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The Making of the Maze of Coercive Control

As an advocate and educator on domestic violence, I am always looking for memorable ways to visualize and explain the behaviors of an abuser that is most common to the collective victim experience.  I was first introduced to the original Power & Control Wheel (from the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, Duluth, MN) in 1992, while in the ever-tightening grip of my own abuser.  There were many aspects of that wheel to which I related, and of the 36 behaviors identified, he perpetrated at least 30 of them weekly or daily.  The Wheel was powerful validation for the abuse I had endured, and proof that I was not crazy—or alone.
However, even though my abuser was extremely violent towards me physically and sexually, I could not relate to physical and sexual abuse as the factors keeping me in the relationship; they were the behaviors that made me desperate to leave.  After I became an advocate, I found that many of my service-users were also troubled by the Wheel’s “glue” being the physical and sexual abuse.  Although, much like me, they identified being victimized by many forms of non-physical violence, many would see the wheel rim emblazoned with “Physical Violence” and “Sexual Violence,” and would often doubt, minimize or otherwise discount their “other” experiences: “Well, he never hit me, so I must not REALLY be abused.”
It became really important, then, to create tools that demonstrated (especially to the larger community) that “abuse is more than physical.”  So in 2001, I created “Shades of Gray,” an educational tool breaking domestic violence down into multiple categories of abuse: Emotional/Verbal Abuse, Exploiting Privileged/Male Status, Medical Neglect, Deprivation & Isolation, Economic Control, Monitoring & Stalking, Spiritual Conflict, Legal Harassment, Psychological Torment, Sexual Coercion & Force, and Physical Assault.  This tool was fairly unique at the time, because as a woman of faith, I didn’t hear anyone talking about spiritual abuse in the context of domestic violence, and medical neglect was virtually ignored as an issue (except for elderly victims) in favor of the more common tactic of economic control.
I began visualizing a new Power and Control Wheel using my “Shades of Gray” as the basis for the “spokes,” treating physical and sexual abuse as co-equal to other forms of abuse. Living domestic violence is complex, and messy, and overwhelming.  And there are layers of systems, institutions, communities and individuals giving the victim mixed messages about staying with the abuser, or leaving him behind; I wanted to build a tool showing that complexity.  Other influences in creating the Maze of Coercive Control included:
  • In 2003, Lundy Bancroft and Jay Silverman’s “The Batterer as Parent,” listing the traits and tactics of an abuser as an intimate partner, became the inspiration for the “glue” holding the Power & Control wedges together, becoming the “Batterer Traits.”
  • From 2003-2005, the language of “co-occurrence,” meaning the dual family dynamics of domestic violence and child maltreatment, informed my understanding of other family system issues (such as substance abuse, mental illness, incest, divorce, blended families, etc.) adding a layer of confusion, necessitating “Family Dynamics.”
  • In 2004, Praxis International distributed an “expanded” Power & Control Wheel laid out in three concentric circles, capturing the fact that victims have to break through cultural and institutional barriers to be safe. This was an essential break-through in visualizing the maze.
  • In 2007, I created one-page “refresher” tools for a domestic violence curriculum that child welfare workers could reference for best-practice casework with families living with an abuser. “Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” listed both life- and system-generated risks to victims leaving violence, and became the basis for two more layers of the finished wheel (“Victim Barriers” and “Social Ties”).
  • In 2009, “Coercive Control” by Evan Stark was published, giving me the label for my wheel, as “coercive control” better illustrates the reality of the abuser’s intentions and the victim’s experience.
  • In 2010, analysis with a close sister advocate helped me deconstruct the “honeymoon phase” from the “Cycle of Violence” into “Luring and Grooming.”  Just like pedophiles use manipulation, charm and bribery to exert power and control over their child victims, perpetrators of domestic violence do, also; their charm is NOT an effort to change.  Another wedge was added to the wheel.
  • The original Power & Control Wheel included “Using Children” as a wedge in the wheel. The reason I chose not to do so is because it is important to recognize that perpetrators of family violence use the exact same tactics of coercion and control on the children as they do on their adult victims. Making “Using Children” as a slice in the bigger pie, to me, felt like children’s experiences were minimized. For more information on how perpetrators use tactics of coercion and control on children, see the brochure titled, “Children Who Live Domestic Violence.”
  • In finalizing the wheel in 2011, I switched the order of “Institutions” and “Culture” from the expanded Duluth wheel, as the court system is ultimately the universally recognized authority and barrier that victims must safely navigate to get themselves and their children out.
  • In 2011, I truly thought my wheel was “done.”  But then in June of 2017, I attended a conference on using creative arts in healing from interpersonal violence, and reflection on a workshop in which I participated made me realize that “Systemic Oppression” was missing, and crucial in understanding the total victim experience.  

Each layer of the wheel is “incomplete,” as it is not possible, with the limits of page size and computer program, to enumerate ALL of the factors that go into each layer (for example, “Systemic Oppression” is missing “victim blaming,” and “police brutality”).  But each should have enough examples to allow the viewer to mentally add in their own, making the wheel illustrative of their individual experience.

The wheel is confusing and overwhelming to look at, but that’s the point: if it is confusing and overwhelming for people with no traumatic experience to wade through, how much more intimidating must all of this be for victim/ survivors?

The original Power & Control Wheels were created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (DAIP), 202 E Superior Street, Duluth, MN 55802; Phone number: 218.722.2781; Web site: www.theduluthmodel.org.

For permission to reprint this tool, please contact Kathy Jones at dvsur5r@yahoo.com.