Domestic Abuse

How It Works: The Dynamics

Domestic abuse occurs when one person in an intimate relationship seeks to dominate and control the other person. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear down and gain control over the victim.

Victims of domestic abuse are more often women, although men can be victimized as well. Domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate. It happens in heterosexual and in same-sex relationships, among people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, educational backgrounds and financial levels.

The abuse may occur during the relationship, while the couple is breaking up, or after the relationship has ended. Despite what many people believe, domestic abuse is not the result of the abuser’s loss of control over his behavior. In fact, violence is a deliberate choice made by the abuser in order to assert power and maintain control over the victim.

Many abusers use intoxication as an excuse for their abuse of their intimate partner. Alcohol or drug use does not cause domestic abuse, although the abuse may be exacerbated by the abuser’s substance abuse.

Domestic abuse is used for one purpose: to gain and maintain total control over the victim. In addition to physical violence, abusers use the following tactics to exert power over their partners:

  • Dominance — Abusive individuals need to feel in charge of the relationship. They will make decisions for you and the family, tell you what to do, and expect you to obey without question. Your abuser may treat you like a servant, child, or even as his possession.
  • Humiliation — An abuser will do everything he can to make you feel bad about yourself, or defective in some way. After all, if you believe you're worthless and that no one else will want you, you're less likely to leave. Insults, name-calling, shaming, and public put-downs are all weapons of abuse designed to erode your self-esteem and make you feel powerless.
  • Isolation — In order to increase your dependence on him, an abusive partner will cut you off from the outside world. He may keep you from seeing family or friends, or may even prevent you from going to work or school. You may have to ask permission to do anything, go anywhere, or see anyone.
  • Threats — Abusers commonly use threats to keep their victims from leaving or to scare them into dropping charges. Your abuser may threaten to hurt or kill you, your children, other family members, or even pets. He may also threaten to commit suicide, file false charges against you, or report you to child protection services.
  • Intimidation — Your abuser may use a variety of intimidation tactics designed to scare you into submission. Such tactics include making threatening looks or gestures, smashing things in front of you, destroying property, hurting your pets, or putting weapons on display. The clear message is that if you don't obey, there will be violent consequences.
  • Denial and blame — Abusers are very good at making excuses for the inexcusable. They will blame their abusive and violent behavior on a bad childhood, a bad day, and even on the victims of their abuse. Your abuser may minimize the abuse or deny that it occurred. He will commonly shift the responsibility onto you: somehow, his violence and abuse is your fault.

The following Power and Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in Duluth, Minnesota show tactics commonly used by abusers to achieve and maintain control over their partner.

By contrast, the Equality Wheel which follows and was also developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project illustrates characteristics of a healthy intimate partner relationship.


The Power and Control Wheel shown above has been adapted over time to depict power dynamics, and behaviors used to assert and maintain power and control, in a variety of settings and relationships.  Additional iterations of this wheel can be found by clicking the links below.

Human Trafficking

Elder Abuse

Substance Abuse

Teen Dating Violence