Beyond Intimate Partner Relationships: Abusive Groups

We have stated before that a core assumption of our work is the belief that coercive control in abusive groups functions similarly to coercive control in intimate partnerships of two people (dyads). Because groups are made up of many dyadic relationships (as opposed to intimate relationships that contain only one dyad), the coercive control dynamic members of abusive groups experience may appear, or in at times actually be, less severe than what victims in intimate, dyadic relationships experience. This may obscure the ability of those who have not personally experienced the dynamic in this setting from being able to recognize the coercive control dynamic of abusive groups and the accompanying behaviors (e.g. policing, censoring, intimidating).

Additionally, abusive group structures are characterized by dyadic and familial-style interactions. Like relationships characterized by intimate partner violence, cultic (or other forms of abusive group) relationships involve a reciprocal relationship between the target ("group member") and the controller/oppressor (“group leader”). These relationships are, in essence, an extension of the one-on-one or one-on-a few dynamic we see in IPV, but they are expanded to include all members of the group (a multitude of dyads). For example, in a religious or political cult, relationships between members of the group may mirror the abusive leader-follower dynamic (as members mimic the abusive leader), however these relationships are always under the ultimate control of the group leader, even if for a moment, a group member is able to exercise power and control over another group member who has less power within the group. This dynamic can also be seen in abusive families (i.e. the older sibling who participates in abuse of a younger sibling even as they themselves are abused by a parent).

As we explore these dynamics, we believe it is important to examine how culture, systems, societies, institutions, groups, and families can all function as their own sub-systems or groups that can reinforce, and at times function as an interwoven system of abusive dynamics.

We have seen this come up with gangs and extremist/terrorist organizations where gang members or extremist group members may be perpetrating crimes, however at the same time they may also be a victim of abusive group dynamics that would make it dangerous or impossible to leave, forcing their participation. In this case, the realities of harms inflicted by the group are often ignored and the group member is maligned and viewed only as a perpetrator. Those who understand abusive groups have a lot to teach us here, as they recognize the way coercive control functions to keep group members from leaving, and the chaotic dysfunction of the group works to make members unable to think critically and therefore deployable to do the leader's bidding.

These topics are complex, but vitally important to understanding how coercive control functions beyond intimate partner relationships. A proper understanding is necessary for a number of reasons, including prevention, successful interventions and treatment for those who are capable of leaving. In the next few weeks, we plan to explore this idea further, looking to the wealth of research available in the field of cultic studies and other forms of abusive groups.

Written by Abigail Hazlett & Chelsea Brass