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The Power and Control Wheel Helps Identify Abusive Relationships

The tool helps understand what constitutes abuse and whether or not what they are experiencing applies. 

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence. But other types of abuse are also common, including financial, emotional, and verbal. Those abused  in relationships can suffer isolation from friends and family, threats of harm or, in some instances, deportation, spiritual abuse, or the using of religious doctrine to condone or justify the abuser’s behavior. In other words, abuse can take any number of forms and it can be hard for victims to even know what constitutes abuse and whether or not what they are experiencing applies. 

If someone suspects a relationship to be abusive, the Power and Control Wheel can help. Created in the early ‘80s by a group of battered women in Duluth, Minnesota, with the help of the Domestic Abuse Intervention program, the Power and Control Wheel helps mistreated spouses better understand the patterns of abuse they may be enduring.  As part of the “Duluth Model” of combating domestic violence, it is used to identify behaviors that are intended to control and dominate a person in a relationship.

“The Power and Control Wheel can be an effective tool for people who are in abusive relationships,” says Juriana Hernandez, a marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles. “Abusers are canny and fake perceived kindness, love, and adoration for the people they are abusing. Which makes the target question themselves, as opposed to questioning the abuser’s true intentions.” 

In the classic Power and Control Wheel from the Duluth Model, the outer ring features the word “Violence,” framed by the two forms that it primarily takes in a relationship, “Physical” and “Sexual.” Violence in either, or both, of these forms represents the primary tactic that domestic abusers will use in order to keep control. Violence and the threat of it instills fear in a partner and makes them question their own actions, worried that one misstep will lead to another assault. As such, they are more likely to give in to the abuser’s demands, rather than face their wrath. 

That state of constancy, forever living in fear of reprisal, is one of the key signs of being in a relationship that can be considered abusive. “If that someone continues to enact concerning behavior even after being confronted with an alternate perspective and minimizes the others’ pain,” says Jor-El Caraballo, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness. “It’s more than likely the relationship exists in a power dynamic as demonstrated by the Power and Control wheel.” 

Inside the Power and Control wheel are eight tactics that abusers will often pair with physical or sexual violence (or the threat of violence) in order to maintain domination. These are as follows:

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  • Using Intimidation
  • Using Emotional Abuse
  • Using Isolation
  • Minimizing, Denying and Blaming
  • Using Children
  • Using Male Privilege
  • Using Economic Abuse
  • Using Coercion and Threats

This inner ring is important, as it touches of the elements of abuse that might not be as readily apparent in a relationship. According to Hernandez, “the person who’s being abused may not know they are being abused if they’re experiencing psychological and emotional abuse, which the Power and Control Wheel touches on in the Emotional Abuse and Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming section.” 

Hernandez says that the eight strategies on the inner ring are important to be aware of because they can be harder to spot on the surface. They are not as blatant as physical violence or sexual assault and someone who has become inured to abuse might not even be able to realize that it is happening to them. 

“These tactics are very subtle, and the target may feel confused that the same person who shows them love, attention, and care is also the person who causes a lot of emotional pain,” she says. “Those closest to the target will not be able to see it as the abuser hides the abuse when around others and presents themselves very differently.” 

Because emotional abuse, gaslighting, and isolation are such prevalent components on the inside of the wheel, it can become very difficult for an abuse victim to discern what is right or even what is real in their relationship. They can’t trust their own feelings and often have no one they can trust to bounce them off of. Gwendolen Wilder, author of It’s Ok to Tell My Story!: Surviving Common Law Domestic Violence, suggests to record each abuse incident in a journal, even if it’s just covering dates, times and descriptions of what happened at first. Writing each incident down helps the victim take a measure of control and gain the distance needed to identify the behavior as abusive. “Store it in a safe location where your abuser will not find it,” she says. “If you don’t feel safe keeping it at home try storing it in the Cloud, at work, a safety deposit box, or friend’s house.” 

Once the incidents have been recorded in a journal, Wilder says to compare them against those outlined on the wheel. “Ask yourself these three questions,” Wilder says, “How did the incident make you feel? What were your thoughts and feelings when the incident occurred? And what could happen if you decided to separate yourself from the incident? Conducting this comparison and asking one’s self these questions help victims to realize without rationalization how the behaviors listed are different ways an abusive partner is using power and control to manipulate the relationship.” 

Most importantly, Wilder says, victims of abuse in a relationship must never take ownership of what it happening to them or believe that it is somehow their fault. This too is a byproduct of the control abusers seek to claim as outlined on the wheel. 

“In most cases, abusers are exhibiting power and control by reflecting their insecurities onto victims to make them feel bad,” Wilder says. “This could be due to any number of reasons ranging from childhood experiences, abuse, or socialization. I encourage victims to remember none of the behaviors experienced are warranted, it’s not your fault, you are loved and worthy of a blessed, peaceful and joyful life.”