The basis of any abusive relationship can be distilled to two core tenets: power and control. Abusers use a variety of tactics to control their victims and exert power over them. These can manifest in many ways, but ultimately, they demonstrate an imbalance in the relationship where the abuser coerces, manipulates, and terrorizes their victim in order to maintain that imbalance in the abuser’s favor. Last month’s blog post delved into the Cycle of Abuse, how abusers trap their victims in a repeating revolution of fear and hope. That post briefly mentioned a companion model of abuse, the Power and Control Wheel, a more detailed representation of abuse tactics. This wheel is an intricate diagram with a unique structural intention, which can be difficult to fully grasp at first glance. This month, let’s focus on elucidating that companion model, its numerous variations, and how it can be a useful template for understanding the complex dynamics of abusive relationships.
Developing the Power & Control Wheel
The Power and Control Wheel was created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP) in Duluth, MN as part of their curricula for groups supporting victims of domestic violence and educating abusers, known as “The Duluth Model”. In 1984, DAIP interviewed focus groups of survivors about their experiences of abuse. From this study, DAIP identified eight of the most universal tactics abusers use to control their victims. Seeking to develop a more detailed and nuanced model than the Cycle of Abuse, DAIP kept the idea of a circle, but removed the arrows that indicated any particular order. They placed the words “power and control” at the center of the wheel with a description of each of the eight identified tactics in a wedge of the circle surrounding them. The idea was to show how any of these tactics, in any combination, can be used to implement the central tenets of domestic violence: power and control. These tactics are often subtle and continual. Encompassing the eight tactics is a dark circle designating physical and sexual violence. This shows how violence is typically the most apparent tactic, to the victim, abuser, and possibly others, and how it is used to reinforce the more consistent, habitual tactics within the black outer ring (The Hotline). Physical and sexual violence may be one-time or occasional, as opposed to the other, more ongoing controlling behaviors. Think of the wheel as a bicycle tire, power and control are the center, held in place by eight spokes of abuse tactics, and supported by a rim of violence.
The original Power and Control Wheel uses gendered, rather than neutral, language, referring to the victim as “she/her” and including “male privilege” as one of the eight tactics. DAIP specifically chose to do this, as the vast majority of victims are women and abusers men, and these were the demographics of their groups. They argue that society teaches, reinforces, and supports men’s use of violence and power over women. While women may also be violent, they do not have the same societal backing. Despite criticism, DAIP did not want to minimize this cultural failing and so chose to use gendered language while recognizing that many of these tactics are the same or very similar in same-sex and female abuser/male victim relationships. However, since abuse can and does happen in relationships of all kinds, many additional Power and Control Wheels have been developed over the years to better correlate with specific populations and situations.
The Standard Power & Control Wheel
The eight tactics of the original Power and Control Wheel are “Coercion & Threats”, “Intimidation”, “Emotional Abuse”, “Isolation”, “Minimizing, Denying, & Blaming”, “Using Children, “Economic Abuse”, and “Male Privilege”. These are all reinforced by “Physical & Sexual Violence”. Let’s delve into what each of these designations really mean, with some examples. The videos below were created by DAIP as short explanations of each tactic, presented by their Executive Director.
Coercion & Threats
This tactic involves the abuser threatening to do or say something, or not do or say something, and possibly carrying out that threat, in order to make the victim do what they want them to or to stop doing something they don’t like. Coercion involves discovering what the victim values most and offering to provide that in exchange for what the abuser wants, with the undertone that the victim won’t get it if they don’t do what the abuser wants. Threats are the stick to coercion’s carrot. Abusers threaten to harm what the victim values if they do not do what the abuser wants. This is often a threat of harm toward the victim or toward someone or something they care about, such as children and pets. It may also be a threat of harm toward themselves, that they will commit suicide if the victim doesn’t cooperate. Abusers may tell victims that they will take, damage, or destroy valuable or sentimental property, such as family heirlooms. In an alternative approach, abusers may say they will leave the victim or expose secrets, knowing the victim values their relationship or privacy. Some abusers coerce their victims into doing something illegal and then threaten to report them to the police and/or welfare. There are many different ways coercion and threats can play out.
With this tactic, the abuser makes the victim afraid by using looks, actions, and gestures. It often involves violent acts to accomplish this, such as smashing or destroying things, abusing pets, or displaying weapons. Unlike with “Coercion and Threats”, where the abuser identifies and targets that which is particularly valuable to the victim in order to manipulate them, “Intimidation” uses the action itself to instill fear of harm. The abuser demonstrates they are capable of violence, be it toward objects, animals, children, or the victim, and willing to use it. They are then able to remind the victim of that with solely an aggressive gesture or looming stance, intimidating them into submission. It may get to the point that a mere look or an otherwise commonplace action, such as the abuser reaching for something near them, sparks that terror response in the victim, who fears it may be the onset of violence. This tactic creates a state of constant anxiety for the victim.
This is the most verbal tactic of the eight. The abuser uses insults, name calling, and belittling to make the victim feel bad about themselves. Nothing is ever done correctly or good enough. Abusers may invalidate victims’ thoughts and emotions or merely refuse to engage with them, using the “silent treatment” to instill worry or devalue their importance. They want victims to feel that they are less than the abuser, that they are not capable of functioning or surviving without them. For the purposes of this Power and Control Wheel, aspects that others may differentiate as “psychological abuse” are also included in this tactic. These elements are mind games, making the victim feel humiliated, guilty, or even crazy. Common examples of this include “love bombing”, where the abuser showers the victim with over-the-top romantic gestures to draw them back in, make them feel loved, and make them question or disregard the abuse, and “gaslighting”, where the abuser lies and manipulates aspects of the victim’s life to make them doubt their sanity. Emotional abuse is particularly devastating for the victim in its loss of self.
This tactic consists of the abuser taking control of the victim’s life by separating them from family, friends, and community. They tell the victim where they can go, what they can do, who they can see and talk to, even what they can watch or read. They may start an argument or initiate a violent action whenever the victim tries to interact with others, so that the victim starts to avoid these interactions in order to avoid angering the abuser. The abuser may insist on having access to the victim’s text messages, emails, etc., so that the victim censors and limits these communications, knowing the abuser will see them. The isolation could be physical, where the abuser demands they live somewhere far from loved ones, so it’s not easy for the victim to see them when the abuser is not around. The abuser may use jealousy, questioning why the victim prefers their family to the abuser, for example; protectiveness, such as claiming the victim’s friends are just using the victim in some nefarious way; and possessiveness, perhaps declaring others don’t understand their intense love, to justify this control. The abuser does not want others to influence the victim’s opinion of them or their relationship. Systematically limiting the victim’s experience outside of the relationship makes them more dependent on the abuser, more compliant to their desires, afraid of seeking support from others, and reluctant to leave.
Minimizing, Denying, & Blaming
This tactic has to do with how the abuser represents the abuse itself. If the victim tries to discuss what happened or is happening, the abuser may play it down and laugh at or brush off their concerns, saying it was not that serious, that intense, or deliberate. They may contradict the victim’s interpretation, refute the abuse, or even flat-out deny that it happened at all. Some abusers will transfer the responsibility for their actions to another person or specific circumstances. They may claim it’s only because they are particularly stressed at work, that they were drunk and didn’t know what they were doing or saying, or that the victim themselves caused the abuse by saying or doing something wrong. Whatever happened, it is never the abuser’s fault. Especially when used in conjunction with some of the other tactics on the wheel, the victim feels they cannot contradict this view without making things worse. Some even begin to believe the blame is justified, that it’s not the abuser’s fault, that they caused the abuse because they knew their actions would anger their abuser or that their abilities at a particular task were not up to snuff. In reality, they can never be perfect enough to prevent the abuse, because it’s not really about their actions, it’s about the abuser using any and every little thing to maintain their power and control.
Because of the intense love and value most people have for their children, the children make excellent instruments through which to exert power and control. As the most precious thing(s) to a victim, there are many ways abusers can use their children to cause the victim to submit or comply. They may make the victim feel guilty that they are not providing adequately for the children or parenting them properly. They can threaten to take away the children, physically and/or legally. If the couple is separated, visitation rights become an important tool to make the victim comply with their wishes. Abusers may also use children to make things more difficult for the victim or make them feel inadequate as a parent by deliberately disrupting the kids’ routine, overindulging them on sweets, letting them skip nap time, or refusing to change diapers, for example, and leaving the victim to deal with the consequences. They may enlist children as their allies in the abuse, not only strengthening their own position of power over their victim but perpetuating their warped view of relationships in the next generation. However it manifests, parental love makes this tactic extremely effective.
Economic abuse can take a variety of forms. The abuser may take the victim’s money and/or property. They may restrict knowledge of their own earnings or access to bank accounts. Alternatively, they can monitor bank accounts closely and use other tactics to enforce their displeasure if the victim’s spending does not fall in line with their ideas. Abusers may give victims an allowance to cover household needs, leaving them restricted in what they can buy or requiring them to ask for extra money for needs/wants that exceed that allowance. Beyond direct control of finances, some abusers control their victim’s ability to earn. They may prevent them from getting or keeping a job, or perhaps interfere with their ability to do their work, causing them to lose their position. Physical and mental effects of other abuse tactics can also bleed into economic abuse, as they hinder victim’s professional proficiency. Economic abuse can have long term consequences, such as preventing career prospects by blocking victims from pursuing education or running up debt in the victim’s name and damaging their credit score. Whatever methods they use, abusers are trying to make the victim completely dependent on them for that all important power in society, money. They control all assets, leaving victims without resources to live on except what the abuser deigns to give them. They effectively remove the victim’s autonomy to move about and exist independently in the world, making it extremely difficult to leave the abuser.
This tactic, in particular, is specific to male abusers and female victims. It builds on centuries of traditional gender roles where men have all of the power in society and the legal entitlement to control all aspects of the lives of their wives, daughters, sisters, who are relegated to meek and subservient positions and often seen as incapable of more. Abusers continue this tradition by posing themselves as “master” in the relationship and their shared lives. The abusive male delineates the role of their female partner, often treating them like a servant. Men and women are not equal in his eyes, and it doesn’t make sense for him to behave toward her as though she is a peer who could even match, let alone surpass, him in anything. He makes all of the decisions for both of them. This idea that he is more important, that he has a right to control his female drives not only this tactic, but many of the others on the wheel that he uses to enforce this belief in his superiority.
Physical & Sexual Violence
Physical and sexual violence is differentiated from the other tactics on the wheel, as it is used to reinforce the others. Physical violence can include hitting, slapping, punching, kicking, strangling, throwing things at, and using weapons against victims. Damaging property, such as punching a hole in the wall or dashing a plate on the floor, is another form of physical violence that does not bodily harm the victim but rather intimidates them and causes mental distress. Sexual violence includes unwanted touching, sexual assault and rape. The abuser often pursues their own desires sexually, which activities they engage in, when, and how often, with no regard to their victim’s preferences. Sometimes physical and sexual violence are used together. The abuser may beat up the victim and then follow that violence with “make-up sex”, exerting the same control and gaining pleasure in a different physical way. Violence in whatever form is meant to cause fear and show domination. Just the threat of physical or sexual violence can be enough for abusers to get their victims to do what they want, as the victims know what their abusers are capable of and try to avoid it.
There are numerous variations on the original Power and Control Wheel. Some adapt and/or add to the original with different and/or new tactics included. The University of Michigan, for example, displays a wheel with nine interior wedges instead of eight, adding more modern tactics such as technological abuse and adapting others to be more wide-ranging, such as swapping “male privilege” for “social standing”. Other wheels identify tactics specific to a certain population or specific circumstances.
Common tactics adapted, switched, or added to the original eight include changing “Male Privilege” to some variation on “Social Privilege” or simply “Privilege” and adding “Friends” and/or “Loved Ones” to the “Using Children” tactic. DAIP expanded its own Power and Control wheel in a different way with their Culture wheel. They took a simplified version of their original wheel and added two more encircling dark rims. Just as “Violence” reinforced the eight more continuous tactics used to maintain power and control, so a ring of “Institutions” reinforces that violence, and an outer ring of “Culture” further reinforces the institutions. Making up the ring of “Institutions” are the societal establishments of “Government”, “Social Services”, “Media”, “Police”, and “Courts”, plus the more intangible foundations of “Education”, “Medicine”, “Religion”, “Economics”, and “Work”. The “Cultural” ring is composed of more abstract customs such as “Values”, “Language”, “Rituals”, “Traditions”, “Norms”, and “Fads”. Added to these are the creative cores of culture: “Art”, “Music”, “Dance”, and the “Heroes” and “Heroines” of stories. All of these things bolster and fortify the abuse at the center, while also somewhat obscuring and minimizing it into the “hidden epidemic” domestic violence is often referred to as.
The original Power and Control wheel is general and designed with the most common abuse dynamics in mind. DAIP and many other agencies have developed further wheels customized to cultures and identities not ideally exemplified by the original wheel. While the original specifically used the traditional and most common pairing of a male abuser and female victim, the LGBTQ+ Wheel takes into account the larger societal oppression of those who identify as queer in any way. DAIP’s “Gay and Lesbian” Wheel was created in collaboration with specialists at The Northwest Network of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse and updated by the Texas Council on Family Violence. It redefines details of tactics, such as threatening to “out” victims, and features an additional exterior ring of “Heterosexism”, “Homophobia”, “Biphobia”, and “Transphobia”. DAIP also created a wheel focused on “Abuse of Children”, outlining distinct aspects such as using “Institutions” and “Adult Privilege”. They have officially approved other wheels such as the “African American/Black Power and Control Wheel”, the “Amish/Plain Community Power and Control Wheel”, and even a “Women in Politics Power and Control Wheel”. There are also many unofficial wheels developed by various groups expert in a particular domain, including the “Abuse Later in Life”, “Teen Power and Control Wheel”, “Deaf Power and Control Wheel”, which is pictorial rather than text based, “People with Disabilities in Partner Relationships”, and a “Violence Against Native Women: Battering” model, which alters the entire shape into a triangle to better incorporate cultural and ritual components of abuse.
Certain situations can change aspects of the Power and Control wheel, giving the abuser particular ammunition through which to employ their domination. The “Post-Separation Power and Control” wheel is a good example of a wheel tailored to specific circumstances, namely when the victim is no longer together with their abuser. This is, again, a very gendered wheel and presumes that the former couple have children together, necessitating a continued connection. Six of the eight tactics on this wheel focus on the children, while the other two mention them as an aspect. It adds a ring between the tactics and the rim of violence (now “Prior Physical & Sexual Violence & Coercive & Controlling Behavior Against Mother & Child(ren)”) of “Unrelenting Focus on Her”. It also makes the wheel 3D by including a foundation of “Systems & Institutions”. Other DAIP approved example include an “Economic Abuse” wheel, an even more specific “Post-Separation Economic Abuse” wheel, and an “Abuse of Animals” wheel, which incorporates both the suffering of the animals and how the abuser uses this to control their human victim by exploiting their bond with the animal(s).
Equality Wheel & Other Positive Wheels
Along with the many variations on Power and Control Wheels showing the negative aspects of an abusive relationship, DAIP also created the Equality Wheel to show the dynamics of a healthy relationship. According to former DAIP Executive Director Melissa Scaia, the Equality Wheel was a response to women in their support groups not knowing what an alternative to their experience might look like and wanting examples. It is directly relatable to the other wheels, and thus, easily compared. Each wedge of the Equality Wheel has a corresponding wedge of the Power and Control Wheel with the opposite quality. “Intimidation” on the Power and Control Wheel correlates to its counterpart “Non-Threatening Behavior” on the Equality Wheel. “Emotional Abuse” is contrasted with “Respect”, “Isolation” with “Trust and Support”, “Minimizing, Denying, & Blaming” with “Honesty & Accountability”, “Using Children” with “Responsible Parenting”. They juxtaposed “Male Privilege” with “Shared Responsibility”, “Economic Abuse” with “Economic Partnership”, “Coercion & Threats” with “Negotiation & Fairness”, and, of course, in the encircling black rim, “Violence” with “Nonviolence”. DAIP was attempting to show abusers the changes they could make to achieve a positive, abuse-free relationship.
DAIP also displayed this direct contrast in their Creator wheel, which places the corresponding aspects of the Power and Control and Equality wheels next to each other and further demarcates the tactics into four quarters, which are then related to harmony of the community and the environment when the positive behaviors are followed. In contrast to the Abuse of Children wheel, they developed the Nurturing Children wheel. As with the Power and Control and Equality wheels, these two contrast directly, showing the opposite abusive and healthy tactics. Another DAIP approved wheel is an LGBTQ+ version of the equality wheel, dubbed the “Equality and Accountability Wheel”. Developed by Thorne Harbour Health for their LGBTI Family Violence Program for gay men, it incorporates aspects of the class, such as “Partner Advocate Support” and “Behavior Change Program Facilitators”, and the rim of “Non-Violence” is surrounded by an additional rainbow rim of “Positive Messages About LGBTI People, Relationships, & Rainbow Families”.
The sheer detail and number of variations on this seemingly streamlined model of abuse speaks to the complexity of the issue. The Power and Control wheel seeks to depict the numerous tactics, how they work together, and how they are reinforced. It can be confusing and/or overwhelming in its intricacies, but is a valuable tool for both victims and abusers to recognize the complexity of their own experience and what changes they can make for the better. Many domestic violence survivors say that after seeing the Power and Control wheel, what happened to them made a lot more sense (Hyde County Hotline). The wheel is a deeper dive into particulars that acts as a counterpart to the Cycle of Abuse model in an attempt to better understand this dense and dark issue.
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