There are many types of toxic relationships that can deeply affect our sense of self – a relationship underpinned by power and control is one type of these toxic relationships.

We will be looking at power and control relationships as part of a four part series, and Helen Isenhour is here with me today to help us untangle these extremely toxic power and control relationships, and assist us to understand the dynamics and what we can do if we find ourselves in one of these relationships.

Helen Isenhour hails from Australia, and has worked with vulnerable young people, families and communities for over twenty seven years. 

Helen is a qualified Social Worker, Counsellor, and a trained Mediator, and has worked with many groups of people including: adults with disabilities; children and young people in Out of Home Care; women and children experiencing domestic violence; perpetrators of violence and families experiencing separation. Helen currently works in the area of mental health and has a passion for empowering people in their lives and relationships.

Can you talk to us about what a power and control relationship looks like? We hear these words – but what do they actually mean?

A power and control relationship is one in which one person uses a series of coercive tactics and behaviours over another person, with the aim to dominate and control that person, inducing fear and resulting in compliance and submission of that person. Power and control relationships are often referred to as Domestic Violence; Domestic and Family Violence, Abusive relationships and coercive controlling violence.

The bottom line is that one person controls and dominates – the other person is controlled and experiences fear.

These types of controlling behaviours can happen across a variety of relationships, however for the purposes of our conversations today, I am speaking specifically about power and control in intimate relationships – or intimate partner violence. 

One definition of intimate partner violence is:

Domestic violence refers to violence, abuse and intimidation between people who are currently or have previously been in an intimate relationship. The perpetrator uses violence to control and dominate the other person. This causes fear, physical harm and/or psychological harm. Domestic violence is a violation of human rights.

What you are talking about reminds me of the traditional “man in charge” relationship – what is so different about the relationships you are talking about?

You are right – traditional relationships (like the one in our parents’ era) usually involved the man “being in charge” and the women “submitting” or “deferring” to him. Very generally speaking back then (and still today in many places) – men usually worked outside the home and women usually stayed at home and looked after the children. 

This could be seen as a power imbalance on a number of levels (financial; male had decision making power; etc). However – there are  many differences between “traditional” type relationships and abusive relationships, and two key differences are:

  1. In traditional –type relationships, the person with less power does not live their life in fear (as they do in an abusive relationship)
  2. The person with the most power does not use an ongoing pattern of threats, force, abuse and coercion to maintain power and complete dominance over the other person

How prevalent are these types of relationships?

Current statistics state that approximately 94% of intimate partner violence involves a male perpetrator and a female victim.

Around the world:

  • It is estimated that 35% of women have experienced violence by a non-intimate partner at some point in their life – BUT – that 70% of women around the world have experienced violence from an intimate partner at some point in their life.
  • It is estimated that of the 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017 globally, more than half (50,000- 58 per cent) were killed by intimate partners or family members, meaning that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner.

In Australia:

  • On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
  • 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15.
  • 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
  • 85% of Australian women have been sexually harassed.
  • Almost 40% of women continued to experience violence from their partner while temporarily separated.
  • 1 in 6 women have experienced stalking since the age of 15.
  • Intimate partner violence is a leading contributor to illness, disability and premature death for women aged 18-44.

Are men and women both affected by these relationships?

The short answer is yes – both men and women are affected by violence and in fact both men and women are more likely to experience violence at the hands of men – with around 95% of all victims of violence in Australia reporting a male perpetrator. While men are more likely to experience violence by other men in public places, women are more likely to experience violence from men they know, often in the home.

All violence is wrong, regardless of the sex of the victim or perpetrator. But there are distinct gendered patterns in the perpetration and impact of violence – and the overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence and sexual assault are perpetrated by men against women, and this violence is likely to have more severe impacts on female than male victims.

Recognising the gendered patterns of violence doesn’t negate the experiences of male victims. Male victims of domestic and family violence are unlikely to seek support and experience stigma and a lack of specific support services.

In saying that:

  •  Australian women are nearly three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner.
  • Australian women are almost four times more likely than men to be hospitalised after being assaulted by their spouse or partner.
  • Women are more than twice as likely as men to have experienced fear or anxiety due to violence from a former partner

Does power and control only occur in heterosexual relationships?

No – power and control can occur in any intimate relationship and does occur in same sex relationships at a similar rate to those in a heterosexual relationships.

What are the varying ways that power and control dynamics show up in a relationship?

There a number of key ways that intimate partner violence shows up – and only ways of those ways is physical abuse.

There are around 11 key types of abuse that occur in power and control relationships. In some abusive relationships only 2-3 of these components may be present, or, in some case many more (or all of them) may be present.

They are:

  1. Physical Abuse
  2. Verbal Abuse
  3. Financial Abuse
  4. Spiritual Abuse
  5. Social Abuse/Isolation
  6. Sexual Abuse
  7. Stalking
  8. Digital Abuse
  9. Reproductive Abuse
  10. Post separation abuse
  11. Emotional Abuse

If after today people realise they are in one of these relationships – what can they do?

If in immediate danger – call the police.

Seek out local specialised domestic violence support services – these can be found using google – or talk to a trusted friend and ask them to help you access support

After hearing all this information today don’t stand up to the abusive person – that is very likely to make you more unsafe, and don’t tell them you have plans to leave.

 Making a decision to leave and then leaving – are two different things in DV. Leaving an abusive relationship takes planning and support – and those plans are usually best not to be discussed with the abuser.  One of the times that women are most unsafe is when they are leaving their abusive partner.