Power and control

This is the fourteenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Symbolic Aggression.

Power & control wheel #14 Clare Murphy PhD

A symbolic act is a verbal or physical gesture that represents or means something of larger significance than the gesture itself.

Symbolic aggression includes verbal or physical gestures aimed at terrorising, threatening, intimidating, dominating, making someone afraid or controlling them.

Drawing from research with men who have used symbolic aggression, and women who have been subjected to it, this blog illustrates just some of the tactics — these include the ways the perpetrator uses his body to intimidate, stalking behaviours, destroying, hiding or misusing the woman’s property, using physical items to intimidate such as driving recklessly, threats to kill or harm her, her friends, family, new partner or pets.

Giving a Gift

After a woman breaks-up from a controlling partner, he may send her gifts, such as jewellery and flowers, with a card saying, “Sorry, I love you.”

To someone who has lived with ongoing coercive control by this man, the gift and the message means something threatening to her, for example, the unwelcome gift and message may mean he will try every tactic possible to manipulate his way back in; or he knows my every move; or there is no escape; or I am unsafe.

It is important for the victim of symbolic aggression to trust their gut instinct about what they view the tactics to mean, and to do whatever it takes to keep themselves, and their children if they have any, safe.


Susan gave an example of how her controlling ex-husband’s mere presence terrified her. After  Susan separated from Anthony he used to stalk her. Susan said Anthony turned up at her farm work “at 5.30 in the morning and for my own safety I woke my boss up. It was so scary. He left town but came back for a party. I was so freaked out when I knew he was in the same area. I had to leave town coz I could not handle it if he turned up at my house at night to see what he could see or do or whatever. I just had to go.”

Stalking is a form of invasion of space that can be likened to one country invading another.

Dominates her space or controls their space

Sally said, “every time I prepared a portion of the garden to grow vegetables, Dylan would take over that patch, planting what he wanted. He did the same in the house, so that any time I claimed personal space, he would take it over.” Other men lock women out of the house.(4) Yet other men may use space to intimidate, for example a man interviewed by Lundgren said, “It makes her reconsider when I lock her up in a cupboard. Then she gets scared. Give her a sense of her total dependency, that’s the only way.”(5)

Sam, a man who admitted to controlling and abusing his partner said, “I used to get shitty when my girl used to go read a book in bed by herself. I’d go, ‘What the fuck, you’re not spending any time with me!’ ‘Woo woo, I’m supposed to be number one centre of attention here, not the bloody book.’ Now I realise they need their time out, they need their book read, they need to relax. Coz at the end of the day they don’t hate ya, they just love ya, they just need their bloody time. This stopping abuse course helped that way. It opened up a door I didn’t see that could be opened.”

Verbal intimidation

Heather thought, “if Luke tried the opposite tactic and gave me heaps of space I might have been the one running back to him, but having somebody constantly in your face over and over demanding, ‘Why won’t you live with me?’ he was always in my face.

Raewyn said Brian tried to dominate her verbally. “Initially I just let it go. I just let him dominate because then I had no way of trying to sort out how not to get dominated. Although I didn’t do everything he said, although I was swayed I suppose. Initially I don’t recall fighting against it. Maybe later there were some areas which I would stand up to him about, perhaps like the children a little bit.”

Uses looks and facial signals

Everyone in an intimate relationship knows what their partner’s particular “looks” mean. We know when a partner is using a fun look, a loving look, a disapproving frown, pursed lips, an intimidating sneer, or a “don’t mess with me” look. We know when they’re getting angry and rising up the tension scale — their face and neck might go red, their eyes may become monstrously scary.

One of the men interviewed by Cavanagh and her colleagues said: “I was a bit of a tactician, I’d more or less try to intimidate her by going quiet and staring.”(1)

Uses his body to intimidate

Symbolic aggression includes standing uncomfortably close to her, or making rude insulting threatening gestures, which differ from culture to culture. These may include sudden upward arm thrusts, clenching or shaking their fists, thrusting up single or double middle fingers into the air, stomping out of the room, or blocking the door so she can’t get out.

Teresa said Patrick “was never physically abusive, but there were times when I thought he was going to be, where he’d stand over me and I’d be lying or sitting down and he’d just stand over me with his fist clenched and with a face like granite and look at me really coldly and I was really scared that if I said or did the wrong thing that he would hit me, and that was really intimidating.” Teresa responded to this intimidation “by grovelling and being nice. I made the mistake of laughing the first time he did it. I was in bed and he’d come to stand by the bed, and he had a pair of quite loose track pants on, and I laughed and tweaked at them so they came down a bit and he was absolutely furious out of all proportion. I don’t know why he was so furious, but that’s the first time that I thought he was going to hit me and I laughed at the look on his face and he said, ‘Pull them up!’ I thought he was joking but he wasn’t, he was deadly serious, so I had to pull them back up and tighten the drawstring. I get really upset when people are angry, I’ll do what I can to make them not angry.”

A lot of people believe that physical violence is the only form of intimate partner abuse. However, this is a myth. Peter, a man I interviewed for my PhD research, said his wife told him that, “the looks I’d give her, aggressive stares, getting up close to her face,” were intimidating. But Peter said that many men he knew believe these behaviours are OK ways of behaving towards their female partners.

Uses objects, physical items and possessions

Symbolic aggression includes displaying a weapon, or keeping a weapon in view or within reach, slamming the door in her face,(2) banging the table, hitting the wall, or throwing something, but not at his partner. Or, as Heather said, Luke used to throw shoes directly at her.

Elsie said Leon “would just rant and rave or throw something or other. He kicked the door in, chucked stuff, pinned me up against a wall and yelled at me. There was lots of intimidation, plenty of it, enough for me to avoid it like the plague. I felt dominated mainly with fear of aggression and his nasty tongue. The threat of him being nasty to me, because I’m such a mouse, was enough for me to behave the way he wanted.”

Other forms of indirect harm, include hiding her important papers such as passports, birth certificates, or driver’s license. Or breaking or destroying something that is important to her,(2) such as destroying family photographs and smashing the children’s toys.

Some men destroy her everyday household items, for example Karen “called the police once when Felix smashed all the cutlery in the house. That was the time he threw all the furniture over the balcony onto the lawn, down one storey so they all smashed on top of each other. The police didn’t come. They said it would take a little while and he, at that point, said he was leaving. He came over to the phone and said I’ve stopped now and then he left.”

Sometimes the abuser kicks or punches holes in the wall or defaces her car.(3)  Whilst others attempt to frighten her by driving recklessly with her or the children in the car, or by attempting to run her off the road. Or, if he’s in the car with her doing the driving, he may grab the wheel causing her to lose control of the vehicle.

Playing with her mind

The abuser’s tone of voice or actual words can be forms of symbolic aggression. This includes ongoing threats to her self-concept by belittling her “essential ideas, feelings, perceptions, and personality characteristics.”(6)  It also includes giving her the silent treatment, which is deeply debilitating to live with.

Victoria said Graham was intimidating. “You always thought he would be on the precipice of hitting you and you never quite knew what was going on in that mind. It was psychological intimidation more than a physical intimidation. I tried to figure out what he was thinking. I tried to figure out what I needed to do to keep the peace. And then you’d misjudge it and you’d get it wrong, and it wasn’t what he wanted, and so you’d get it wrong anyway. So you’ve sweated for ages trying to figure out what the hell to do and then it was the wrong decision anyway.”

Makes threats to the family or the relationship

On occasions when Karen would say to Felix, “‘I’m finding it really hard bringing up the children.’ He’d respond with, ‘Adopt them out then, don’t come to me with that.’ That was his set response if I expressed any type of thing that ‘it’s getting too much and I need your help.’ In response, I’d just fly into a frenzy: ‘How dear you say such a thing!’ It would really get me going. He’d respond by smashing things.”

Some men make threats to the relationship, saying, for example, “If you won’t let me borrow your car, the relationship is over!”

Threats of suicide

Other men threaten suicide to maintain control, for example, “you either take me back or I’ll kill myself.”(4)  I have written a blog about Threats of suicide by men with a history of psychologically controlling their partner. Take this threat seriously. This is NOT “just” a mental health issue when it involves a man who has a history of manipulating and coercively controlling his partner. There are definite cases following such a threat of men who carry out their threat. They have murdered family members before killing themselves. It is vital that the police are informed and help is sought immediately from a domestic violence agency.

Threats to kill other people or pets

Some men threaten to kill their partner, or anyone who is close to her, including her new partner or pets, if she doesn’t do what he wants. Elizabeth said David “used to threaten me about having affairs saying, ‘If you try anything like that I’ll give you the lead treatment.’ Meaning he would shoot me. I wasn’t scared he’d shoot me, but I was scared he could hurt me.” When Elsie left Leon he said he’d “get me”. Although, “at the same time I don’t think he would. I think he’s too much of a coward. He’d been to jail for beating up his ex-wife and it did have an effect on him. Like I say he’d stop short.”

Adriana did not experience Steven controlling her throughout their relationship, rather her experience of abuse began after she divorced Steven. It was then that he threatened to kill her. “After the threat I was in shock probably for a week. I had physical pain after three or four days because my body was so strung out. My sleeping pattern is not very good. Previous to that threat I didn’t have trouble with sleeping. I’m not as resilient as I was beforehand, both physically and psychologically.”

A man interviewed by Hearn, said he was going to stab his wife with a knife, but decided it would hurt her more if he killed her dog instead, so he did.(4)  Elsie said Leon “threatened several times to kill my dog. In response I used to just be nice to him and point out that she was a really good duck shooting dog.”

The impact of symbolic aggression can be terrifying, causing severe mental distress

I asked some of the men I interviewed for my PhD how they thought their controlling behaviours affected their partners — they said their abuse:

Belittled her, took something away from who she was, made her depressed or miserable, and made her feel pretty worthless or helpless. Other men thought women’s experience of being controlled by their male partner was probably just a normal way of life for them, that they don’t know any different.

Threats made within the context of coercive control must always be taken seriously

No one deserves to experience abuse in any form, including all the symbolically aggressive ways mentioned above. It is OK to reach out for help. I have listed contacts in several countries at this link. I urge you to reach out for support so you can get counselling face-to-face or on the phone, or so you can attend a group programme with other women who share your experience. Groups for women who have experienced intimate partner abuse are safe ways to get validation and support and to be empowered. If your partner makes threats to kill himself or to kill you or anyone close to you — you must take such threats seriously and call the police. Research shows that many men carry out such threats — trust your gut instinct and take steps to make yourself safe.

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-Sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection & ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & Suppression of Potential
Separation Abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, Minimising, Blaming
Using Children
Economic abuse
Intimate Partner Sexual Abuse
Domestic slavery
Physical violence


  1. Cavanagh K, Dobash RE, Dobash RP, Lewis R. ‘Remedial work’: Men’s strategic responses to their violence against intimate female partners. Sociology. 2001;35(3):695-714.
  2. Tangney JP, Wagner PE, Hill-Barlow D, Marschall dE, Gramzow R. Relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996;70(4):797-809.
  3. Brisbane Domestic Violence Service. Australia.–facts.
  4. Hearn, Jeff. (1998). The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women. London: Sage
  5. Lundgren E. Feminist Theory and Violent Empiricism Aldershot, UK: Avebury; 1995.
  6. Loring MT. Emotional Abuse: The Trauma and the Treatment New York: Lexington Books; 1994. (Quote: page 1)


Tactic #12 — Economic Abuse

by Clare Murphy PhD 9 May 2013

This is the twelfth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Economic Abuse. Economic abuse is one of the most common forms of intimate partner abuse. Children’s needs and standard of living are negatively impacted by their father’s economic abuse. This type of abuse leads to poverty, […]

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Tactic #11 — Using the Children

by Clare Murphy PhD 11 April 2013

This is the eleventh of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Using the Children.Ways men use the children to maintain power and control or to punish their partner or ex-partner include demanding that she do all the childcare, making her feel guilty about the children, telling her […]

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Tactic #10 — Denial, Minimising, Blaming

by Clare Murphy PhD 28 February 2013

This is the tenth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel — Denial, Minimising, Blaming. We are all responsible for the choices we make in life. We’re personally responsible for our own thoughts, beliefs, assumptions and interpretations of situations. Our thoughts lead to our feelings and in turn […]

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Tactic #9 — Using Social Institutions and Social Prejudices

by Clare Murphy PhD 15 February 2013

This is the ninth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Using Social Institutions and Social Prejudices. Many perpetrators of psychological abuse use social, health, legal and other institutions such as child protection services as arenas to further their coercive control over their intimate partner. They use […]

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Tactic #8 — Separation Abuse

by Clare Murphy PhD 30 July 2012

This is the eighth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Separation Abuse. It’s commonly assumed women should just leave their abusive partner, that she’s stupid for staying, and that if she left him, all her problems would be over. But this is far from the reality […]

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Men say “No” to abusing female partners

by Clare Murphy PhD 3 May 2012

In an article in the Australian newspaper The Age, a man named Edward discusses his journey of finally admitting to his compulsion to manipulate, denigrate and control successive female partners. He said that, ”As her partner, I knew her most intimately so I knew exactly how to hurt her the deepest, and I did.” Edward came […]

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Tactic #4 — Isolation

by Clare Murphy PhD 9 February 2012

This is the fourth of 16 blogs discussing the patterns of tactics from my power and control wheel – Isolation. Isolation is a powerful tactic used by controlling partners Isolation is a pivotal tactic that controlling partners use in order to weaken their victims, prevent them from hearing others’ perspectives, and to bring them into […]

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Warning signs of coercive control

by Clare Murphy PhD 1 February 2012

I wrote a blog post Warning Signs of Coercive Control by Your Partner for the Home & Family Counselling organisation’s Blog to give women some pointers about warning signs of coercive control by a male partner. Clues to warning signs that you’re in a relationship that is highly likely to continue to get worse – […]

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No bruise no victim?

by Clare Murphy PhD 28 April 2011

Why women and society miss the cues of psychological abuse What have I done wrong? Am I going crazy? Is this normal? One of the most common problems for women experiencing psychological abuse, is that they do not realise what is occurring in the early stages and are often not able to put it in […]

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Warning signs that your male partner is emotionally controlling you

by Clare Murphy PhD 20 August 2010

You’re dating or living with this good looking guy, maybe he’s charming and you feel wanted . . . but things he says or does make you feel bad about yourself – and you can’t really figure out why. You likely question yourself asking whether it’s something about you – because he doesn’t seem to […]

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Why do so many women lose custody battles?

by Clare Murphy PhD 23 March 2010

Why are so many women who are psychologically abused and controlled by male partners losing court battles for custody of their children? There are two cruxes of men’s intimate partner abuse – gender and power. The way that power operates in our society underpins domestic violence and family court judges’s decisions. Whether men deliberately aim […]

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Book review: Not of my making: Bullying, scapegoating and misconduct in churches

by Clare Murphy PhD 15 February 2010

Here I write a review of Dr. Margaret W. Jones’s book about her experience of abuse within church communities. My first impressions when I received this memoir to review were that it was a heavy long 400-page book with small writing so I thought it better be good! I was surprised that a Reverend had […]

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Psychological abuse can lead to murder

by Clare Murphy PhD 20 November 2009

Men who murder their female partners are often motivated by a need to save face by regaining a sense of power and control if the woman threatens to leave, or does leave. Many mental health and legal professionals do not take women’s experience of psychological abuse and control seriously. But men’s perpetration of psychological abuse […]

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Are women who live with abusive partners codependent?

by Clare Murphy PhD 8 July 2009

The other day I met a social worker/counsellor at a seminar. When she found out I research domestic violence she immediately told me that women who stay with violent men are codependent. She said such women were just the same as women who live with alcoholics. She was not interested in another view because she […]

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Power and control: Lawyer-client relationship

by Clare Murphy PhD 27 June 2009

A power and control wheel has been developed as a tool for recognising abuse and psychological assault by lawyers against their clients. This Lawyer-Client wheel was motivated firstly by the book Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture by Marc Galanter, and secondly, by the State Bar of Texas ethics rules (which reflect ethics […]

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The Emperor has no clothes on

by Clare Murphy PhD 10 June 2009

In 2001 I interviewed women who had left their psychologically abusive and controlling male partners/husbands. Before marrying, most of the women had total belief in their partner – because he was a man. The women said this belief was socially encouraged. For example one woman said: “Over the time that I was with him my […]

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Animal abuse linked to domestic violence

by Clare Murphy PhD 27 May 2009

Some male perpetrators of domestic violence harm family pets to get power and control over their wives and children. Men’s cruelty to companion animals silences women and children and is used to gain compliance, instill fear and prevents women from leaving and abusive relationship

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Alcohol and murder

by Clare Murphy PhD 20 May 2009

In today’s issue of the New Zealand Herald I read another example of a male perpetrator of domestic violence and psychological abuse who intended to harm his partner – but used alcohol as an excuse to minimise his responsibility. Snippets from the article say: “Ross Simon Fraser has admitted beating his partner Joanne Thompson to […]

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Women mentally bruised by male partners: How to help Stage 5

by Clare Murphy PhD 8 May 2009

Maintenance is the final stage in this series of blogs about providing help for women that is appropriate to her stage of coping with being abused and controlled by a male partner. Dienneman and her colleagues (2007) call this stage establishing a new life whether the woman stays together with her partner or whether she […]

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Gift giving can be manipulative

by Clare Murphy PhD 4 May 2009

Today I read this article about the very problematic issue of male perpetrators of domestic violence (including psychological abuse and control) giving gifts as a means of trying to ameliorate their partner and trying to increase the chances that she will stay with him and meet his controlling commands. My research with women shows that […]

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