groups, or human trafficking to be all that exotic. Victims of these different types of abuse are often stigmatized. As such, understanding the shared dynamics within these different contexts is vital because it helps us to better understand their experiences, to better meet their needs, and to develop the most effective ways of preventing this insidious abuse from occurring in the first place.

[1] Lalich, J., & Tobias, M. L. (2006). Take back your life: Recovering from cults and abusive relationships. Bay Tree. Chicago.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass