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Learn About Coercive Control and Psychological Abuse

A new power and control wheel

– Posted in: Intimate partner abuse Male perpetrators Why does he do it

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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  • Lizzy 23 February 2016, 6:59 am

    I am feeling very desperate right now but am so glad that I have come across this website whilst desperately trying to find someone or something that relates to my abusive ex husband.

    We have been separated for three years now, have one child together, and I am re-married. However my ex husband has continued to be abusive in many ways (as he was in our marriage) to both myself and my new husband, continuously attempting to insult, intimidate, push buttons, make threats etc.

    I am currently going through a court case over his contact with our son and he even manages to get the professionals in a spin. Leading them off topic, distracting from the facts, minimizing and blaming along the way when the whole affair was supposed to be about his contact and our son’s needs.

    Any reference to his abuse is not considered correctly and vital information such as letter from my son’s school and police log numbers are not considered, or forgotten, as he takes the lead and the professionals try to keep the hearing on track missing vital points along the way. It’s like I sit on the sidelines watching the whole fiasco unfold in front of me, unable to believe that I can see him orchestrate the whole room so well.

    The police tell me to stop all communication when he sends text after text (sometimes to other members of my family) and the Magistrates ask if we can talk to each other. How can you talk to a man who has been abusive to you? It’s like setting yourself up for a slap in the face whilst being advised it might be the best thing for your child!

    The joke is, he doesn’t even want that much contact with our son. It’s like he is using the whole process to keep control and power over part of my life for as long as possible. At the latest hearing the Clerk of the court lost her patience with him and said that it would be best, if he wanted a new arrangement order (as one already exists) to go to something called Judge led conciliation because basically they couldn’t do anything with him in that room.

    Astounded I find this process leaves me to face my psychologically abusive ex husband alone with a Judge
    and I am petrified. No solicitors are allowed (as far as I understand) and, to be honest, my solicitor is at a loss as how to deal with him so that gets him off the hook too. He himself stopped answering my ex husband’s emails in between hearings as he claimed he was trying to draw him in to further and further debate, yet no one seems to be able to stop him.

    The Judge in the hearing has no power to enforce any order, my solicitor tells me, so I can only assume my ex will have no fear in running wild with his fabrications once again at my emotional expense.

    I have currently been signed off work with stress from the mere thought of this hellish affair. No one even asked if I was ok with this process?

    In the past I have attended ‘The Freedom Programme’ and have had 21 hours plus of CBT to help me through. My son and I had an outreach worker for a while yet all of this has been swept aside.

    The cruelest part is that my ex husband claims that I am mentally unstable and this sometimes makes me feel unable to ask for the support I need, making him appear in the right.

    My new husband is supportive but is at a loss as how to help. He can’t bare to stand by whilst this man continues to be allowed to treat me in this way yet he can’t bear to rise to it either.

    Any suggestions of help would be most appreciated.

  • Lyn 25 November 2015, 7:55 pm

    I have been married 3 times and have had both psychological and mild physical abuse from my second husband. My present one promised me the moon and as a stay at home husband he was to do all the home duties and pamper me when I got home from work but slowly it started. He will not accept any blame but says I am the one at fault all the time, will never apologise but instead will act as though he has said or done nothing wrong and if he feels at all guilty he buys a gift. He uses his PTSD as an excuse all the time and when my GP said I showed signs of PTSD he denied that and yelled at me saying that was impossible as you had to have suffered some physical trauma not just mental.

    He drives the car in a very irratic way that really scares me but I cannot say or show any sign of that or he will yell at me and tell me to shut up. He tells everyone I am frigid because I have withdrawn from him due to constant nagging to do things the way he wants. He told me not to kiss him due to front teeth he has now had fixed. Not to hug him due to an old # ribs that he said still hurts, not to laugh or giggle when we were being inimate as he feels like I am laughing at him and he withdrew from me that day. Now he puts me down because I have stopped being intimate and close but I don’t feel I can anymore.

    He ridiculed my cooking and the way I hung the washing out or folded his socks so now he does his own washing and I eat the crap only he likes and am putting on weight due to all the pasta and takeaways he likes. I am now diabetic I work 5 days a week and come home to a dirty house and cook something I like that I know he will ridicule. He will tell me to shut up watching TV if I make a comment when he doesn’t want me to then will act as though he has done nothing when I go silent and then accuses me.

    I am at my wits end as I feel I am living with a Jekyll and Hyde and don’t know what to say do or where to go anymore. I was a confident woman with uni degrees and he a cop from Sydney before he went on the pension for his PTSD. Help me with some advice I have thought of just ending it for the peace, but he will cut my daughter out. He has 3 sons and denies the existance of 2 as they are like him and he refuses to see that. The money to buy this house was by selling mine. I gave that up and living somewhere I loved with a good job as he wouldn’t go there so I will lose all I have put into here as well.

  • Clare Murphy PhD 21 October 2015, 9:35 am

    Lori – I have not posted your phone number because it is not safe to put identifying details on here as your number could be used by others in unsafe ways. I recommend you see support from a local domestic violence organisation.

  • Lori 19 October 2015, 10:10 pm

    The wheel of power and control is happening to me right now … Husband was domestically violent to me choking me in the garage then trying to turn court on me. Denied PPO. He has been arrested for domedtic violence and now the games begin. I had counselling with my daughter’s child psychologist and he took everything and turned it against me!!
    I confided confidential information to him about being in fear for my life and my daughter’s and he turned it against me … I saw him in court sitting with the other side’s attorney and he even told my attorney I was unhappy with the results of the case as I have been an ongoing victim. My husband makes $150,000 a year. I have been a stay at home mom with income of $18,000 from disability after surviving cancer. The court system is being used against me with $$$$. I have no groceries, I picked up all bills. He refused to pay and lives in the house I bought! I thought the child psychologist was neutral, but he got my attorney to resign from the case after I spent $6,000 leaving me with a bill of $13,000 and all we are doing is fighting. My husband violates all court orders it’s the good old boy network and the judge has no clue I’ve been choked, had a gun held to my head and much more … His recent arrest for domestic violence! Please please help me and my daughters. I live in Southeast Michigan and court is in Wayne county. Scared and alone. I’ve had criminal attorneys tell me my soon to be ex is a lunatic!

  • Marlene 19 October 2011, 11:42 pm

    So pleased to have found you, I have been physically abused in my marriage and after the marriage ended psychological abuse to change my sexual choice as a heteosexual female to lesbian and bi-sexual. To find words to express this has been such a struggle! My physical abuse was a language of men outside my marriage and was interpreted after my divorce in social settings in non-verbal language. I cannot express the terror this evoked in me. Family members and my ex-husband collaborated with a psychologist to cause me harm. Obviously they then zoned in on my children and usurped my authority as their mother and used them as they desired.

    How excruciating! I am busy reading Restorative Justice and Violence against Women by James Ptacek and the extent of the structures built to give the perpetrators carte blanche to treat women abusively. From the president of my country, to policing structures and legal institutions where ‘games’ are played to further intimidate and break down resolve to protect my children are exhausting. The magnitude thereof confirmed by the book I am reading. Especially so, the harm perpetrated by psychological abuse, as it seems so unbelievable! Thanks for exposing this topic! It gives me strength to continue my battle for justice and exposure of the perpetrators.

  • D.M.G. 24 July 2011, 9:23 am

    Hi Nichaleen, Women are indeed capable of psychological abuse. My mother was extremely abusive to me throughout life, which is why I have ended the relationship with her and have not had contact with her for about 7 years now. I slipped once at the urging of perhaps other abusive family members to contact her per her request with respect to the death of her third husband. What happened? She hung up on me when she realized she was not going to control the situation or my life ever again.

    The author of this site has expressly stated that she will be incorporating material where the abuser is a woman. I would like to point out, however, that I have run across sites that have incorporated material that you are currently and are seemingly in search of.

    I am extremely happy to have found this site as it relates to my immediate needs. I have felt as if I were going insane. If it helps you, you can also reverse the roles of victim and abuser.

  • Clare 15 July 2011, 12:15 pm

    Hi Nichaleen – I know that women’s abuse against others is a problem – I’ve experienced it first hand – starting with my mother and my grandmother and female bosses. There’s research on women’s physical violence against men and against other women, but my focus is on psychological abuse and control. I’ve been gathering research articles on the topic and have yet to delve deeply into what has been explored – my intention is to write something about it at a later stage. I’m not aware of any power and control wheel that outlines the dynamics of women’s psychological abuse against men. There are wheels that outline gay and lesbian power and control – but again I don’t yet have the depth of knowledge to write about this. My work is about exploring DEEPLY into these issues, therefore I prefer not to write any sweeping superficial statements – as I require in-depth research and detailed stories from the perspectives of perpetrators and victims.

  • Nichaleen 9 July 2011, 4:09 pm

    I would like to add that women can be just as capable at psychological abuse, power and control. My husband’s ex-wife is in a lesbian relationship and she uses these tactics on my husband, their children, her partner (who uses them on her, as well as violent physical abuse) and tries to even control ME with these tactics. That is NOT to say that just because she’s a lesbian that I think all gay/lesbian couples have this dynamic, but she CERTAINLY does. We deal with this issue on a daily basis and it needs to be addressed as well, is there a wheel for that dynamic where the woman is the psychological abuser and the man is the victim?