The Power and Control Wheel: A Key Tool in Recognising Abuse

Person on the ground with hands raised defensively, facing another's clenched fist.

Every day, many people face the tough reality of abusive relationships. It’s not just about visible hurts like black eyes, but also deeper pains that no one sees. Some people go through tough emotional struggles without telling anyone. This is where the “Power and Control Wheel” helps. It explains the many ways abusers control others. As we explore this tool, we’ll see what it’s made of, where it comes from, and why it’s so important

The Origin of the Power and Control Wheel: Laying the Foundation

The perception of Domestic abuse changed in the 1980s. Before then, people mostly thought of abuse as just physical harm. They didn’t really see the hidden, mind games part of it. Some experts helping victims saw something was missing. They knew we needed a way to understand more than just the physical side, to see the deeper connections keeping victims stuck with their abusers.

So, the “Power and Control Wheel” was created in Duluth, Minnesota. The team at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs saw that abusers used many different ways to control. They understood abuse wasn’t just about hitting or hurting. It was about always wanting to be in charge, using mind games, feelings, money, and even intimate moments.

The Power and Control Wheel: Its Impact and Evolution


This was a big change in how we saw domestic abuse. We now had a clear picture that showed all the linked ways abuse can happen. It wasn’t just for people who had been hurt. Teachers, therapists, and community helpers also found it really helpful. The wheel made us realise that domestic violence wasn’t just about one-off hurts. It showed us the whole pattern of controlling actions.

As time passed, the “Power and Control Wheel” proved how strong and useful it was. At first, it was mainly about relationships where men hurt women. But the main ideas were important to everyone. So, new versions of the wheel were made for different kinds of relationships and cultures. This shows just how big an impact and how long lasting the wheel has been in talks about domestic abuse.

Using Intimidation: The Veiled Threats and Underlying Fear

Intimidation is a crafty tool, often subtle, yet powerfully potent. While some may visualise it as overt threats or physical harm, it frequently manifests in more covert ways. The clenched fist, the sharp glint in the eye, or even the deliberate smashing of an object—all send a clear message of potential harm. By leveraging these tactics, the abuser creates an environment where the victim is in constant anticipation of a possible threat. This perpetual state of unease not only keeps the victim submissive but also reinforces the abuser’s dominant position, making their hold on the relationship even firmer.

Using Emotional Abuse: The Slow and Steady Erosion of Self-Worth

Emotional abuse can be sneaky, often hidden until it really hurts. Small mean jokes or rude remarks can turn into regular put-downs. After a while, the person being hurt starts to believe these mean words. They question their own value and even how they see things. The person doing the harm might sometimes act nice, which is confusing. The one being hurt feels a mix of hope and sadness. They become unsure of themselves, looking for approval from the same person hurting them.

Using Isolation: Cutting Ties and Building Walls

Isolation isn’t just about being kept away from others. It slowly cuts off the person from everyone else. The one doing the harm might first say bad things about a friend or say they shouldn’t see family. After a while, these ‘tips’ become rules. The harmful person controls who they talk to, where they go, and who they meet. As the person loses their friends and family support, they feel trapped in their mind and place. With fewer people to talk to, they start to see things the way the harmful person wants. Being isolated makes the person rely more on the one hurting them and keeps others from seeing what’s happening.

Minimising, Denying, and Blaming: The Abuser’s Smoke and Mirrors

One other method is making things seem less bad, denying, or blaming others. Abusers might say their actions aren’t that bad or that the hurt person is overreacting or making things up. By making the bad actions seem smaller, they try to change the way the hurt person sees things. If saying it didn’t happen doesn’t work, they might say it’s the hurt person’s fault. They might say things like “You made me do this” or “It’s because you…”. This does two things: it says the abuser did nothing wrong and makes the hurt person feel it’s their fault.

Using Children: The Most Vulnerable Pawns

In relationships where children are involved, they can become unwilling tools in the abuser’s strategy. Threatening to take the children away, using them to relay hurtful messages, or even manipulating them to side against the other parent are common tactics. By targeting the children, the abuser not only exerts control over the immediate victim but also instils deep-seated fear and anxiety. After all, for many, the idea of harm coming to their children or being separated from them is a terror beyond compare.

Economic Abuse: Strangling Financial Independence

Economic abuse is a potent yet often overlooked facet of domestic violence. By controlling finances, limiting access to money, or sabotaging employment opportunities, the abuser ensures the victim’s financial dependence. This dependency means that even if the victim recognises the abuse, escaping becomes a Herculean task. Without financial resources, the fears of homelessness, deprivation, and even custody battles over children can be overwhelming, tethering the victim to the abuser.

Asserting Male Privilege: An Age-Old Tactic

In many societies, patriarchal norms can be co-opted as tools of abuse. An abuser might assert the so-called ‘male privilege’, dictating the roles and responsibilities of everyone in the household. By casting themselves as the “master of the castle”, they justify their control over every aspect of family life. This assertion not only marginalises the victim but also enforces a skewed power dynamic, backed by societal expectations.

Using Coercion and Threats: Living on the Edge

Coercion involves pressuring the victim into doing something against their will, often backed by threats. Whether it’s a threat of physical harm, outing someone’s secrets, or even hints of self-harm or suicide by the abuser, coercion is a powerful tool. Living under the constant shadow of impending doom or repercussions, the victim is coerced into submission, always anxious, always alert.

The Empowering Counterpart: The Equality Wheel

While the “Power and Control Wheel” is a critical instrument in identifying and understanding abusive tactics, there’s a brighter side to this discourse. The “Equality Wheel” stands as its empowering counterpart, shedding light on the foundations of a healthy, respectful relationship. By juxtaposing these two tools, we not only expose the grim realities of abuse but also illuminate the path towards positive change.

Equality, Respect, and Partnership

At the heart of the “Equality Wheel” lies mutual respect. It champions open communication, trust, and shared responsibilities. Unlike its counterpart, where power is centralised, the Equality Wheel stresses on a partnership built on mutual understanding and support. Every segment of this wheel – be it emotional intimacy, shared parenting, or economic partnership – reinforces the idea that relationships thrive in an atmosphere of equality and respect.

Towards a Brighter Future: Knowledge as the Catalyst

The “Power and Control Wheel” and the “Equality Wheel” serve a vital purpose. By equipping individuals with knowledge, they help identify abuse, understand its intricate patterns, and seek out healthier dynamics. For those trapped in the web of an abusive relationship, recognising these patterns is the first step towards seeking help and healing.

For friends, families, and witnesses, these tools provide a lens to spot the often subtle signs of abuse. Armed with this understanding, they can offer support, empathy, and guidance, acting as pillars of strength in a victim’s journey out of the shadows.













Copyright by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project
202 East Superior Street, Duluth, MN, 55802
218-722-2781

Conclusion: From Awareness to Action

Understanding abuse isn’t just about recognising its dark manifestations. Also, it’s about envisioning and nurturing relationships anchored in respect, trust, and love. The “Power and Control Wheel” offers invaluable insights into the undercurrents of domestic abuse. Yet, it’s the transition from this awareness to proactive action, propelled by tools like the “Equality Wheel,” that paves the way for positive, lasting change.

Domestic abuse presents a daunting challenge, but with knowledge, empathy, and collective action, we move closer to a world where love shines brighter than fear. The countless stories shared with us here at the Criminal Injuries Helpline underscore the need for such comprehensive frameworks that can offer both clarity and direction. Knowledge and awareness is key in ensuring love, trust and respect form the foundations of all relationships.

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