Effective as of September 2020 the California Legislature amended Section 6320 of the California Family Code, to include “coercive control” in the definition of abuse, for purposes of DVPA restraining orders. (See SB 1141, Rubio.) The amended DVPA defines “coercive control” as “a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.  This amendment makes California the second state after Hawaii to take the important step of enacting laws to define abuse in a more complete way, and better protect abuse survivors. There are currently new coercive control bills pending in New York, Maryland, and South Carolina.
Coercive control, also described as “intimate terrorism” and “coercive controlling violence,” refers to a systematic pattern of behavior that establishes dominance over another person through intimidation, isolation, and violence or threats of violence. Through systematic restrictions on freedom and independence, individuals experiencing coercive control are often isolated from friends, family, or other support systems and entrapped within the relationship due to financial, logistical, social, or emotional barriers to escaping. Coercive control can instill fear even in the absence of physical violence and can continue after the relationship ends. 
The enaction of a statutory scheme which acknowledges coercive control as a type of domestic violence is crucial to protect victims, not only from this highly damaging emotionally abusive behavior, but also because coercive control can predict or indicate the presence of acute physical violence.
In his 2007 book, Dr. Stark posits that the level of control independently increases a victim’s risk of serious and fatal injury because it undermines the victim’s autonomous capacity to resist or escape abuse. Subsequent studies affirm this and have shown that people who have experienced coercive control are subject to more frequent and more severe acts of violence.  And, when coercive control is present, acts of severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, harassment, coercion, and control are more likely to continue and even escalate after partners separate, given that separation is often experienced as a threat to the abusive partner’s control.  Victims who experience coercive control may also use violence as a survival strategy. 
Apart from indicating or predicting physical violence, coercive control is highly damaging in and of itself. Experience of coercive control is associated with elevated levels of trauma-associated mental health symptoms during and after the relationship and greater likelihood of feeling unsafe. 
Victims of domestic violence have historically faced significant difficulty in receiving protection for anything other than episodic moments of physical violence. The enactment of SB 1141 is an important step to allow DV survivors better protection through our court system.
Michelene Insalaco is a founding partner at Sucherman • Insalaco LLP. Ms. Insalaco is a certified as a Family Law Specialist and has practiced exclusively in the area of family law for more than 25 years.
Laura Matsie is an associate attorney at Sucherman • Insalaco LLP. Ms. Matsie has focused her practice on family law in the Bay Area since 2018
 Cal. Fam. Code § 6320 Dichter et. al., Coercive control in intimate partner violence: Relationship with women’s experience of violence, use of violence, and danger, Psychology of Violence, Vol 8(5), Sep 2018, 596-604.  Stark E., Hester M., “Coercive Control: Update and Review,” Violence Against Women, 2019; 25: 81-104  Neilsen SK, Hardesty JL, Raffaelli M., “Exploring variations within situational couple violence and comparisons with coercive controlling violence and no violence/no control.” Violence Against Women, 2016; 22:206–224.  Dichter et al., “Coercive control in intimate partner violence: Relationship with women’s experience of violence, use of violence, and danger”, Psychology of Violence, Vol 8(5), Sep 2018, 596-604.  Myhill A., “Measuring coercive control: What can we learn from national population surveys?”, Violence Against Women. 2015; 21:355–375; Orstein P and Rickne J, “When does intimate partner violence continue after separation?”, Violence Against Women, 2013;19:617–633.