Most websites on domestic violence say that power and control is at the center of the abuse—just look for the ever-present power and control wheel. Many of these organizations claim that the abuser’s controlling behavior is an intentional act to maintain a position of male privilege and superiority. Naturally, the conclusion is that this attempt at domination is wrong and needs to stop.
Saying that domestic violence is about power and control isn’t very helpful.
If you’re a person who has been violent with your partner but who wants to change, this isn’t very helpful. We don’t see male privilege driving most domestic violence, and it obviously can’t explain women who abuse men, or violence in LGBTQ relationships. We agree with the need for abuse to end, but telling a person it’s about power and control and to “just stop” doesn’t work. Let me offer some insight that should.
What controlling behavior looks like
Around the time when I was arrested for domestic violence, I wasn’t even aware of my controlling behavior. I didn’t realize the effect it was having on other people, especially the people that I loved. And, I had no idea that by trying to control them, I was making my life much more difficult than it needed to be.
I had no idea that by trying to control others, I was making my life much more difficult than it needed to be.
Looking back, I now see how I frequently tried to manage everyone around me, especially my wife and kids. I tried to preside over their thoughts, opinions, and actions. My controlling behavior tool of choice was anger that would escalate quickly.
If my wife and I had a difference of opinion, I’d raise my voice. If she held her position, I’d yell louder or intimidate her so she’d get the message that I was upset. Like most people, she didn’t like to be around angry people, so she’d give in but silently resent it.
Some of us will try to control our partner’s time, money, decisions, or activities. Accusing a partner of cheating, using put-downs, making them feel “crazy”, threatening them, or punishing them are other ways we might try to control. Most of us aren’t trying to be hurtful; we only see our abuse when we pause to honestly compare our actions with the definition.
We only see our abuse when we pause to honestly compare our actions with the definition.
There are more comprehensive lists of physical and emotional abuse on our Abuse Definitions page. All of these actions are attempts to control another person by creating conditions so they’ll do as we wish. These maneuvers hurt our partners either physically or emotionally by damaging their sense of wellbeing and independence.
Why we try to control
Many domestic violence “experts” say the cause of abuse is power and control because that’s how it appears. However, that analysis doesn’t go deep enough. What we should ask is, why do some of us use power to try to maintain control over loved ones?
We use controlling behavior if we lack the ability to control our own emotions. in the absence of our own self-esteem, we look to others to help us feel valued, then we try to force a positive reflection. We manipulate people to stay with us so we don’t have to face the unbearable pain of being abandoned.
The inability to soothe our own minds is likely the result of past traumas. The trauma could be from military combat, abandonment or neglect as a child, or emotional wounds from an over-controlling or overly critical parent. When current events are similar to that trauma, it triggers an emotional flood that we desperately try to stop.
For me, anything that resembled rejection or criticism threatened my fragile sense of self worth. I feared that I was unlovable, and would work frantically to change something which might indicate that it was true. My response was to intimidate, yell, or even become violent to stop what triggered my emotions and calm my anxieties.
Alternatives to controlling behavior
The problem with controlling behavior is that it doesn’t work, and, it doesn’t make us feel better. In fact, it only irritates the people we try to control—working against the very outcomes we want. Ironically, we usually feel worse because we had to engage in conflict in our attempt to get some emotional calm.
The problem with controlling behavior is that it doesn’t work, and, it doesn’t make us feel better.
The alternative to controlling behavior is acceptance. It’s recognizing situations where we want to take charge, but then choosing to give instead—to serve rather than be served. As a result, we actually end up getting more of what we want.
Not controlling everything and everyone doesn’t mean we become doormats. Non-controlling people also want a particular outcome, but they communicate their needs, release control of the outcome, and are okay with sometimes being disappointed. The better approach leads to better interactions and better relationships, which comes back to us positively more often than not.
Test this while driving by slowing down and letting the car next to you merge in front by waving them in. Or run ahead to open a door for someone and hold it with a smile as they pass. See how the other person responds and how you feel afterwards.
I can testify that the less work I do controlling my circumstances, the more smoothly life goes and the more peace I feel inside. The reality is that there is much in life that we can’t control. Trying to control the uncontrollable, which includes other people, is exhausting and it doesn’t work. We might as well try to control the weather.
The most popular passage in the Bible is this one from the book of Philippians: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
The world tells us that we can’t let anyone get the best of us. It says that life should go the way we want it to, and when it doesn’t, that we’re justified in getting upset. Our culture says to look out for number one—ourselves.
Culture says to look out for number one. God has a better way.
God has a better way for us to think about life and the people around us. Turning our anxieties over to God, knowing that he has and will provide everything we need, releases us from that burden. Accepting we are his beloved children gives us an identity that no person can take away.
A formerly violent guy named Paul wrote the words above 2000 years ago, but the lesson is timeless. People who have a relationship with God feel at peace, even though we may not be able to explain why. That relationship is available to you if you ask.