Abusive power and control

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Abusive power and control (also controlling behavior and coercive control) is commonly used by an abusive person to gain and maintain power and control over another person in order to subject that victim to psychological, physical, sexual, or financial abuse. The motivations of the abuser are varied and can include devaluation, envy, personal gain, personal gratification, psychological projection, or just for the sake of the enjoyment of exercising power and control.[1]

Controlling abusers use tactics to exert power and control over their victims. The tactics themselves are psychologically and sometimes physically abusive. Control may be helped through economic abuse thus limiting the victim's actions as they may then lack the necessary resources to resist the abuse.[2] The goal of the abuser is to control and intimidate the victim or to influence them to feel that they do not have an equal voice in the relationship.[3]

Manipulators and abusers often control their victims with a range of tactics, including, but not limited to, positive reinforcement (such as praise, superficial charm, flattery, ingratiation, love bombing, smiling, gifts, attention), negative reinforcement, intermittent or partial reinforcement, psychological punishment (such as nagging, silent treatment, swearing, threats, intimidation, emotional blackmail, guilt trips, inattention) and traumatic tactics (such as verbal abuse or explosive anger).[4]

The vulnerabilities of the victim are exploited with those who are particularly vulnerable being most often selected as targets.[4][5][6] Traumatic bonding (also popularly known as Stockholm syndrome) can occur between the abuser and victim as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change and a climate of fear.[7] An attempt may be made to normalise, legitimise, rationalise, deny, or minimise the abusive behaviour, or blame the victim for it.[8][9][10]

Isolation, gaslighting, mind games, lying, disinformation, propaganda, destabilisation, brainwashing, and divide and rule are other strategies that are often used. The victim may be plied with alcohol or drugs or deprived of sleep to help disorientate them.[11][12] Based on statistical evidence, certain personality disorders correlate with abusive tendencies of individuals with those specific personality disorders when also compiled with abusive childhoods themselves. [13]

The seriousness of coercive control in modern Western societies has been increasingly realised with changes to the law in several countries so it is a definable criminal offence. In conjunction with this there have been increased attempts by the legal establishment to understand the characteristics and effects of coercive control in legal terminology. For example, on January 1, 2019, Ireland enacted the Domestic Violence Act 2018, which allowed for the practice of coercive control to be identifiable based upon its effects on the victim. And on this basis defining it as: 'any evidence of deterioration in the physical, psychological or emotional welfare of the applicant or a dependent person which is caused directly by fear of the behaviour of the respondent'.[14] On a similar basis of attempting to understand and stop the widespread practice of coercive control, in 2019, the UK government made teaching about what coercive control was a mandatory part of the education syllabus on relationships.[15] While coercive control is often considered in the context of an existing intimate relationship, when it is used to elicit a sexual encounter it is legally considered as being a constituent part of sexual abuse or rape. When it is used to begin and maintain a longer term intimate relationship it is considered to be a constituent element of sexual slavery.

Institutional abuse[edit]

Institutional abuse is the maltreatment of a person (often children or older adults) from a system of power.[16] This can range from acts similar to home-based child abuse, such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and starvation, to the effects of assistance programs working below acceptable service standards, or relying on harsh or unfair ways to modify behavior.[16]


In December 2015, controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship was made illegal in England and Wales.[17][18] In 2018, Jordan Worth became the first woman to be convicted under this new law.

In the United States, to assist in preventing and stopping domestic violence with children, there have been laws put into place to mandate report in specific professions, such as teacher, doctor, or care provider, any suspected abuse happening in the home. [19]

Caring professions[edit]

According to anti-bullying author and activist Tim Field, bullies are attracted to the caring professions, such as medicine, by the opportunities to exercise power over vulnerable clients, and over vulnerable employees and students.[20]

In an intimate relationship[edit]


The power and control "wheel" was developed in 1982 by the Domestic Abuse Program in Minneapolis to explain the nature of abuse, to delineate the forms of abuse used to control another person, and to educate people with the goal of stopping violence and abuse. The model is used in many batterer intervention programs and is known as the Duluth model.[21] Power and control is generally present with violent physical and sexual abuse.[22]

Control development[edit]

Often the abusers are initially attentive, charming, and loving, gaining the trust of the individual that will ultimately become the victim, also known as the survivor. When there is a connection and a degree of trust, the abusers become unusually involved in their partner's feelings, thoughts, and actions.[7] Next, they set petty rules and exhibit "pathological jealousy". A conditioning process begins with alternation of loving followed by abusive behavior. According to Counselling Survivors of Domestic Abuse, "These serve to confuse the survivor leading to potent conditioning processes that impact on the survivor's self-structure and cognitive schemas." The abuser projects responsibility for the abuse onto the victim, or survivor, and the denigration and negative projections become incorporated into the survivor's self-image.[7]

Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.[7]

Gain trust Overinvolvement Petty rules and jealousy Manipulation, power, and control Traumatic bonding
The potential abuser is attentive, loving, charming → The abuser becomes overly involved in the daily life and use of time → Rules begin to be inserted to begin control of the relationship. Jealousy is considered by the abuser to be "an act of love" → The victim is blamed for the abuser's behavior and becomes coerced and manipulated → Ongoing cycles of abuse can lead to traumatic bonding


Tactics of violent and non-violent relationships[23][3]
Power and control in violent relationships[24]

Controlling abusers use multiple tactics to exert power and control over their partners. According to Jill Cory and Karen McAndless-Davis, authors of When Love Hurts: A Woman's Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships: Each of the tactics within the power and control wheel are used to "maintain power and control in the relationship. No matter what tactics your partner uses, the effect is to control and intimidate you or to influence you to feel that you do not have an equal voice in the relationship."[3]

Coercion and threats[edit]

A tool for exerting control and power is the use of threats and coercion. The victim may be subject to threats that they will be left, hurt, or reported to welfare. The abuser may threaten that they will commit suicide. They may also coerce them to perform illegal actions or to drop charges that they may have against their abuser.[25] Strangulation, a particularly pernicious abusive behavior in which the abuser literally has the victim's life in his hands, is an extreme form of abusive control. Sorenson and colleagues have called strangulation the domestic violence equivalent of waterboarding, which is widely considered to be a form of torture.[26]

At its most effective, the abuser creates intimidation and fear through unpredictable and inconsistent behavior.[7] Absolute control may be sought by any of four types of sadists: explosive, enforcing, tyrannical, or spineless sadists. The victims are at risk of anxiety, dissociation, depression, shame, low self-esteem, and suicidal ideation.[27]


Abused individuals may be intimidated by the brandishing of weapons, destruction of their property or other things, or use of gestures or looks to create fear.[25] For example, threatening to use a gun or simply displaying the weapon is a form of intimidation and coercive control.[28]

Economic abuse[edit]

An effective means of ensuring control and power over another is to control their access to money. One method is to prevent the victim from getting or retaining a job. Controlling their access to money can also be done by withholding information and access to family income, taking their money, requiring the person to ask for money, giving them an allowance, or filing a power of attorney or conservatorship, particularly in the case of economic abuse of the elderly.[25]

Emotional abuse[edit]

Emotional abuse includes name-calling, playing mind games, putting the victim down, or humiliating the individual. The goals are to make the person feel badly about themselves, feel guilty, or think that they are crazy.[25] Various studies done by psychologists, such as Angela Kent and Glenn Waller, as well as Hart and Bassard, have found more connections between emotional abuse in childhood being carried into adulthood in professional and personal lives. [29]


Another element of psychological control is the isolation of the victim from the outside world.[22] Isolation includes controlling a person's social activity: who they see, who they talk to, where they go, and any other method to limit their access to others. It may also include limiting what material is read.[25] It can include insisting on knowing where they are and requiring permission for medical care. The abuser exhibits hypersensitive and reactive jealousy.[22]

Minimizing, denying, and blaming[edit]

The abuser may deny the abuse occurred in order to attempt to place the responsibility for their behavior on the victim. Minimizing concerns or the degree of the abuse is another aspect of this control.[25]

Using children and pets[edit]

Children may be used to exert control by the abuser threatening to take the children or making them feel guilty about the children. It could include harassing them during visitation or using the children to relay messages. Another controlling tactic is abusing pets.[25]

Using privilege[edit]

Using "privilege" means that the abuser defines the roles in the relationship, makes the important decisions, treats the individual like a servant, and acts like the "master of the castle".[25]

Psychological warfare[edit]


The practice of repression in Zersetzung comprised extensive and secret methods of control and psychological manipulation, including personal relationships of the target, for which the Stasi relied upon its network of informal collaborators,[30] (in German inoffizielle Mitarbeiter or IM), the state's power over institutions, and on operational psychology. Using targeted psychological attacks the Stasi tried to deprive a dissident of any chance of a "hostile action".

Serial killers[edit]

The main objective for one type of serial killer is to gain and exert power over their victim. Such killers are sometimes abused as children, leaving them with feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy as adults.[31] Many power or control-motivated killers sexually abuse their victims, but they differ from hedonistic killers in that rape is not motivated by lust (as it would be with a lust murder), but as simply another form of dominating the victim.[32] (See article causes of sexual violence for the differences regarding anger rape, power rape, and sadistic rape.) Ted Bundy is an example of a power/control-oriented serial killer.

In the workplace[edit]

A power and control model has been developed for the workplace, divided into the following categories:[33]

  • overt actions
  • covert actions
  • emotional control
  • isolation
  • economic control
  • tactics
  • restriction
  • management privilege

Workplace psychopaths[edit]

The authors of the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work describe a five-phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power:[34]

  1. Entry – psychopath will use highly developed social skills and charm to obtain employment into an organisation. At this stage it will be difficult to spot anything that is indicative of psychopathic behaviour, and as a new employee one might perceive the psychopath to be helpful and even benevolent.
  2. Assessment – psychopath will weigh one up according to one's usefulness, and one could be recognised as either a pawn (who has some informal influence and will be easily manipulated) or a patron (who has formal power and will be used by the psychopath for protection against attacks)
  3. Manipulation – psychopath will create a scenario of "psychopathic fiction" where positive information about themselves and negative disinformation about others will be created, where one's role as a part of a network of pawns or patrons will be used and one will be groomed into accepting the psychopath's agenda.
  4. Confrontation – the psychopath will use techniques of character assassination to maintain an agenda, and one will be either discarded as a pawn or used as a patron
  5. Ascension – one's role as a patron in the psychopath's quest for power will be discarded, and the psychopath will usurp a position of power and prestige from anyone who once supported them.

Personality psychology[edit]

-In the study of personality psychology, certain personality disorders display characteristics involving the need to gain compliance or control over others:[35]

Psychological manipulation[edit]

Braiker identified the following ways that manipulators control their victims:[4]

Since the Technological Revolution, online communities have expanded, along with it, online psychological manipulation. Algorithms are being made to detect key phrases, words, images, or "gifs" that contribute to psychological manipulation happening in social media and within online communities.[38]

Manipulators may have:[4]

  • a strong need to attain feelings of power and superiority in relationships with others
  • a want and need to feel in control
  • a desire to gain a feeling of power over others in order to raise their perception of self-esteem.

Emotional blackmail[edit]

Emotional blackmail is a term coined by psychotherapist Susan Forward, about controlling people in relationships and the theory that fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG) are the transactional dynamics at play between the controller and the person being controlled. Understanding these dynamics is useful to anyone trying to extricate themselves from the controlling behavior of another person, and deal with their own compulsions to do things that are uncomfortable, undesirable, burdensome, or self-sacrificing for others.[39]

Forward and Frazier identify four blackmail types each with their own mental manipulation style:[40]

Type Examples
Punisher's threat Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll hurt you.
Self-punisher's threat Eat the food I cooked for you or I'll hurt myself.
Sufferer's threat Eat the food I cooked for you. I was saving it for myself. I wonder what will happen now?
Tantalizer's threat Eat the food I cooked for you and you just may get a really yummy dessert.

There are different levels of demands – demands that are of little consequence, demands that involve important issues or personal integrity, demands that affect major life decisions, and/or demands that are dangerous or illegal.[39]

Silent treatment[edit]

The silent treatment is sometimes used as a control mechanism. When so used, it constitutes a passive-aggressive action characterized by the coupling of nonverbal, but nonetheless unambiguous indications of the presence of negative emotion, with the refusal to discuss the scenario triggering those emotions and, when the source of those emotions is unclear to the other party, occasionally the refusal to clarify it or even to identify that source at all. As a result, the perpetrator of the silent treatment denies the victim both the opportunity to negotiate an after-the-fact settlement of the grievance in question and the ability to modify one's future behavior to avoid giving further offense. In especially severe cases, even if the victim gives in and accedes to the perpetrator's initial demands, the perpetrator may continue the silent treatment so as to deny the victim feedback indicating that those demands have been satisfied. The silent treatment thereby enables its perpetrator to cause hurt, obtain ongoing attention in the form of repeated attempts by the victim to restore dialogue, maintain a position of power through creating uncertainty over how long the verbal silence and associated impossibility of resolution will last, and derive the satisfaction that the perpetrator associates with each of these consequences.[41]

Love bombing[edit]

The expression has been used to describe the tactics used by pimps and gang members to control their victims,[42] as well as to describe the behavior of an abusive narcissist who tries to win the confidence of a victim.[43][44] In 2016, Claire Strutzenberg performed a study researching "love bombing" within the young adult age group 18 to 30 at college. She found in this study that this age group tended to communicate regularly at the start of the relationship, but as the relationship went on, one of the partners tended to passively push more toward being more dominant over the other partner gradually working toward "love bombing." [45]

Mind games[edit]

One sense of mind games is a largely conscious struggle for psychological one-upmanship, often employing passive–aggressive behavior to specifically demoralize or dis-empower the thinking subject, making the aggressor look superior; also referred to as "power games".[46]

In intimate relationships, mind games can be used to undermine one partner's belief in the validity of their own perceptions,[47] often referred to as 'gaslighting'. Personal experience may be denied and driven from memory;[48] and such abusive mind games may extend to denial of the victim's reality, social undermining, and the trivializing of what is felt to be important.[49] Both sexes have equal opportunities for such verbal coercion,[50] which may be carried out unconsciously as a result of the need to maintain one's own self-deception.[51]

Divide and conquer[edit]

A primary strategy the narcissist uses to assert control, particularly within their family, is to create divisions among individuals. This weakens and isolates each of them, making it easier for the narcissist to manipulate and dominate. Some are favoured, others are scapegoated. Such dynamics can play out in a workplace setting.[52]

Human trafficking[edit]

The use of coercion by perpetrators and traffickers involves the use of extreme control. Perpetrators expose the victim to high amounts of psychological stress induced by threats, fear, and physical and emotional violence. Tactics of coercion are reportedly used in three phases of trafficking: recruitment, initiation, and indoctrination.[53] During the initiation phase, traffickers use foot-in-the-door techniques of persuasion to lead their victims into various trafficking industries. This manipulation creates an environment where the victim becomes completely dependent upon the authority of the trafficker.[53] Traffickers take advantage of family dysfunction, homelessness, and history of childhood abuse to psychologically manipulate women and children into the trafficking industry.[54]

The goal of a trafficker is to turn a human being into a slave. To do this, perpetrators employ tactics that can lead to the psychological consequence of learned helplessness for the victims, where they sense that they no longer have any autonomy or control over their lives.[54] Traffickers may hold their victims captive, expose them to large amounts of alcohol or use drugs, keep them in isolation, or withhold food or sleep.[54] During this time the victim often begins to feel the onset of depression, guilt and self-blame, anger and rage, and sleep disturbances, PTSD, numbing, and extreme stress. Under these pressures, the victim can fall into the hopeless mental state of learned helplessness.[53][55][56]

Children are especially vulnerable to these developmental and psychological consequences of trafficking because they are so young. In order to gain complete control of the child, traffickers often destroy physical and mental health of the children through persistent physical and emotional abuse.[57] Stockholm syndrome is also a common problem for girls while they are trafficked, which can hinder them from both trying to escape, and moving forward in psychological recovery programs.[58]


Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.[59]


An essential prerequisite of bullying is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power.[60][61]

Control freaks[edit]

Control freaks are often perfectionists[62] defending themselves against their own inner vulnerabilities in the belief that if they are not in total control they risk exposing themselves once more to childhood angst.[63] Such persons manipulate and pressure others to change so as to avoid having to change themselves,[64] and use power over others to escape an inner emptiness.[65] When a control freak's pattern is broken, the controller is left with a terrible feeling of powerlessness, but feeling their pain and fear brings them back to themselves.[66]

In terms of personality-type theory, control freaks are very much the Type A personality, driven by the need to dominate and control.[67] An obsessive need to control others is also associated with antisocial personality disorder.[68]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]