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.
I’m a female survivor researching sources for a work presentation on DV next month and was glad I came across your page. The insight into your experience is helpful and touching. My ex was a different character. No amount of explaining – or suffering – could induce him to see that he needed to rethink his behaviour. It was always my fault. If he shouted at me and the kids hid behind furniture he’d yell, ‘Look what you’ve done!’ when I myself was frozen in fear. My ex may have shared some of the insecurities you have, but he had none of the capacity for self awareness or desire to make things better. I think a key difference is manipulativeness and a lack of empathy. My ex was highly devious and indulged in quite sinister and premeditated behaviours to threaten, blackmail and trap me. It was when he was cool and calculated that he was the most frightening. He could watch me sob with terror or pain with a blank expression or a smile. It was about power and control but I don’t think this is a gender thing (except in the forms of power that culturally, as a man, he seemed attracted to). Women or non-binary people can be just as likely to have a need to be controlling and I believe can be like you – have patterns that they are prepared to change, or be like my ex – have a lack of conscience in some way that makes it hopeless. Either way, I completely agree that telling people to ‘stop doing it’ is pointless and unhelpful. It’s either really hard to stop and people need help, or they don’t want to stop and social services, police, the courts and the community need to understand that some personalities are like that in order to protect the survivor.
Thanks for your comments, Emma. I’m sorry you and your children experienced that abuse. You’re right–there is a small percent (5%?) of individuals who, for whatever reason, do not have any compassion for other people. Psychologists say there is no known treatments to facilitate change for these people. For most of us, however, the desire to not hurt the ones we love is a big motivation to change once we get past our own hurts and can finally see the affects of our actions. I hope and pray you and your children have found peace and healing.
True, only 5% of people may be sociopaths without the brain circuitry to feel empathy, but plenty of neurotypical people have also chosen to harden their hearts and feel so little empathy that they don’t feel the need to look within and change.
I like the idea that we should address the issues that underlie the desire to control, but we still are bound by the old dilemma that in order for people to change, the cost of the status quo has to be higher than the cost of change.
Thanks for your comments, Brian. Agree that it is human nature that we need motivation to change. Not everyone harming someone they love has that, and pointing out that they are hurting others is often not a very good motivator. We see many who do have that motivation, either because of criminal charges, a loss of a relationship, or they just don’t like who they see when they look in the mirror. It requires raising the cost of the status quo, as you point out.
We also see (and I know from experience) that it is hard to have empathy for others when we ourselves are hurting. You might want to check out this post for more on that topic.
Women need to take control and stop being the victim.
As a Domestic abuse advisor the victim or controlled is often the opposite of the partner a empathic personality or a needy person.
Sometimes the only way is to walk away as personality traits very rarely change.
And a good person can not Change deep personality disorders as most have drug or alcohol addictions which go hand in hand.
It’s very sad that adults don’t or can’t get it together for the sake of their children as I had a very traumatic childhood and without a God or outside influence I worked things out in my own mind to be better than all that.
Only you as a individual can change you…
We are the masters of our own destination
What you said is true–that often victims allow themselves to be victims. That’s doesn’t make it their fault or justify the abuse, it just allows the poor treatment to continue. For all of us, a healthy sense of our own value and purpose is the best antidote to entering into an unhealthy relationship. With it, we express love and kindness to others, even in moments when it’s not being returned. With it, we don’t need our partner, nor do we need them to say or do things a certain way to be okay ourselves. And, we know to create boundaries so that we’re not harmed by others. This is true for women and men, as both can be and are victims of abusive behavior.
I would disagree with your characterization of abuse as a personality trait, however. Doing so implies that these traits are unchangeable, which is simply not true, as evidenced by the countless people who have changed. A better way to look at harmful behavior is to understand that hurt people hurt others. Once their hurt is identified and healed, the behavior changes.
It sounds like you were able to do this on your own, without outside influence. Good for you! Others find guidance from a counselor, insights from books, or strength and perspective from their faith to be very helpful catalysts for change. I say, “Whatever works!” The important thing is to not only recognize the dysfunction, but to see that a better life awaits on the other side of that change.
I totally agree and was very intrigued with your comments until you went into the fictional God bit?
So you did not change your behaviour due to a change in yourself but an external factor one that is not actually a personality trait but a learned thing such as taking up yoga jogging etc..
It is a belief you believe in but does not serve the purpose of why you are like you are ..that in the first place,it’s called a cop out an excuse a get out of jail card.
We as adults know we are abusive manipulating and horrible people and unless you have a mental health disorder as a adults you address these issues and stop acting like a spoilt ignorant person this post is portraying. .
We are in total control of who we are and what we need
But it takes stamina and strength of mind , no God No stupid beliefs.
Total belief in ourselves and what we give back to humanity and get rid of this boo hoo I can’t cope mentality.
Grow some balls and get on with it!!!
Thanks for your comments, Wendy. I agree that changing behavior, especially deeply ingrained actions that cause harm to a partner, takes stamina and strength of mind. It’s not a passive activity where we are transformed by a lightening bolt from the sky or the wave of a magic wand. It requires a great deal of personal work and commitment. That does not make the role of spirituality any less important, however.
When we realize that how we act flows from how we think, then what we believe to begin with has upmost importance. We can either believe that we are alone in this world, with no particular purpose; fighting, scrapping, and trying to “grow our balls” for everything we can get. Frankly, that view leaves most of us exhausted, feeling very inadequate, and is exactly why I behaved in such fearful and self-protective ways that were abusive to those around me.
Or we can view ourselves as part of something bigger–a divine plan. This view allows us to see ourselves as a branch connected to the vine. Our job is to produce the fruit that comes from loving and serving others, but not have to worry about everything we need for our existence. By allowing our needs for love and value to be filled by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinitely loving God, we are set free from needing those from others, and free to act in the way we were designed to behave to start with.
Yoga and jogging are good things, but neither of them, nor anything else in this world, has the power to overcome the biggest foes we face as humans: like our own short-comings, evil, and death. I have a fair amount of self-confidence, but it has limits. If you have never faced a foe that you weren’t able to overcome yourself, then count yourself lucky. That day comes for us all eventually, and it doesn’t make us weak, it makes us mortal.
I did change myself, but I did it by adopting a different, more wholistic, and more truthful view of life. It’s far from a cop-out. I still paid the consequences of my behavior (jail, divorce, humiliation). I make no excuses for what I did. I’m not attempting to convince anyone that I’ve changed because of my faith–I’ll let those around me judge for themselves. When they see the change, however, I will give full credit to discovering a personal relationship with Christ as the reason for that change.
You’ve stated that you see God as fictional. I respect your view as it is one that I, too, held in the past. I would encourage you to look into the evidence of the existence of God for yourself. Many who do find it more difficult to believe that God does not exist than it is to believe that he does.
I can also tell you that millions of people–including drug addicts, alcoholics, hardened criminals, and me–have experienced radical life transformations when we received God into our lives. These are changes that we wanted, struggled to make happen, but were never able to achieve through our own power. For us, God’s existence, and the changes we experienced, are far from fictional.
I appreciate the verse from Philippians. I just texted it to my spouse as he was agitated and became abusive last night. I know that at the root of it was his worry and fear concerning the future.
I am one who stayed with her spouse – close to 30 years now. With the children grown, I still wonder if I’ve made the right choice. I never suffered physical abuse but verbal, emotional and financial. It is not a daily occurrence but the possibility of an outburst is always there and impacts all of my interactions with my spouse. I made a vow, “In sickness and in health…” and I do believe some of the abuse stems from mental illness, and some of it is childhood trauma, as you mention. There was never a clear cut answer for me – stay or go. And I can’t even say for sure if I was being brave or a coward in my decision to stay – some of both, I think. As we are getting older, and my husband nearly a decade older, the thought of leaving him alone when he’ll need help, after years of working and providing for the family, seems cruel. When he yells for me to go though, I am tempted (and fearful) sometimes to take him up on the offer. He fears abandonment so I know he doesn’t want this.
In Christian homes especially, there is the idea that physical abuse and the need for safety (from physical harm) is a clear reason for separation and divorce but the other forms of abuse are not so readily recognized. I reached out for help in several churches and there was no one who would counsel me when I was a mother with four young children, no money or insurance to pay for counseling, and deeply troubled and confused about how to respond. My spouse has not hit me, understanding that was my red line.
I will be reading more of your insights but just wanted to tell you that this I find this discussion helpful and I appreciate what you’re doing here. On your list of abuse, I like that you acknowledged that all of us can do some of these things some of the time….which is why I had a hard time agreeing with publications that say “If X happens…. leave!” Being so quick to label every sinful human behavior as grounds for leaving actually kept me from being able to recognize that what I was living with was well beyond the “normal” range.
Just started watching “Maid” on Netflix and I realize that it upsets me so much because I identify too much with the story on an emotional level even though my particulars were far different. That’s what has prompted me to start reflecting again on the abuse in my marriage.