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Roamers Therapy | March 2024

Intimate relationships provide mutual support and fulfillment and promote positive growth and development for both partners. However, power and control might negatively affect this positive growth and development for the oppressed partner and lead the relationship to a bottleneck. Use of power and control one another is possible, especially when either partner struggles with emotional intimacy, attachment issues, trauma, or mental health conditions. Power and control can emerge in various forms, including physical, emotional, and sexual, with or without the oppressed partner’s awareness. In this therapy sketch, we will discuss the various forms of power and control manifestations, reasons for exerting power and control over the partner, the consequences of exerting power, and how it can be managed. 

What is the power and control in the relationship context?

Let’s start defining control and power in the context of intimate relationships. We can define control as attempting or influencing the other partner’s behavior in a way that the other partner does not deem desirable. Despite there being no common view for the definition of power in an intimate relationship context, we can still summarize it as a source of potential behavior in relationships that stem from each other. You can think about the difference between these, as power and control are closely related. However, some differences distinguish them from each other. It is often believed that whoever holds the power in a relationship is in control, but this is not always the case. People who struggle for control of their environment often do so because they might feel out of control internally. They might be experiencing intense thoughts and emotions that they do not know how to handle, so they instead focus their energy on controlling their environment to feel more secure. On the other hand, those who feel powerless might try to exert their dominance over their environment and the people around them to compensate for their feelings of powerlessness. If an individual is leading a well-balanced and happy life, they are less likely to feel the urge to control their environment and the people around them. Similarly, people who feel the need to control others often feel they are not in control over the situation.

We mention that people who exert power and control over another person often behave this way due to low self-esteem, insecurity, and feeling powerless. Other than feeling powerlessness, other underlying factors may contribute to controlling behavior. These factors may include:

  • Anxiety: People who suffer from anxiety tend to ruminate over the unknown. To deal with the anxiety, a person might try to control their environment and the people around them to provide a feeling of security for themselves.
  • Learned behavior: Unhealthy behaviors are often learned from the environments we grew up in. The individual exerting the power and control over their partner may have grown up in an abusive environment where they were taught that controlling behavior is normal. 
  • Trauma: People who experience trauma may struggle with feelings of despair, anxiety, and hopelessness. Engaging in controlling behaviors may be the person’s way of taking their power back.

Manifestations of Control and Power in the Relationship?

Controlling and exerting power in relationships can occur in various forms during relationships. Every relationship dynamic is different due to characteristics and communication between partners. However, there are some forms of occurrence of these two abusive patterns that we can observe in literature and risk screenings. Frequently, one controlling behavior is accompanied by different abusive behaviors of the other partner’s space, freedom, or identity. According to the Power and Control wheel created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, there are 8 manifestations of power and control tactics in relationships to achieve dominance over one another. We will try to explain these tactics in one sentence and how these tactics, further down the wheel, can lead to physical or sexual violence. 

  • Coercion and Threats: This manipulative type of persuasion influences the oppressed partner’s ideas or behavior in line with the controlling partner’s ideas or behavior. To do so, the controlling partner might use threats such as breaking up, committing suicide, or separating the children from the oppressed partner if they have children. At times, the oppressed partner may also engage in coercion and threats as a form of reactive abuse. 
  • Intimidation: Intimidation is a tactic to overcome the oppressed partner’s resistance by showing different aggressive attitudes, such as making terrifying facial expressions and yelling, hitting, or kicking items.  
  • Emotional Abuse: Emotional abuse is a way of manipulating the oppressed partner’s self-esteem and perception of reality. 
  • Isolation: Isolation is a way of powering off other people around the oppressed partner by preventing contact with loved ones and minimizing outside contact. 
  • Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming: Minimizing, denying, and blaming might seem like different strategies used by a controlling partner, but all three have the same goal: shifting the responsibility of the event that goes wrong to the oppressed partner.  
  • Using Children: Using children is a tactic to interrupt the relationship to give punishment to the oppressed partner, or as mentioned in the “coercion and threats” part, it can be used as a strategy for controlling the partner to get what they want. 
  • Economic Abuse: Economic abuse is a way of controlling a household by holding money to enable oppressed partner autonomy. In order to do so, the controlling partner might prevent the oppressed partner from getting a job. Alternatively, the way economic abuse occurs when a non-working partner refuses to contribute financially to the household and financially exploits the oppressed partner. 
  • Male privilege: It is a way to dominate an oppressed partner by making them feel they’re not equal to the controlling partner.

These are just tactics for control and power. But physical and sexual violence is a form of abuse that encompasses them all. Together with these tactics, it creates great fear in the oppressed partner. This fear can also come from not knowing how far the controlling partner will go. Usually, most of the above tactics are already used in the case of violence. Identifying whether or not these tactics are being utilized can be very important in a relationship.

Identifying Warning Signs

For those who have been in a long-term relationship where controlling behaviors are present, it might be more difficult to identify the signs of abuse because the receiving partner has become used to the behavior. Additionally, if a person is dating someone new, they might be so infatuated with their new partner that they brush off the warning signs of a controlling relationship. Some of these warning signs include:

  • Demanding to know where and what you are doing all the time.
  • Monitoring devices/technology such as email and social media accounts.
  • Dictating what you do, where you go, and when.
  • Controlling finances.
  • Making threats to either hurt you or your loved ones.
  • Using insults or belittling you to destroy your self-esteem.
  • Isolating you from friends and family.

What might be the consequences of exerting power and control to the other? 

In a healthy relationship, both partners must acknowledge and respect the individual identities of the other. While relationships are about working together, each partner still has their own identity, and neither partner should exert too much control over the other. To make a relationship flourish, each person must remember that their partner is a person, not a possession. When one partner exerts too much power and manipulates the other by using the tactics mentioned above, this becomes a form of abuse. Controlling relationships can have devastating and long-term effects on the individual on the receiving end of the behavior. Some of the effects include:

  • Feelings of shame/fear/hopelessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in mood
  • Insomnia/sleep disturbances
  • Social withdrawal/loneliness
  • Guilt
  • General anxiety
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

How to manage power and control dynamics?

If you experience power and control over your life from your partner in the long term, you might feel this attitude is chronic and not open to change. You may even have rationalized this controlling behavior with phrases such as “My partner is doing this for my own good; my partner cares about me.” However, if you realize that controlling behaviors are unhealthy and your partner’s behavior is causing both your relationship and your own life to go downhill, maybe it’s time to take matters into your own hands. 

Keep a diary about which areas of your life are you in control of

Keeping a diary about which areas of your life you are in control of is a great way to become aware of your role in your relationship and your life itself. Writing “I can control….” sentences will help you organize your thoughts. You can identify which part of your life you are controlling and which part your partner is. It can also help you understand if you are comfortable with it and help you explore areas you never thought of. 

Remember that being in a relationship does not mean that you give up your individuality completely.

Being in a relationship does not mean giving up your own individual needs, goals, and passions.

Personal space is very crucial in relationships. It helps partners have a healthier mindset, and having a space apart from the relationship gives you the independence to pursue personal growth outside of the relationship, meaning that your life is not completely dependent on the relationship. Set personal boundaries at the beginning of the relationship by asking your partner to respect them and not violate them. 

Re-setting your Boundaries 

Being able to say no is a form of self-defense. It is a mechanism that protects our needs and goals and also protects us from situations that make us uncomfortable. One form of boundary setting is being able to say no. When used correctly, saying no serves our physical, spiritual, and relational needs. If you don’t know where to say no, try writing down a memory where you regret not saying no. You will see that, at some point, your emotions will let you know something is wrong. Whether this emotion is anger, sadness, or regret, it signals a boundary violation. If you still don’t know how to say it, try using I language to express your needs and write them down. 

Using effective communication skills to set boundaries

Expressing yourself clearly without being judgemental might be a good start to setting boundaries if you feel you are about to lose control over your relationship. Explaining feelings, needs, and thoughts without making strong accusations might help your partner to form empathy. Also, this might lead your partner to mimic you and express their feelings. Hearing feelings rather than decisions and accusations might help you and your partner to connect on a deeper level and better understanding. Forming the right communication with your partner is important for the arguments not to turn into big fights and helps both sides to be on the same page about responsibilities, expectations, and how to deal with discomforting events. 

Focus on how to self-soothe

Saying no or setting boundaries can strain your relationship with another person. However, when you try to moderate the negative consequences of your partner’s behavior to avoid strained relationships, you would deny your partner the opportunity to grow and learn. If you avoid sharing your thoughts and feelings because you are afraid of hurting your partner’s feelings, you might lose your chance to show the importance of your boundaries. In short, saying no or setting boundaries can naturally create anxiety or worry for you or your partner. However, coping with these feelings by stepping back into your personal space, talking to someone you love, doing an activity you love, or taking a look at mindfulness practices can lead to greater personal growth for both you and your partner. 

In conclusion, balance of power is an important predictor of the quality of intimate relationships.  It is possible a person’s upbringing, past trauma, or own mental well-being can greatly impact the power dynamic of a relationship. However, just because power and control tactics are chronically used in a relationship does not mean controlling behavior is acceptable to the other partner. It is important for both partners to remember that no one should feel controlled, belittled, or unsafe in any relationship.  Regardless of whether you are the person on the receiving end of the behavior or the person exerting the controlling behaviors, it is important to make interventions and seek help before the situation escalates out of control. Once the first step to receiving help has been taken, you and your partner are already on your way to enhancing your relationship.

While our physical offices are located in South Loop and Lakeview neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois for in-person sessions, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more.  

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.