Power & Control: How to Identify An Abusive Relationship

Trigger Warning: domestic violence abuse.

I was sitting in a coffee shop on Grand River at 8pm, incessantly blaring study playlists on Spotify. I was about ⅔ done with the biggest iced coffee a girl could get her hands on in the East Lansing area. As I was reading through my required readings for the week for WS 301 about Sexual Violence Against Women and Children, I came to a big realization: I knew SO many survivors of intimate partner violence, and a lot of survivors didn’t even realize they were survivors because their abuse didn’t follow the most visible form of physical violence.

As I was reading through these articles, I realized that I had loved ones that went through abuse like this. I had multiple friends who had been manipulated by their partners. I had family members that had endured various forms of violence, and felt as if this was normal behavior for men. That abuse was default for men, and that made it alright. It was this internalization of their abuser that had lead to this misconstrued vision of how people who love each other communicate, or in many cases, don’t. The various forms of abuse in relationships, and the validity of them all, are not discussed openly. These abusive behaviors were being perpetrated by men and normalized in our culture. We like to believe that partner-abuse happens to everyone else, but the fact of the matter is that it happens to more of our loved ones than society is willing to discuss. It should mean something that, as a woman, I know various other women whom have suffered abuse.

I feel the need to tell others what I have learned about the various forms of power and control partners use against domestic violence survivors, and that if you feel like your partner did something that wasn’t right, you are valid.

Here are some identified abuses that occur within intimate partner relationships, according to various domestic abuse intervention programs


1. Using Intimidation 

This mechanism of power stems from instilling fear within the victim by using looks, actions and gestures. This type of violence takes multiple forms, including smashing things, destroying her property, abusing her pets and displaying weapons. One of the biggest takeaways from this type of power is that your partner does not have to physically hit you for it to be violence. Social media likes to make fun of men punching holes in the walls, but that can be a serious manifestation of intimidation as a power and control tactic in abusive relationships if your partner lashes out after conflict/anger towards you.


2. Using Emotional Abuse

This seems like a common form of abuse relevant to college students. Emotional abuse can entail anything from putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, calling her names, making her think she’s crazy (i.e. gaslighting), playing mind games, humiliating her and making her feel guilty. This encompasses abuse that makes her feel less than her abuser. It is also a way for the abuser to hold some sort of power over her within the relationship. Often a story that comes to mind is when my friend was called fat and disgusting by her partner in front of all her friends just because her partner was having an “off day.”


3. Using Isolation

Using isolation can manifest differently, but some of the most common ways are: controlling what she does, who she sees and talks to, what she reads, where she goes, limiting her outside involvement and using jealousy to justify actions. A lot of my friends have experienced the ways their boyfriends would get jealous if they went out with the girls without him, or what they wore to the club.  


4. Minimizing, Denying and Blaming

This can take form when partners make light of the abuse and do not take her concerns seriously. Abusers may say that the abuse didn’t even happen, and may shift the blame and responsibility on the victim, saying she caused it. A lot of partners will tell their significant others, “you’re so dramatic” when they come to them with serious concerns about their relationship.


5. Using Children

Using children against your partner as a form of violence can manifest as using them to send messages to your partner. Abusers also make the victim feel guilty about the children, or use visitation to harass her and threaten to take the children away.


6. Using Male Privilege

This can result in male abusers using their positionality in society against their partners. This includes aspects of treating her like a servant, making all the decisions, acting like the “master of the castle” and being the one to define men’s and women’s roles.  


7. Using Economic Abuse

This mechanism of power and control results in preventing the abused from getting or keeping a job, making her ask for money, giving her an allowance, taking her money and not letting her know about or have access to family income. In “Violence and Abuse In Lesbian Relationships,” Claire M. Renzetti discusses the fear of the abuser “outing” their partner to their employer is a way that economic abuse can manifest. The abused felt that if they left on their own accord and worked things out with their partner, it was better than the constant fear of being laid off or fired, and perhaps even “blacklisted” for future employers.    


8. Using Coercion and Threats

Using coercion and threats occurs in instances such as: making and/or carrying out threats to do something to hurt her, threatening to leave her, to commit suicide, to report her to welfare. This can also include making her drop charges and also making her do illegal things. This also makes me think about undocumented women in the United States and how abusive partners can wield their partner’s undocumented citizenship status above them as a mechanism of control.


Though these examples of power and control vary, it is important to note that these may overlap and intersect in relationships as well. These are just some instances in which we can identify how abuse can manifest and impact the survivor. It is also important to note that, although these individuals may be victims of violence, they are survivors. We must create an empowering space for survivors of all forms of abuse, whether it be psychological, economic, emotional, physical, and/or sexual. Though the discussion of domestic violence is taboo in certain spaces, we must remember that 1 in 4 women experience physical intimate partner violence in the United States. On a single day in 2014, Michigan domestic violence programs provided services to 2,492 victims/survivors, but we must note that a majority of cases go unreported. Domestic violence may be treated as if it doesn’t happen often, but the fact that most women are affected by or know another affected by domestic violence goes to show how we need to address and advocate for survivors of domestic abuse.

If you or anyone you know is a survivor or currently in a relationship where abuse is present, there are resources in the area that can provide support and community, as well as bring survivors to safety. End Violent Encounters (EVE) in the Lansing area offers services and resources to survivors and pathways to safety for people currently experiencing domestic violence. EVE also provides LGBTIQ+ partner violence resources, teen dating violence, as well as community resources. Their 24-hour crisis hotline can be reached at (517) 372-5572.

If you are in the East Lansing area, MSU Safe Place is a program that aims to address relationship violence and stalking. They provide advocacy, resources, emergency shelter, information and referrals to survivors of violence and their children. MSU Safe Place can be reached by phone for services or support at (517) 355-1100.

It is important to address that it is never the fault of the survivor for the abuse they have endured.