How Much Love is Too Much Love? A Dialogue on Coercive Relationships

Many  medical symptoms – such as headaches, fatigue, and stomach pain – are from coercive control, a strategy some individuals use to control their intimate partners. Providers might prescribe medication, tests, and referrals to specialists for a problem that’s occurring at home. Often, the patient doesn’t even realize their relationship is the cause of their ailments. Of course, being controlled by their partner can also contribute to people’s psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, substance use and insomnia.

What can coercive relationships look like from the outside?


Dr. Kate and Dr. Lisa Fontes

Atkinson Family Practice was fortunate enough to welcome Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes to speak about the topic. Dr. Fontes has been working in the area of child abuse, domestic violence, and challenging family issues for close to 30 years. She is currently teaching at UMass Amherst. Dr. Fontes is also the author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.

Domestic violence wasn’t seen as a crime until the late eighties. Coercive control is a fairly recent concept, and has only developed widely within the past twenty years. It’s taking off running in Europe where many countries now have laws against it, much like stalking does in America. Lisa’s goal when writing Invisible Chains was to create a book about coercive control that is not only easy to read, but easy to access.

There’s been so much buzz about coercive relationships around the office after this talk 416Q5MSa8jL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)we’re considering starting a support group for victims. At our talk, Dr. Fontes outlined some of the following coercive tactics controllers may use on their victims.


Coercive relationships usually begin in what Lisa refers to as a “love bomb.” The controlling partner will appear supportive and helpful, offering assistance with the victim’s problems or chores. They will shower the victim with admiration and gifts, and may seem like the ideal romantic candidate. Lisa said at our talk,

“The controlling person will send out this warm light of love – something you feel like you can never live without – and you feel like you can do no wrong. Over time, this spotlight gets narrower and narrower until it’s possible to step out of, causing the victim to become desperate for the warmth.”

The controller makes it apparent that the victim’s life is much better off with them. It’s better to just go along with it, and avoid conflict. Someone in a problematic relationship may not want anyone else in their life to know because they wouldn’t want it to end. That, in itself, reveals a major issue: the victim may know there’s something wrong with the relationship, but is so coerced they can’t escape.

Once the relationship has reached this point, the controlling partner will go out of their way to be charming and helpful to others. The person being controlled struggles to keep up appearances—afraid to tell others what is really going on in their relationship.



Isolation is a big red flag for coercive control. In many different ways, the controlling person makes their partner lead a restricted life. For instance, the controlling person might always be drunk or pick a fight when the victim’s family comes over, making the victim avoid family get-togethers. Or the abuser might badmouth friends and other sources of support – such as a medical provider or concerned professor – turning the victim against them. The dominant partner gradually cuts the victim off from the outside world and outside support systems – such as family, friends, medical providers, coworkers – until they may have trouble remembering what they felt like before the relationship. This is called perspecticide or “the abuse-induced inability to know what you know.”

Dr. Fontes says isolation can look like:

  • Cutting off access to employment and money
  • Ruining the victim’s reputation and relationships
  • Tampering with technology (ie: using a virtual trail to ruin victim’s reputation, installing software to see their messages, threatening to reveal private pictures)
  • Special isolation of immigrants or military spouses/children
  • Entrapment (focusing on surviving the immediate situation)

Isolation can also come in the form of micromanaging. A controlling partner can micromanage by controlling their partner’s food, hygiene, making medical, professional, and social decisions for them, and assigning an exorbitant amount of chores. It can even escalate to the point where the victim can’t go anywhere without permission, the controller usually saying something like,

“I love you, and I don’t want you to go anywhere without me—it just makes me worry too much.”


“An abuser who gaslights his partner is trying to disorient her and make her seem crazy to herself and others, strengthening his control over her.” – Invisible Chains, p. 44

Gas Lighting is a tactic many abusers use to make their victims doubt their sanity. Someone who uses gas lighting as a manipulation tactic are in power and trying to stay that way. They thrive off of having control over their partner, and they usually have something to use. Perhaps the controller uses spyware software to track the victim’s e-mails and making them think their controller is reading their mind. Maybe they make the victim doubt their medications, or are charming in public but abusive in the home. It can come to us in phrases like,

“I never said that.”
“You must be imagining things.”
“It’s like you never listen to me.”

However the controller chooses to act, the ultimate goal is to make the victim’s emotions feel invalid want to adopt the world view of the controller. The victim will lose their sense of self and become a part of the controller.

(Special note: Amherst Cinema is having a special screening the week of June 26!).


Coercion Is Not Consent


Do you feel threatened? 
Are you afraid to speak up?
Is your partner constantly jealous or possessive?
Does your partner try to limit your contact with family or friends?
Do you work hard to avoid “provoking” a bad reaction in your partner?
Do you feel ashamed of things your partner does to you or makes you do?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to start formulating a game plan. Contact the Front Desk at (413) 549-8400 to set up an appointment with your medical provider, or contact them through the confidential, secure Patient Portal. Lisa’s book, Invisible Chains, is available at the Jones Library and online.

“No single act defines coercive control. A number of acts occur together, and a pattern develops over time…The overall concept of coercive control may describe a relationship even if not every example of bad behavior applies.”

(Invisible Chains, p. 8)

This post was written by Victoria Palmatier in conjunction with Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes

Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of numerous publications including the book. She has dedicated two decades to making the mental health, criminal justice, and social service systems more responsive to culturally diverse people. See her blog posts here, and her website here.