Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: Shared Dynamics

In last week's blog introducing our Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships Series, we asserted that the power and control dynamic within abusive and coercive intimate relationships is similar to the dynamic within other types of abusive organizations or relationships (like human trafficking, abusive families, cults and terrorist organizations). The framework of coercive control, developed by Dr. Evan Stark, is focused specifically on the dynamic between male abusers and their female victims, with an emphasis on the way structural inequality compounds the abuse women experience, creating an environment of total entrapment in women’s private lives. We recognize the value in stressing the difference between this particular dynamic and other forms of domestic violence or physical and sexual abuse, but we suggest that the tactics of coercive and controlling abusers, as well as the entrapment their victims experience, are not entirely unique to intimate partner relationships, nor is the dynamic between abuser and victim.

The overlap between coercive control and the other forms of abuse we plan to highlight is not complete, but in each of these contexts, coercive control is either a critical characteristic (e.g. human trafficking, cults and certain types of highly abusive families) or it is a tactic commonly utilized by abusers within these groups (e.g. gangs, cults, and terrorism). In each of these abusive contexts, the abuser relies on a combination of captivity, isolation and fear to establish power and control over their victims. Drawing on this, we believe recognizing what these forms of abuse share is important because:

  1. Doing so allows us to draw insights from prevention work across various fields.
  2. Doing so may allow for a better understanding of victim’s experiences, allowing us to better meet their needs, so that we may be most helpful to survivors as they pursue recovery.
  3.  Any effective policy that criminalizes the emotional and psychological abuse (rather than just the physical or sexual abuse) coercive control victims experience would ideally also protect victims who experience these other forms of abuse as well.

As such, we’d like to share the work of some important academics who have contributed to our understanding of the shared dynamics within these various fields of abuse.


We have discussed Dr. Judith Herman’s work before and have highlighted her on our People to Know page. Herman’s Trauma and Recovery serves as the go-to guide for understanding how survivors experience trauma, with a specific focus on complex trauma, which results from prolonged and repeated abuse. Herman’s work is foundational to our approach and has encouraged us to look for commonalities where possible. She argues that “people who endured horrible events suffer predictable psychological harm” and as such, “...because the traumatic syndromes have basic features in common, the recovery process also follows a common pathway.” [1]

Further, Herman recognizes similarities in the dynamic between abuser and victim across various abusive contexts:

Captivity, which brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator, creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. This is equally true whether the victim is taken captive entirely by force, as in the case of prisoners and hostages, or by a combination of force, intimidation, and enticement, as in the case of religious cult members, battered women, and abused children. The psychological impact of subordination to coercive control may have many common features, whether that subordination occurs within the public sphere of politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations. [2]

Herman also discusses similarities in the tactics of abusers and experiences of victims:

The methods that enable one human being to enslave another are remarkably consistent. The accounts of hostages, political prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps from every corner of the globe have an uncanny sameness. ...The same techniques are used to subjugate women, in prostitution, in pornography, and in the home. In organized criminal activities, pimps and pornographers sometimes instruct one another in the use of coercive methods. …Even in domestic situations, where the batterer is not part of any larger organization, and has had no formal instruction in these techniques, he seems time and again to reinvent them. [3]

Herman’s work recognizes that the dynamic between abuser and victim is strikingly similar across a variety of abusive contexts. Most importantly, we believe her work points to the exciting possibility that learning to safeguard people against one form of coercive and controlling abuse can aid in safeguarding them against other forms. Additionally, it may ring true that learning how to support victims of one form of coercive and controlling abuse toward recovery, can also aid us in supporting victims who have experienced other forms. Finally, we believe policy created to protect the public against coercive control should have impacts across these areas as well.


The work of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton (also on our People to Know page) also serves as foundational to our understanding of the shared dynamics discussed within this post. Lifton is a lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology of The City University of New York. In the early 1950s, Lifton studied prisoners of war and other captives, exploring the psychology of captivity and what he termed “thought reform”. Later in 1961, he released the groundbreaking book on his study of coercive techniques, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China. He detailed methods of formulaic manipulation, a phenomena he believed to be pervasive within various forms of abuse, spurring research in several fields.

Interestingly, Lifton is also recognized by Judith Herman as a researcher illuminating “our common predicament”, recognizing the salience of the theoretical underpinnings between domestic violence and other forms of coercive abuse. [4] In saying this, we believe Herman is referring to the politics, impacts and experiences of psychological captivity. Lifton’s work on this area explores the particular internal and external dynamics surrounding this phenomena, highlighting the important distinctions between physical and psychological captivity, including the fact that psychological captivity does not require physical captivity. Further, he explores how when the two do co-exist, they serve to mutually reinforce an incredibly powerful form of domination.

In the book, Ethics of Captivity, on the chapter of “Coercion and Captivity”, philosopher Dr. Lisa Rivera expounds on Lifton’s contributions in this area:

What is distinctive about psychological captivity is that the near total control over someone’s action that physical captivity achieves through physical barriers and force can be accomplished in the right context without those barriers and without force. Another significant feature of psychological captivity is that it often includes the expectation that the captor’s preferences for the captive’s choices will be internalized and acted upon by the captive as if these preferences are valuable. Thus, loyalty rather than mere behavior can be demanded by captors. Psychological captivity is effective only in some cases without violence or the threat of violence but the psychological captive is, in a physical sense, sometimes free to escape. [5]

Lifton’s work is fascinating and provides important insights into the experiences of many of the victims in each of these abusive contexts. In intimate relationships, a woman may have her every action, down to how she vacuums the carpet or styles her hair, controlled by her abuser. In human trafficking, a victim may be forced to consent to their physical body being violated over and over (and then have to pretend to like it). In cults, such as (recently in the news) NXIVM, members may be branded by the leader and forced to compete for attention and recognition as one of his sex slaves. In each of these contexts, the abuser’s ultimate goal is total control, not just of the victim’s actions, but of their very identity. In each of these contexts, a combination of isolation, captivity and fear are utilized by an abuser to entrap their victim and establish a dynamic of power and control.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass

[1] Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. Hachette, UK. p. 3.
[2] p. 74-75.
[3] p. 77.
[4] Herman, J.L., in Lifton, J.L. (2000). Destroying the world to save it: Aum shinrikyo, apocalyptic violence, and the new global terrorism. Macmillan, review excerpt on book cover.
[5] Rivera, L. (2014). Coercion and Captivity. In Lori Greun’s The ethics of captivity. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 162.