A new power and control wheel

I’d like to introduce you to the ‘power and control’ wheel I created after researching and interviewing women who had been psychologically abused and controlled by their male partners.

You may recognise the Duluth ‘power and control’ wheel (on the left below) … it has been hanging around noticeboards at women’s centres, doctor’s rooms, and various other crisis places where women seek answers and shelter from violence perpetrated by their partners and spouses. The wheel is a summation of violence based on women’s experiences and is a visual tool to help practitioners understand family violence, and to help effect constructive change for both men and women.

Because not all women who experience psychological abuse and control by their male partner are physically hit by him I wanted to create an additional wheel (on the right below) that captured some more of the non-physical tactics of control and highlighted the reinforcing role society plays in this problem.

Many women experience both physical violence and psychological control. But these women report that ongoing psychological abuse is experienced as more mind-twisting, more painful and damaging than physical violence. I have never met a woman, yet, who says otherwise.

A determined long-term campaign of psychological abuse is about dominance, not about conflict of interest. It is not the same as occasional outbursts of anger. It may include threats of violence, but not always.

The creation of the Duluth Power and Control wheel has positively transformed our understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.

The centre of the wheel is labelled ‘power and control’ which is the goal, or effect, of all the abusive tactics. Patterns of tactics are depicted in each spoke of the wheel and the rim, representing physical and sexual abuse, is what gives it strength and holds it together.

The idea that physical violence and sex abuse reinforces psychological abuse suggests that physical, sexual and psychological abuse operate together to establish domination and control. It also suggests that psychological abuse is effective because of prior physical violence, or the threat of it; that psychological abuse is only a transitory, temporary stage leading to physical violence as the end result.

BUT … psychological abuse and control underpin the fabric of many men’s abuse against female partners – physically violent or not. It’s the missing equation.

One day I was chatting to an older woman in the changing room at the local swimming pool and, as she was drying her wrinkled skin, she asked what I do for a living. When I told her that family violence counselling was my specialty, she beamed joyfully, telling me how free and happy she feels because her husband had just died, freeing her from 40 years of being held hostage by his tactics of power and control. It was a lifetime of hell. Though he never physically harmed her she lived submerged in a toxic soup of his incessant, haranguing abuse and psychological imprisonment.

It’s a secret world of mind games – where physical violence is not necessary to gain control – but people are coerced, wretched and wrecked nevertheless.

After conducting my own research and reading other research papers and books about thousands of women’s crazy-making experiences of being psychologically controlled, I saw a need to expand upon the Duluth wheel.

The wheel I created captures the notion that our wider culture breeds, reinforces and supports the male imperative; the notion that men have rights over women. The testosterone effect is distorted and groomed within peer groups, on sports fields, school playgrounds, corporate boardrooms, and political institutions. The clamouring media, Hollywood and television reinforce so many of the negatives in mythical playouts that distort how it is to be a man and how to be a woman. The expectations and pressures on relationships and families are so enormous that simple love and caring run the risk of being compromised from the start.

In life, many men and women simply crave to set up a life-long caring partnership, to build a home together and to live securely, happily ever after.

Our gender myths influence men to be “real men”; to not be a wuss, but to stand up and “be a man”, to never cry, but to fight for independence; to never be shy, but to conquer women sexually and then to show off to their mates. Not all men care about, or pursue, such expectations of masculinity. But some do.

Those men who are heavily invested in climbing to the top of the ladder of masculinity have to prove they’re tough and in control. They have to avoid weakness and vulnerability at all costs. Psychological theories have argued for years that covering up, and denying painful, dark feelings leads to horrible behaviours such as addictions, violence and abuse. Social myths about how to be a man are full of messages that men must suppress most of their feelings, never talk about them, never show them – even if they want to.

It’s a cloak of bravado that leads many men to wear a mask behind which is a real human full of fears, desires to love, care and be tender. Men who control the women they love are wearing such a mask – they’re playing a role. One of the titles for this role is that of a family violence perpetrator.

For centuries the male thrust of society has been peopled from all walks of life directing men, showing them how to act out the “man” role. The main directive states that to stand up and “be a man” they must control “their” woman. Ownership!

The requirements of the role include acting like the king of the castle; being the boss, a man of superiority, who is invincible and who will not back down – no matter how much he truly wants a close caring relationship underneath. He must ‘wear the pants’. If she says or does anything that threatens his role, he must discipline her.

I’ll guide you through a series of blogs where I’ll discuss the way men carry out this role – that is by using some or many of the 16 patterns of tactics labelled in the wheel I created. These discussions will stem from international research and interviews I have conducted over the last ten years with women (as victims) and men (as perpetrators).

Watch out for blogs on the following control tactics:

One-sided power games
Mind games
Inappropriate restrictions
Over-protection and ‘caring’
Emotional unkindness & violation of trust
Degradation & suppression of potential
Separation abuse
Using social institutions & social prejudices
Denial, minimising, blaming
Using the children
Economic abuse
Sexual abuse
Symbolic aggression
Domestic slavery
Physical violence

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.