A Conflict Science Institute white paper
By Mark Baumann, © 2019
Defining domestic violence as coercive control starts a deeper insight into the issues, but what is coercive control and how can legal professionals recognize patterns of control quickly? Child/adult attachment theory and science provides answers.
Attachment describes a human system for gaining protection from danger, especially relationship danger. The attachment system involves psychological (mind), neurobiological (body), and relational components. This MBRx system structures how people respond to danger, and even what they subjectively perceive as a danger. Attachment science assesses many elements of human conduct to identify groups of behaviors and thought patterns which are particularly sensitive and responsive to perceived danger. One well established pattern is described as “obsessively coercive.” Below are 13 elements which attachment science finds commonly in people who are described as engaging in obsessively coercive patterns.
Finding a pattern of coercive control is kind of like finding Orion’s belt. If you know what the Orion constellation is, and you can find a few shiny and relevant objects dangling in the right order, the bigger picture may come quickly into focus. The 13 items below can serve as shiny stars that help us find the bigger constellation –a pattern of coercion. In the experience of the Conflict Science Institute (CSI), if there is evidence of at least three shiny objects, which are persistent over time, and result in a negative psychological toll, then there is a good likelihood the person is engaging in, to some degree, a consistent and predictable pattern of coercive behaviors and will continue to do so in the future. If there are a substantial number of them, the likelihood of a persistent, and potentially intense, coercive pattern is high.
Part I: 13 elements of coercive control
#1. Unresolvable Struggle (drama king/queen)
The person is frequently engaged in a struggle over something, the struggle is difficult to stop, and is often about a minor issue. Even if the problem is resolved, the struggle can quickly shift to another issue. This person literally feels safer in conflict than in peace. Sometimes this dynamic results in the person appearing to have difficulty making decisions, especially if it requires compromising.
#2. Rules Not Followed, and Used to Control Others
The person is a rule avoider, but is quick to point out a rule that other people should comply with. “You should ….. [follow this rule because then you will do what I want].”
This element, and the others, are sometimes readily apparent and frequently visible in behaviors, but sometimes they are only visible in the face of subjectively perceived danger. Some people in this category follow rules, sometimes to the point of extremism, but when a rule presents a risk of denying them something psychologically important, look carefully to see how they handle compliance.
An extreme form can be described as Punitive Interpersonal Cruelty (PIC). (Morris, 2020)
#3. Coercive Aggression
Aggression and anger (or other intense negative emotions) are frequently and easily displayed, without true remorse afterwards, and are used to coerce others to meet the angry person’s needs. Aggressive displays are a primary way the person gets their needs met, so the person makes little effort to withhold their aggression. For some attachment pattern sub-clusters within the coercive group, anger display is persistent and dominant, as opposed to a feigned helpless display (below). The person may be described as a bully.
For some people, the aggression is physical, as is commonly described in domestic violence literature. For others it is rarely physical, it is emotional or psychological and has the same coercively controlling effect as physical violence. In CSI’s experience, abusive use of litigation is another way to coercively aggress, often expressed as the revenge form of aggression.
In family and work situations, clear expressions of aggression are often subtle or hidden. Family members and co-workers are often completely unaware of the level of aggression the person is capable of rising to. Often their aggression fully flowers at home when others aren’t around. This is captured with the phrase “It only happens behind closed doors.”
Aggression can range from being a mild display of irritation, to being aggressive and threatening, to being punitively angry and obsessed with revenge, to being outright menacing. “I want to bleed [him/her] dry” or “I will take everything from you” are common statements from people utilizing intense forms of coercive aggression.
#4. Feigned Helplessness/Needs Rescue
Sometimes, “feigned helplessness” is present in the coercive pattern, as a mild or dominant character aspect. By appearing to be unable to solve their problem, and appearing to have a problem that desperately needs to be solved, they seduce, trick, or coerce others to solve it for them. Often times, there isn’t a real problem, the issue is more about satisfying some emotional need or feeling the person isn’t able to satisfy on their own.
“I’ve done everything I can. My ex is so mean and relentless. I don’t know why the judge won’t do anything about it. I feel like giving up.”
“My lawyer didn’t even ask the judge to give me child support. She is a horrible person. I just wish someone would stand up and say something. I don’t know what to do.”
In these cases, the complaining person has usually failed to do something they easily could have, or there isn’t actually a problem. Maybe they didn’t do what the judge asked them to do, or maybe there wasn’t a real problem the judge needed to solve. Maybe they never gave income information to their lawyer or the judge so the judge couldn’t make a child support ruling, or maybe they didn’t actually need child support because their partner needed spousal support.
In more extreme presentations, this can present as a need, or even obsession, to be rescued. It can also lead to emotionally seductive behaviors designed to compel a feeling in others that an apparent problem is an emergency for which the potential rescuer must rush to the rescue. Feigned helplessness, can be tricky to see, or not seen until the seduction has succeeded, action has taken place, and the lack of an actual problem becomes clear. It can compel professionals to engage in unethical behavior if the alleged emergency succeeds in creating a feeling that an extreme response is justified. (CSI’s equipoise concept and article describes this.) A small child might express this as: “I caan’t, I need yooouuu to do it!”
If you do rescue, your efforts may not be appreciated, especially if the choices about methods or goals were made by you. Or, your efforts may be exuberantly appreciated followed by an oscillation to the opposite conclusion with blame. “You’re my savior!!! I don’t know where I would be without you. Flowers for you my friend… You let me down, how could you do that? You never did anything for me, and I paid you so much money! Your fired!!!”
#5. Oscillation of Aggression/Feigned Helplessness With De-escalation/Charm
Displays of coercive aggression and/or coercive helplessness are alternated, or oscillated, with efforts to de-escalate, woo, charm, and/or disarm the exhibited coercion. It’s a constant battle between the two states. For some people the oscillated behaviors are very apparent and unsophisticated, and for some they are expertly subtle. Struggle, described above, almost always involves an oscillation of aggression and de-escalation and frequently happens together with “causation unknown” described below.
Traditional domestic violence theory captures an extreme form of this in the Cycle of Violence concept: honeymoon, tension build up, explosion, all together with denial. The Cycle of Violence concept is partly intended to capture the type of explosion that would easily justify a restraining order. The oscillation described here can be a similar physical and extreme explosion, but it is usually much more subtle and frequent, and can happen within a paragraph or sentence.
In their childhood, people using coercive attachment strategies expressed aggression, or micro-aggressions, to their parents on perhaps a daily basis, and to avoid retribution they minimized punishment by perfecting the art of disarming the anger they provoked in their parents. Their words, actions, and body language can all combine to display the perfect appearance of true penitence. But when the danger of their displayed aggression is past, aggression will soon enough be used to coerce others into satisfying their needs. (In their childhood, this was a functional strategy to create consistency from inconsistent parents, or safety from frightening parents.)
#6. Humiliation Sensitivity
For people in this coercive group, humiliation is painful, shame is not. At the same time, humiliation is also easily and quickly weaponized as a form of coercive control. “You wouldn’t do it if you loved me!” Donald Trump is an example of a person with intense humiliation sensitivity, and who engages in predictably extreme reactions to slight humiliations. He has been often described as a person who appears to have no shame. “Have you no shame? [Apparently not.]” (This reflects on his basic attachment pattern, not on his politics.)
#7. Feelings-Focus and Self-Focus
For people in this group, they are heavily guided by their emotions and feelings. They preference affective (feelings-based) information, as opposed to cognitive (sequentially-based) information which utilizes tight logic structures often without consideration to feelings. This preference for affective information can lead to thoughts and narratives which are vague or blurry (below), and a tendency to have an inward, or self-focus. Attention is given to satisfying feelings of the moment. (As opposed to an outward or other-focus, or focus with attention on complying with rule-sets or tending to other people’s needs.)
This is more specific than being self-centered. The focus is on satisfying the perceived needs of the self, where core needs are intertwined with emotions, feelings, and validating the self through enmeshed relationship experiences. These internal feelings/needs can lead to a preoccupation, or obsession to satisfy their inner feelings. When they can’t satisfy their feelings on their own (or are “helpless” to do so), the obsession to satisfy their feelings can lead to obsessively coercive behaviors in an attempt to make other’s do something to satisfy their internal feelings.
If the feelings are not satisfied somehow, and not checked early, they can snowball into large problems. This is a dynamic that can happen in the moment, and over time. Coercive behaviors to control others, in an attempt to satisfy internal feelings, can become more and more persistent and intense over years, and over the course of a relationship.
(The opposite of this is a cognitive information preference with an other-focus, where decisions and needs are driven by what should happen, according to some rule-set or someone else’s needs. Cognitive, or temporally sequenced (if this, then that), information takes precedence over feeling information. (For example, a person’s past experiences might suggest (right or wrong) that anytime L and N happen, then O always happens. If M is a relevant factor, or D, E, F, or R, S, T, are relevant factors and lead to a different conclusion than O, a person overly-relying on past cognitive information/experiences may ignore all the factors except L, N and conclude O will still happen, even if that is an obviously bad prediction.) With an overly-cognitive focus, self-needs are avoided, and/or guided by the dictates of someone else or by a rule-set. Relationships with others can have a distal quality while still compulsively serving the needs of another, or compulsively complying with rules.)
Jealous feelings are readily apparent, persistent, triggered frequently and by many people, and intense. Jealousy is related to self-focus, the inner drive to have the world tend to and satisfy the person’s emotionally-driven needs. Behaviors to keep the world focused on the self may be intense, and counter-productive.
It’s never their fault. This goes hand-in-hand with denial. “It’s all your fault!”
#10. Responsibility Avoidance
Persistent and intense efforts to avoid taking responsibility. (Brother of other-blame.)
#11. Causation Unknown/Denial
The person can’t see what their contribution to the problem is, and/or can’t see the source of problem, therefore, they can’t see how to change. This is partly because feelings were the source of the behavior, and feelings are are often hard to elucidate, and the feelings themselves can be hard to describe. Without understanding and acknowledging one’s own contribution to a problem, reasoning sequences omit critical facts and thus may not lead to an appropriate conclusion. “Now look what you made me do.” Causation-unknown is the mother of other-blame and responsibility avoidance.
When the person can’t recognize their own contribution, either because it is too humiliating, too psychologically dangerous, or the feeling is unknown, or unrecognized as the source, then there is a gap in the logical sequence of what happened. This can lead to intense forms of denial, blame, and gaslighting.
Little problems quickly escalate into giant snowball problems, where there’s really only a grain of sand at the center.
#13. Narrative Style: Blurry and Connotative
The person tends to use a narrative style which is rich with evocative language, vague about details, blends the past into the present, and blends distinct events from the past into one super-story. When the narrative is examined closely, it is usually hard to tell exactly what happened, when things happened, who did what, where they happened, and why things unfolded as they did.
The person may attempt to “involve the listener,” seeking to gain the listener’s agreement with their perspective and beliefs. Involving speech may tug on the listener’s emotions, pressure the listener, involve “rescue me” language or feelings. It might lure the listener into laughing at, putting down, or mocking a targeted person or group.
Sometimes the speech style is grammatically thin, and actual sentences are incomplete, and rely on language which evokes an emotion, use of an image to convey the person’s belief, or on nonverbal communication.
These narrative’s can involve other elements above such as expressing care-needing or feigned helplessness, and easily displayed anger. Apparent acknowledgment of responsibility, when carefully looked at, is likely a disarming or distracting maneuver, and actual responsibility-taking is absent and assertively or aggressively avoided. Questions by a listener to challenge claims or ask about the person’s responsibility may be met with subtle or strong efforts to rebuff the question. “Why did you do that? Are you kidding, don’t you see that guy is perverted! We need to stop him now!!”
Snowball narratives sometimes involve building concepts. “It was bad. It was horrible! It was the worst experience of my ENTIRE life!!!”
Connotative speech is a common style in these narratives. Words and phrases are rich, flowery, effusive, descriptive with imagery, sometimes with homespun phrases, and highly evocative. “They are pouring across the border, raping, murdering…. we MUST build a wall” (Again, this is not a comment on politics, or border security, it highlights affectively-structured language and reasoning sequence. It is an example of blurred, building and connotative speech, using intense imagery, and strung together with loose logic, and a seduction. It is coercive because it attempts to force agreement with the conclusion without all the facts being considered. It might be useful to build a wall, but other considerations are eliminated.) A function of connotative speech is to evoke in another the same feelings that are driving the person’s own thought processes. (In some theories this is described as emotional contagion.)
Danger, attachment and the DMM
You may recognize some of the items above from descriptive lists of DV/IPV/power and control/coercive control. These 13 elements are actually a short list of facets commonly seen in the broader adult attachment pattern known as an affectively-oriented attachment pattern.
Attachment behaviors, driven by exposure to subjectively perceived danger, exist on a continuum. Lighter forms may be seen in people using less intense affectively-oriented attachment strategies. The more intense forms of these expressions are all common in a specific subcategory described by the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM) (Crittenden, 2016; Crittenden & Landini, 2011). The DMM is an advanced transdisciplinary model rooted in attachment, human development, and human adaption to danger, and utilizes science and theory from many other fields. The DMM subcategory described here covers DMM patterns C3-8, and is labeled “obsessive emotional coercion.”
The DMM identifies many other facets, some of which are discussed in other parts of the full version of this article. In the Conflict Science Institute’s experience, when there are a good number of the 13 shiny objects, and these two others –very strong resistance to compromise and very strong denial of vulnerability— conflict and litigation tends to be excessive.
[Parts II and III, and the full article is provided as part of CSI’s domestic violence and conflict psychology training programs.]
Part II: An overview of attachment and the DMM
[Part II is omitted from this online version of the article]
Part III. Conflict Science Institute solutions inspired by the DMM
[Part III is omitted from this online version of the article]
Crittenden, Patricia M. & Landini, Andrea (2011), Assessing Adult Attachment: A Dynamic-Maturational Approach to Discourse Analysis, W.W. Norton & Company.
Crittenden, Patricia M. (2016, 2d ed), Raising Parents: Attachment, representation, and treatment, Routledge.
Morris, Stephen (2020), “punitive interpersonal cruelty” was shared by Steve in a personal communication during his DMM Coffee House preparation to demonstrate how he uses theater masks to introduce the DMM.
CSI offers training programs in attachment, self-protective attachment strategies, and conflict psychology based on the DMM and attachment science.