Coercive Control in Divorce and Custody Cases in New York

May 15, 2023
Louis Sternberg

Coercive Control

There has been an increasing demand for more New York divorce courts to apply a broader definition of domestic violence – one that includes the well-established concept of coercive control. Coercion and coercive control are increasingly considered a form of domestic violence and has been totally embraced by other states in the U.S. in various legal proceedings. Unfortunately, only recently has coercive control been recognized in New York’s custody and divorce cases.

Forms of Coercive Control

Coercive control may not be physical violence, but it is instead another form of abuse that involves one partner’s insistent and threatening control over the other. It is designed to make that partner dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence, and regulating their everyday behavior.  

Acts such as these during the course of a relationship can easily develop into what experts would clearly characterize as coercive control:

  • Constant name-calling
  • Verbal “put downs” and other degrading or dehumanizing statements
  • Depriving the partner of their basic needs, such as food or medical services
  • Forbidding the partner to see or talk to family and friends,
  • Controlling what the partner wears or when a partner can sleep
  • Withholding money
  • Monitoring the partner’s time
  • Monitoring the partner’s movements and communications using spyware, GPS tracking, or other surveillance technologies
  • Any other non-physical (but still oppressive) behaviors

(see Richard A. Dollinger & Alan Feigenbaum, Repeat After Me: Coercive Control is Domestic Violence, New York Law Journal, July 22, 2022).  

In cases of child support and maintenance, a party may assert coercion to establish that a spouse essentially mandated the party to work a lesser paying job or not work at all.

Effects of Coercive Control

The effects of coercive control in custody litigation are profoundly significant, often influencing the outcome of legal battles in ways that can further victimize the abused party. Victims may struggle with communication, display signs of anxiety or depression, and find it challenging to articulate the abuse they’ve experienced, which can lead to a misinterpretation of their emotional and psychological state by judges and legal professionals. Additionally, perpetrators of coercive control may use the legal system as a tool to continue their abuse, engaging in legal harassment and manipulating court processes to intimidate or punish their victims. This dynamic can lead to unjust custody decisions, where the safety and well-being of children and their abused parent are compromised. Recognizing and addressing the signs of coercive control in custody litigation is crucial to protect the rights and welfare of victims and ensure a fair legal process.

Domestic Violence and Coercive Control in New York

The effects of this type of domestic violence can be psychologically damaging and can have a far longer negative impact on the victim than any broken bone resulting from physical violence. This not only affects the victimized partner but can also have lasting effects on the children who may be forced to witness this type of violence, or even experience this type of violence from a parent.

In cases of child support and maintenance, a party may assert coercion to establish that a spouse essentially mandated the party to work a lesser paying job or not work at all. In custody cases, coercion and “gaslighting” are often offered to explain a party’s behaviors that would otherwise appear to be contrary to the best interests of the child.

A victim of coercive control should not have to suffer this psychological abuse in silence. If you or someone you know has been suffering from coercive control at the hands of their partner, the Law Office of Louis L. Sternberg is leading the charge to bring awareness to this often overlooked and disregarded form of domestic violence to matrimonial and family law actions across Long Island.