Power and Control in Relationships

Power and Control in Relationships

Power and Control in Relationships

In my last blog, Abuse: The dark underbelly of power and control (Click here to read the previous blog), I defined abuse as any action that intentionally harms or injures another person.  In this blog, it is my intent to bring a better understanding of the dynamics in the negative use of power and control in relationships.

The dark side of power and control 

Power and control can be used in destructive and cruel ways in any interpersonal relationship.  Accounts of abuse can easily be found online, on social media or in the news.  Abuse provides a dark storyline in books, movies, and tabloid publications, but sadly, these abusive stories abound in our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and may impact your family or the family next door.

Let’s peek under the shroud of secrecy where abusive behaviors flourish.  When one person restricts or controls another by playing mind games, constantly putting them down, intimidating them, creating confusion, using financial dishonesty, or dictating their spiritual practices…they are using control and power as a tool to harm the other person.


Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship



  • intimidation
  • sexual abuse
  • physical abuse
  • threats
  • domination
  • humiliation
  • possessiveness
  • minimization
  • blame


As you look at the different segments of the diagram, you may be surprised to see some behaviors you yourself have used or have experienced. We all have said or done things out of anger or self-protection, but over time, repetitive destructive behaviors become abusive.  Some of these behaviors may have been shaped by family patterns, experiences or by self-centered motives.  When our actions are driven by selfish motives, we no longer are interested in building up the relationship but rather, getting what we want.  By becoming more aware of unhealthy and destructive behaviors, we can choose to find more appropriate and healthy ways to relate to our partners or family.  In a future blog, dynamics of healthy relationships will be discussed. 

The Struggle for Power and Control

Bringing two people together into a relationship can create differences depending on their expectations in the relationship.  One person may be unhappy about something in the relationship and the other person may feel they are creating problems where this is none.  No relationship is without struggles but defaulting to blaming, attacking or intimidation will not improve your relationship.

  • Threats, physical violence, or attempts to belittle and humiliate

When using these methods to gain control over another person, the relationship becomes endangered or threatened.  One partner may doubt their own worth, opinions or instincts.  Or they may feel trapped physically, doubt their right to have their own boundaries and assume the other person’s negative view of themselves.

  • Mind games and Gaslighting

One of the abuser’s go-to behaviors is distorting reality to create confusion and mental chaos.  Gaslighting is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity”. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs.  After a time, this wears down the victim where they doubt their own instincts and gives power and control to the abuser. Space does not allow me to dig deeper into the devastating harm inflicted by psychological manipulation at this time but in my next blog, I will expand on this topic.  Stay tuned.

  • Fear and the misuse of power

Perhaps some causes of the illegitimate use of power may begin from growing up in a dysfunctional family, living in relationships with a legalistic or domineering partner, parents or church, or one partner may have codependent tendencies and does not advocate for themselves.  Living in fear of speaking up for themselves or feeling insecure, they tolerate abuse so the person will not leave or end the relationship.  An insecure person may also try to control and manipulate the other to find a secure connection and avoid pain.


We throw around the terms, “codependent” or “codependency” in discussing hard or toxic relationships.  What exactly is codependency?  In Melody Beattie’s book The New Codependency, she describes it loosely, as:

“Codependency is normal behavior, plus. There are times when we do too much, care too much, feel too little, or overly engage. We forget where the other person’s responsibilities begin, and our responsibilities stop.”

 “Codependency is about crossing lines. How can we tell if what we’re doing is codependent? When we cross the line into the Codependent Zone, we’ve usually got an ulterior motive for what we do, and what we’re doing hurts. It doesn’t work.”2

Impaired Power

Darlene Lancer describes it this way:

A person who can’t function from his or her innate self and instead organizes thinking and behavior around a substance, process, or other person(s).  She further explains “many of us may feel powerless and victims of outside forces. We can feel like our destiny is out of our hands. Some of us voluntarily give up our power to others. We may feel uncomfortable with exercising our own power and believe that we will alienate others. Instead, we might react to others, defer to their wants and needs, and have trouble making decisions and initiating independent action. We might feel like we’re being mean or raising our voice when we merely state what we want or don’t like. This impaired sense of power is common among codependents and stems from:

  • A habitual external focus
  • Shame and low self-esteem – not feeling worthy
  • Dependence and lack of autonomy – excessive need for a relationship
  • Lack of assertiveness and deference to others’ decisions
  • Discomfort with power and a belief that it harms relationships
  • Fear of rejection and abandonment
  • Need for others’ love and approval to feel content and happy
  • Denial of needs, wants, and feelings
  • Having unreasonable expectations of others
  • Lack of self-responsibility (victim-blame mentality) 3

Fear and Insecurity

Both authors are relationship experts and reading their materials often highlights personal, painful issues to the reader. Very clearly, unbalanced power and control bring pain and distress to any relationship.  Everyone is responsible for how they deal with their own internal emotions and this will reflect in their attitudes, motives, and behaviors toward others.  When they do not have a sense of autonomy and self-love, they tend to search for security and love in others.  This search can take on a very dark side if the person insists on making others responsible for their sense of security and to love them.

Studying the diagram and researching codependency may give valuable insights into those areas of insecurities that cause pain in your life.  Developing a strong sense of self, an ability to love and be loved, being assertive yet compassionate, and dealing with our own insecurities and fears (not push them onto others) will help develop the healthy and strong relationships you desire.

Watch for my next blog where mind games and manipulation will be discussed.        



Suggested resources for further study:
Melody Beattie – Codependent No More
Darlene Lancer – www.darlenelancer.com
Lundy Bancroft – Why Does He Do That?
Shannon Thomas – Healing from Hidden Abuse
Dr. David Hawkins – When Loving Him is Hurting You

NOTE:  If you are in a dangerous and unsafe relationship, please call:

National Domestic Hotline – The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a 24-hour confidential service for survivors, victims and those effected by domestic violence, intimate partner violence and relationship abuse. The Hotline advocates are available at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and through online chatting at www.TheHotline.org. All calls are free and confidential.

Interested in a support group to heal from abuse?
Email – carol@lifepointcs.org


1 Power and Control wheel graphic by familyconsumersciences.com
3751 Nicollet Ave. S | Minneapolis, MN 55409
3 Lancer,D. (2018). Power, Control & Codependency. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://psychcentral.com/lib/power-control-codependency/