Power and control: the defining feature of domestic violence

Not all violence in marriage is domestic violence as defined by the law, nor is all violence in marriage the focus for the Hear Believe Act Project (but all violence is contrary to Christ’s teaching). Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviours and not isolated incidents of situational violence.

In this guest post by Sister (Dr.) Fiona Bosly the distinction is explained. Like in the legal system it is important to distinguish situational violence from domestic violence. This might mean recognising when an incident is part of a wider pattern of behaviour that is really domestic violence. It may also mean appreciating when responsive aggression might be situational violence - a response to being a victim of domestic abuse rather than a misuse of power or a situation where both are abusers. It might also help us choose the right strategies to address reports of violence - the manipulation, power and control behaviours of domestic abusers need very different strategies than dealing with people who solely have anger management or alcohol abuse problems.

It is clear Christ’s disciples are called on to reject personal use of all violence regardless of whether we are male or female. When Hear Believe Act uses gendered language it is because the vast majority of domestic violence is men’s misuse of power against women.

We hope Sister Fiona's post is good education for us all.

A model which outlines violent and abusive behaviours, which has gained international acceptance, is the Duluth Model. Advocates of this model have developed a series of ‘Power and Control’ wheels (See below) which provides a visual representation of the tactics used in domestic violence situations. The power and control wheel visually summarizes abusive behaviours and is reinforced by physical and sexual violence. The Duluth model maintains that use of physical and sexual violence are tactics used by violent men to maintain power and control in their intimate relationships. However Pitman (2010 p. 38) argues that the ‘assumption that the core of power and control results in physical and/or sexual violence marginalises many women’. For many women behaviours used to reinforce power and control do not necessarily incorporate sexual or physical violence (M. P. Johnson, 2006).

To try and understand these concepts a little better, Stark (2007) observes that our understanding of domestic violence is derived from the criminal justice system which views crime as discrete acts. This is contrary to the experiences of women and children as they describe domestic violence as an ongoing and escalating attempt to maintain control within the relationship. Stark (2007) believes that domestic violence is more of a course of conduct crime rather than an isolated event. What Stark means is an act of domestic and family violence is not a discrete event but part of a process of intimidating behaviours designed to instil fear and undermine any sense of autonomy. These behaviours continue to place women and children at risk, particularly within a legal system that may not recognise the ongoing and systematic attempts to maintain control. Whilst the focus often remains on the physical act of violence women and children’s lived experiences of the effects of violence are much more complex and detrimental to their wellbeing.

Stark’s (2007) definition includes the gendered nature of domestic and family violence and neatly summarises how violence is generated and supported within a patriarchal culture.

Violence against women originates in the microdynamics of human relationships, emanates from individual men, is supported by widely accepted norms to which boys are socialized, is replicated across generations, and produces physical and psychological harms that can be captured by scales, surveys, and in eloquent testimony by those who have been victimized (Stark, 2007 p. 83-84).

Thus the understanding of domestic violence as coercive control encompasses the range of violent experiences that women and children report as well as the tactics used by men to maintain control and create fear within their intimate relationships. It is supported within a cultural context, is a gendered activity, underpinned by patriarchal structures, attitudes and beliefs and its aim is to continue to subordinate women.


Johnson, M.P. (2006). Conflict and Control: Gender symmetry and asymmetry in domestic violence. Violence Against Women. 12(11), 1003-1018.

Pitman, T. (2010). Domestic Violence and its aftermath: How women who have experienced partner violence manage shared care of children in the post-separation period. University of Tasmania, Tasmania

Stark, E. (2007) Coercive control: The entrapment of women in personal life. Oxford: Oxford University Press