Us Too: Cuomo’s Departure Highlights Need for Coercive Control Laws in U.S.

Emotional abusers’ favorite tactic? The “deny, deny, deny” plan Cuomo employed—and attacking victims’ credibility.

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The third annual Women’s March Iowa inside the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol in 2019. (Phil Roeder / Flickr)

Andrew Cuomo went out swinging on his last day in office—insisting he’s being railroaded even as the moving vans rolled out.

I honestly don’t care about his claims. What I do care about is whether the outgoing New York governor’s sexual harassment scandal will prompt more states to finally enact laws against coercive control—a form of domestic bullying that can cause psychological trauma.

For emotional abuse survivors like me, the whole Cuomo case reopens our suffering at the hands of men with narcissistic and sociopathic traits—and reminds us of our battles in courtrooms across the country where powerful men often triumph.

What hurts the most is just like championing stronger #MeToo sexual abuse legislation, Cuomo also expanded domestic violence laws to include coercive control offenses. Then, he allegedly used the same kind of intimidation on women around him. 

“The deny, deny, deny strategy is gaslighting and victim blaming,” said Beth Corso, a Connecticut divorcee whose emotional upset keeps her up at night. Years later, she’s still fighting her ex in court. “It’s just triggering to listen to it again—from my ex-husband, Cuomo and Trump who’s just in another category altogether.”

My ex-husband used to brag that “the best defense is a strong offense.” When my divorce attorney challenged him about things that happened in our marriage, she reported back to me that he defiantly declared he’d simply deny it. Yes, the linguistic parallel to today’s headlines sends chills down my spine. 

Afterward, my lawyer said I didn’t have the small fortune needed to fight him, so there was no point trying. I sat in her conference room crying, realizing then that our justice system was designed to protect men. And my experienced litigator would have known; she’s a woman.

Feeling trapped, I went back and tried to work on our marriage. I was far from alone, since the average abuse victim returns seven times before leaving for good. With a system that often doesn’t believe the accuser, who wouldn’t?

It pains me to say this as someone who grew up on a dairy farm in Upstate New York and idolized Mario Cuomo as a little girl. But the reality is, by his denial, Andrew stole a page right from the narcissist—and Donald Trump—playbook. For many of us, the governor was our hero during the pandemic, so his behavior is yet another betrayal.

“It’s all connected, whether you are referencing a corrupt politician, or the post-separation abuse that women face in the family court,” said Tina Swithin, a narcissistic personality disorder expert who started her internationally known “One Mom’s Battle” movement after her own experience. “It’s the patriarchy on full display and it’s not broken; it was created this way. The systems are failing us.” 

Several states are finally following the United Kingdom’s lead in making coercive control offenses part of domestic violence laws. It’s a form of abuse (often narcissistic) that can include intimidation, stalking, sexual coercion and physical harm. Even without violence, the emotional effects can rob women of their health, sanity, financial stability due to lengthy legal battles and children. Abuse is abuse—even if you can’t see the bruises and scars. 

Still, only a handful of states like Hawaii, California and Connecticut have passed laws that specifically flag coercive control as a factor in orders of protection and family court cases. Perhaps the most comprehensive, Connecticut’s version protects coercively controlled women and their children. It’s called “Jennifer’s Law” in honor of Jennifer Dulos, a mother of five who went missing when her estranged husband murdered her at her home in New Canaan, Connecticut.

New York passed legislation in 2019 that expands domestic violence laws to include forms of economic abuse, gives victims the right to vote by mail, and allows them to report offenses to state law enforcement regardless of where the crimes took place.

“Domestic violence is a quiet scourge that has the potential to leave lasting trauma on victims,” Governor Cuomo said back then. He was right. “By signing these measures into law, we will broaden the legal definition of domestic violence so more abusers are held accountable.”

But women who are up against narcissists and abusers in family court often feel their stories don’t matter—and men are not held accountable. Emotional abusers’ favorite tactic? The “deny, deny, deny” plan Cuomo employed—and attacking victims’ credibility. In divorce and custody cases, we’re often told judges “don’t care about the emotional stuff” but only “the facts.” 

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The average abuse victim returns seven times before leaving for good. (Phiend / Flickr)

And, if you think what happens in high-profile abuse cases doesn’t really affect everyday women, think again. Sandra Fava, a New Jersey divorce attorney, said the ramifications of Trump’s antics have definitely been felt in court. 

“There is a clear trickle-down effect. When certain male behavior is accepted on a larger scale it makes it worse for women,” Fava told me. “Their abusers are getting validated by our former president and society at large, making things we used to see as crazy suddenly acceptable.”

Activist Swithin points to the “Saunders’ Study” submitted to the Justice Department that highlights gender bias in family courts.

“The first step toward change is exposure and awareness,” she said. “We have the research and the data to explain what is happening and now, we need to implement it into our systems and policies. The fact that most states do not have coercive control laws speaks volumes.” 

This lack of accountability is why the Cuomo case—coupled with Trump’s continued escape from justice—are retraumatizing women. Especially those who have been victimized by these kinds of men and their high-conflict court battles. 

“It’s the same dynamic over and over. I am more powerful, and my truth is the right truth,” clinical psychologist Elizabeth Engelberg told me. “They’re never at fault, doing wrong things, or can accept responsibility for what they’ve done. Many women wonder ‘Will anyone ever believe us and will the double standard ever go away?’”

Like me, some are losing faith that it will happen in our lifetime. Florida single mom Liz Dederer, who escaped an abusive relationship, is one of them. 

“This is not a political issue,” she insisted. “This is a women’s issue. This is a social justice issue.”

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About

Amy Polacko is a divorce coach and journalist who worked on the Pulitzer Prize winning team covering the TWA Flight 800 crash for Newsday. A single mom, she’s writing her first book “Don’t Fall for a Con: How to Spot Narcissists and Sociopaths Before It’s Too Late.” Learn more about Amy and her mission at www.freedomwarrior.info.