Most of us who are recovering from a controlling relationship struggled with this truth: Abusers driving force and only desire is for absolute power and control over their victims. So focused on that end, controllers do not see their victims as people who have a right to their own feelings and opinions. Abusers see and experience everything within the context of having to deliberately and systematically battle for control. They are willing to inflict any level of pain to achieve their goal.
While in the relationship, it was hard to accept that someone I loved, intentionally did such unkind acts. Especially acts that I didn’t deserve. Because I loved this man, I explained away his violent behavior. I could not understand why he would resort to unnecessary, violent tactics when I was constantly proving my love for him. Why couldn’t he have said, “I don’t care for pork,” instead of throwing dishes and screaming at me? Why wouldn’t he want to return my love and devotion and live in peace? Why total domination? Why humiliation? Why did he reinterpret even the smallest gesture of love, like bringing him a cup of coffee every morning, as something he demand I do, instead of accepting it as an expression of love? It used to make me want to run screaming, “Can’t you see who I am? These tactics aren’t necessary for me to love you or give you attention.”
Abusers don’t see us as we are because we never enter the equation. It is not about us.
This brings me to an important tool that helped me understand this dynamic— The Power and Control Wheel.
In the 1980’s in Duluth Minnesota, a group of battered women who were attending educational groups through a local shelter developed the Power and Control Wheel. They listed tactics that batterer’s use to control victims. They fell under 8 categories: Using Isolation, Minimizing Denying and Blaming, Using Children, Using Male Privilege, Using Economic Abuse, Using Coercion and Threats, Using Intimidation, Using Emotional Abuse. They also developed a Wheel of Equality depicting the qualities of healthy relationships: Trust and Support, Honesty and Accountability, Responsible Parenting, Shared Responsibility, Economic Partnership, Negotiation and Fairness, Non-Threatening Behavior, Respect.
Duluth's Domestic Abuse Intervention Project uses these wheels in their “Creating a Process of Change for Men Who Batter” curriculum. They are now used widely to help batterers in treatment, victims and others understand that the blame for abuse rests squarely on the shoulders of the abuser.
The behavior of controllers is so illogical and cruel that victims (and the rest of normal society) find it difficult to believe that this behavior is focused and deliberate. For those of us who have been there, our healing began when we accepted this truth. The abuse had nothing to do with us. It was all about the abusers sick desire to feel powerful and in control. Unfortunately, it bruised the very core of who we are. We can change that.
The Power and Control Wheel
Usually the first indication (red-flag) that the relationship is headed in the wrong direction is when the perpetrator begins to isolate the victim. It’s an easy miss, because it starts when the relationship is in the limerence stage, the couple is just beginning to get to know one another. Usually they are spending all their free time together, so excited to have one another. After a while, the victim may begin to express the desire to spend some time with other friends or family. The perpetrator, who believes she is pulling away from him, acts hurt, “Don’t you want to be with me?” “Aren’t I important to you anymore?” While this looks like love, it’s actually the beginning of coercive control. He begins to use her love for him to bend her will to his. It often becomes a game of-who do you love more?-prove you love me by giving up time with your friends or family-prove you love me more than your job, pursued passion, or activity. He points out her friends and family member’s “faults.” If she’s friends with past boyfriends or other guys, he’s hurt, jealous and angry. If she so much as talks to another male it sends him into a tirade. Nothing short of giving up all others will satisfy the controlling partner.
Minimizing Denying and Blaming
At the beginning of the indoctrination into the abuser’s world, a victim may still be strong enough to call the controller on his behavior. Immediately, he will minimize, deny and cast the blame on the victim. Telling her she’s too sensitive, his behavior wasn’t that bad then shift the responsibility to her, “If you hadn’t been flirting with that guy at the party, nothing would have happened.” Giving another guy any kind of attention is considered flirting to a controlling partner.
Often controllers use the children by including them in the abuse, “Isn’t Mommy stupid for dropping that cup?” “See how fat you mama is?” Abusers threaten to take the children away if the victim doesn’t comply with all demands or if she tries to leave him. If she’s a stay-at-home Mom, it’s an easy threat, “You could never support the kids, the court will give them to me.” “I have friends who will testify that you are an unfit mother.” These types of statements terrorize the victim into compliance.
Using Male Privilege
The good old boys club is alive and flourishing when it comes to abuse. Cultural rules support men’s dominance over women. Religious tenets are twisted in faith communities. Media is constantly bombarding young men and women with images of violence and power. Glorifying bad boys while claiming nice guys are wimps. Teaching our young women that they are not perfect as they are but in need of cosmetics, surgery and extreme dieting to be acceptable. All this allows males to see themselves as superior and worthy of unearned respect. They are the kings of their castles and the one who makes and enforces the rules, at a cost to the victim.
Using Economic Abuse
Coinciding with the male privilege myth, a perpetrator often use economic abuse to hold his victim in the relationship, spouting the myth that men are smarter than women and should handle all finances. Information is power so a controller withholds all financial information from his partners. The victims has no idea what the total family income is or where it is held. If she is allowed to work, she must turn her paycheck over to her partner, forcing her to ask for money. He holds tight reins on how much money she receives and how she spends it. She has no discretionary funds to do with as she pleases or to stash away so she can leave him.
Using Coercion and threats
A violent partner often carries out threats and harms the victim, the children or pets to make the point that he will do heinous things, coercing the victim to submit. Subsequent threats to take the children away, report her to child welfare, kill himself, the victim or children become very real possibilities to the victim. A controller who in involved in criminal activities often force the victim to participate to assures that the victim will remain loyal. A drug dealing partner may withhold dugs from the victim to force compliance.
The very fact that most often the male is larger, stronger and more physical than a female is causes her to feel intimidated. Menacing looks, pounding holes in the walls, brandishing a weapon, smashing her property and abusing pets and children terrorizes the whole family into obedience.
Using Emotional Abuse
Destroying a victim’s ego is key in holding the victim in the relationship. If she has low self-esteem, she is less likely to leave and more likely to obey. Name calling and constant criticism is internalized by the victim, causing her to withdraw from others. Crazy-making tactics force her to mis-trust her instincts. Making her feel stupid and foolish keeps her from talking to others. Humiliating or embarrassing her in public, causes her to avoid being in public. These tactics play into the isolation that eliminates any support base she may have had, giving the abuser full control.
All these tactics create chaos and fear in a victim’s life. The abuser uses physical and sexual violence to terrorize the victim into compliance, establishing the abuser as the one holding total power and control.
Once we step out of the emotionally turmoil, and accept his behavior for what it is—his own choosing—we can begin to put things into perspective and shed the guilt knowing that he and he alone is responsible for his behavior. We are in no way at fault. Every decision he made was his choice. Anyone who can choose to be cruel, can choose to be kind.
Most important, we see that we are not stupid, inept, or whatever they called us. We can begin to re-claim our true self.
The Power and Control wheel under the tab above is focused on Men battering women. Next month we’ll look at he Wheel of Equality. If you’d like to download a copy of these wheels for free, please see www.theduluthmodel.org. Wheels for other relationship styles (i.e. teens, same-sex relationships and elder abuse) can be found on the internet.