15. Power and Control - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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15. Power and Control

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Conflict Control-Cple

Great-Nana gathered the third and fourth generations together and told them, "Remember, Papa is the head of the family.  Since we got married many many years ago, I've always known that Papa is the head of the family.  I do... your grandparents, your parents, your aunties and uncles... must do what Papa or the daddies tells you to do.  You and your brothers and sisters... and all your cousins must do what Papa or your daddies tell you what to do.  Remember Papa is the head of the family and tells us what to do.  And... I'm the neck and I tell the head which way to turn!"  Whether the young people knew it or not, they had just been given a lesson in the difference between an expressed patriarchy and a functional matriarchy.  Therapy may need to explore the relationships among power, authority, influence, status, and control for the couple and family.  For each couple, what is the relative power for each partner- Dirk or Madeline to control or have command over the other partner and family members?  Although, a member of the family may not have the power to control or mandate how others may act, he or she may have significant influence to affect or sway what happens and individual and group choices.  A member may have ultimate, consistent, partial, transitory, or no authority to assert power or influence based on his or her position in the family or relationship.  Power and influence usually but not always held together.  Authority is often given or held based on the status of ones position within the family.  A member may hold power or influence without necessarily having the authority to implement choices or direct others' actions.

The therapist needs to have the partners identify where and how the sources of power have occurred or been established.  French and Raven (1959) present that power can come from five different sources:

Legitimate power—Derived from a formal position of power or authority

Reward power—Offered as incentive for excelling or achieving a set goal given by the leader

Coercive power—Used to threaten and/or punish if specific goals are not met

Expert power—Given to an individual because of their expertise in a specific context or arena

Referent power—Offered to individuals because of their personal characteristics (attractiveness, friendship with others)

Other members of the family sometimes bestow an individual as holding the source of power, in particular from one partner to another.  Other sources of power may be strictly from an individual's passions and interests.  Legitimate, reward and coercive power all depend on the position held within the relationship or family.  When a title or role is infused with power, it comes with the ability to influence others.  If Dirk overtly or implicitly asserts that he has the right and authority to make choices for the family, it is because as the man of the household he holds legitimate power.  If Madeline asserts that she should ultimately make decisions about the children's welfare, it is because as the mother she holds legitimate power.  When Dirk points out that he should choose their vacations and how much to spend, he is asserting reward power based on having earned all the income for the family.  On the other hand, Madeline may assert reward power to choose the vacation because of having been the primary childcare parent.  Dirk can exercise coercive power by limiting Madeline's household and self-care budget when she is not suitably appreciative or deferential.  Madeline may withhold sex as a form of coercive power to punish Dirk for not being suitably attentive to her emotional needs.  They may respond to such power plays by complying with requests or demands.  Or, they may resist the attempt to assert power, control, or influence.  The more the therapist can bring the power dynamics into overt discussion and negotiation, the greater the potential for productive problem solving, compromise, and reconnection.  "Why do you think you should be the one who chooses?" probes for legitimate or reward power sources.  "What did you want your partner to do?" probes for coercive power sources.

In contrast to legitimate, reward, or coercive power, expert and referent power cannot be bestowed by the family, but are based on the individual.  The individual usually makes personal decisions and/or has specific experiences to gain levels of expertise.  In addition, the individual decides who he or she offers referent power to.  While Madeline may otherwise have less power in their relationship, she can immerse herself in areas of interest and importance to her.  As the primary childcare parent, it would not be unusual for her to become more versed about child development, children's preferences, or educational issues for example.  Dirk may accept her expertise in these areas, thus giving her more power.  He may also give her further referent power because he notices and respects her ability to nurture the children.  On the other hand, either partner may purposely withhold bestowing referent power upon the other.  Dirk can criticize her discipline with the children and her house keeping despite not being substantially involved in either area.  Madeline can imply Dirk has poor financial instincts despite his clearly being more involved in the budget and her not otherwise paying attention to it.  On the other hand, normal or established delineations of power and authority may be bypassed and a partner may consult with the other with acknowledged expert or referent power.

A significant issue in domestic violence in heterosexual couples is gender-based assumptions of greater male power.  "Research and clinical observation suggest that manifestations of gender inequality trap women in abusive relationships and support male battering (e.g., Stith & Farley, 1993).  Traditionally, family therapy has ignored gender inequity contributing to power imbalances (Avis, 1992; Bograd, 1992).  Pure family systems thinking suggest clinicians 'see past the symptoms to the underlying emotional process' (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 151).  The recursive nature of interactions and their 'underlying emotional processes' are emphasized; cause and effect (i.e., fist hitting face) and personal responsibility are deemphasized and/or minimized" (Perez and Rasmussen, 1997, page 231).  Theoretical purists, including systemic theorists and feminist theorists can run the risk of not recognizing how two or more theoretical perspectives may cross-validate.  Two or more theories may be relevant and each offer direction for therapeutic intervention.  Gender inequality creates a systemic imbalance, which affects emotional processes.  The therapist should not force the heterosexual couple into a gender-based conceptualization of their relationship.  However, the therapist would be prudent to examine how much gender-based inequality may affect dynamics and perspectives.

"The cultural perspective based on patriarchal theory (Goode, 1971; Martin, 1976; Straus and Gelles, 1980a; Yllo, 1984a, 1993) views patriarchy as a major cause of intra-family violence, especially husband-to-wife violence.  This theory asserts that most societies, in which males are traditionally highly valued and expected to govern the family, have viewed husband to wife authority as a cultural trait.  Two rare studies of wife abuse among Asian Americans support this perspective.  Song (1996) reported that Korean American women with more traditional Korean cultural values experienced more abuse by their husbands than those who were less traditional.  Bui and Morash (1998) also reported that the traditional gender norm of Vietnamese Americans was significantly correlated with physical and emotional abuse by a husband" (Kim and Sung, 2000, page 333).  Since individuals often come primarily from social experiences and cultural models with traditional male dominance, the therapist should ask the partners what each expects of the other in terms of being the male or the female.  Even if Dirk or Madeline were relatively non-traditional and practiced more egalitarian gender roles, they probably grew up with traditional models and function currently in social situations with major visages of male supremacy.  They would have dealt with and continue to deal with some blend of complying, challenging, or adapting to or from traditional gender rules.

While clearly patriarchal, many cultures emphasize maintaining family harmony as the primary mission for all family members.  As the head of the family, the male however would be considered the ultimate arbiter of harmony.  He is often expected to enforce harmony.  He may be entitled to wide latitude of behaviors based on his sole final discretion.  Implicitly or explicitly, physical punishment is a possibility.  "Wait til your father comes home!" becomes a threat of impending punishment.  Since the wife (or daughter-in-law) in traditional gender politics are also considered under the dominion and responsibility of the patriarch, she holds a lower class status in the family below the male leader but above the children.  In some societies, the mother-wife may also be below any male children in status and power.  Her behavior as well as the children's may harm the harmony of the family and subject therefore, to discipline. For example, "Korean culture emphasizes family harmony which is in most cases maintained through hierarchical relationships.  Traditionally, a husband as the head of the family has authority to control family affairs and regulate relationships among family members.  He consequently has the right to use interventions including physical measures.  Cross-cultural studies suggest that wife abuse is a common practice in many traditionally patriarchal societies, such as countries in Asia (Bui and Morash, 1998; Song, 1998; Gallin, 1992; Levinson, 1989).  The residual influence of traditional culture may suggest why men are more violent than women in the Korean American families" (Kim and Sung, 2000, page 341-42).  It is important to note that individuals and families from cultures that condone corporal punishment for children and/or wives do not always use physical measures.  Nor, do they always become physically abusive.  The availability of the tool or behavior does not mean that it will be utilized, nor that it will used abusively.  By the same token, the cultural standards of male supremacy and domination do not guarantee that they will be followed, nor followed abusively.

When conflict arises or power threatened, however, culturally sanctioned permission for both male dominance and physical aggression increase the potential for domestic violence.  The inequity of power between two partners empowers one partner dangerously and leaves the other more vulnerable to victimization.  In this situation the power inequity is based initially on cultural gender roles.  In other situations or as corollary issues, the power inequity can otherwise or also be based on social, political, or economic status, physical size, access to weapons, greater or lesser restraints, greater or lesser negative or positive consequences, community or group support, and so forth.  "In violent marital relations, the higher-status man is usually more powerful and violent, and the lower-status woman is the less powerful and abused (Gerber, 1991).  Power structure affects the relationship between conflict and violence.  Coleman and Straus (1990) found that when conflict occurs in an asymmetrical power structure (the male dominant and female dominant types), there is a much greater risk of violence than when conflict occurs among the egalitarian couples.  Similar findings were reported by Yllo (1984b; 1993).  Although the causal direction between martial power and couple violence has not been clearly defined, most empirical studies suggest that egalitarian couples are less likely to be exposed to the risk of violence than the cases of asymmetrical power structures (Coleman and Straus, 1990)" (Kim and Sung, 2000, page 333-34).

The therapist should examine the basic power structure of the couple.  In addition to egalitarian values, the therapist should check for the partners' sense of personal equity in the relationship.  Whereas, egalitarian values promote equal rights, decision-making, responsibility, and access to resources, equity is based on the sense of contribution or investment in the relationship.  Equity, therefore defines the ownership share of rights, choices, and resources.  An asymmetrical sense of contribution to or equity in the relationship challenges egalitarian values and practice.  On the other hand, when a member such as the wife contributes significantly to the relationship or the family in comparably substantial, although different ways than the husband, then her sense of equity could argue for more egalitarian rights and practice.  When Dirk asserts an implicit and sometimes, explicit domination around family decisions, he does so based on being the sole wage earner in the family.  When Madeline argues that she works all day while he is gone and keeps on working caring for the household and children when he is back, she is asserting her equity in the relationship.  She is asserting implicitly that "in-kind" contribution to the household should give her an equal say in decisions and resources.  Strict traditional patriarchal structure often ignores equity considerations.  Depending on the functioning of the family and member's roles, a patriarch may contribute little to family in this sense of equity, but hold total equity nevertheless.  The therapist may need to add equity concepts to the couple's discussion on equal rights and resources.  Implicit assertions that are unspoken constitute secret rules that dysfunctionally bind communication.  On the other hand, making these rules explicit allows for overt negotiation.  The therapist needs to determine if both partners accept the relationship's power distribution as reasonable and legitimate.  If they both accept the status quo, then therapy works primarily to find solutions within their power dynamics.  If either partner ostensively accepts the imbalanced power dynamics and complies but does not feel strong commitment, therapy needs to uncover the probable resentments associated with feeling compelled to function in an unfair relationship.  There may be covert resistance- passive-aggressive behavior for example, that contaminate the veneer of agreement.  On the other hand, there may be overt resistance to the other person's power, authority, and attempts to influence or control him or her.

"Both egalitarian and female dominant couples experienced a lower amount of stress compared to male dominant ones who experienced the highest level of occupational and economic stress.  In a traditional Korean family, the father, as the head of the family, is expected to govern and financially support the family.  This suggests that husbands among the male dominant couples are under occupational and economic stress, even though they dominate power in decision making.  Wives in the female dominant couples and the egalitarian couples shared more power in decision making and more of the socio-economic burden with their husbands.  These findings support the proposition that couples in long-lasting marriages were able to establish complementariness in task performance, a sense of equitability and shared power (Walsh, 1990: 267-285)" (Kim and Sung, 2000, page 343).  Many couples share an expressed value of equal rights and treatment that challenge patriarchal values, equity complications, and other influences.  The therapist can promote a more egalitarian relationship based on functionality.  There are both value-based and logic-based foundations to a more egalitarian relationship.  As just mentioned, it "works" better.  A husband such as Dirk may resist values and functional reasons for a more egalitarian relationship and resort to patriarchal gender-inequality as traditional from some cultural or religious edict.  The therapist may feedback that this stance does not bode well for the continuity of the relationship since the partner- Madeline is distressed with such a relationship.  The therapist would need to consider why a partner would continue to assert a gender-inequality power and status position that results in poor relationship functioning.  There potentially would be some compelling motivation to persist despite negative consequences.  Examining that then would become another component of therapy.

Power and control are intricately related but not synonymous in theory or practice.  Power can be considered to be the ability to do or act to cause some change or affect something.  This may be done through the use of force or merely having the resources to use force or influence.  Intimidation is a form of power where action does not have to occur.  The threat or the mere possibility of releasing resources or taking action is powerful.  Control on the other hand constitutes the preventing or restraining or compelling choice or direction.  Control can be more intense- dominating, forcing, or restraining a person.  A person can therefore have significant power by through various sources but exercise relatively minor controlling behavior to attempting absolute domination.  Or, someone having power may be willing to share power and give up control to others- in particular a partner to create a more mutually fulfilling relationship. In contrast, someone with little or no power also has little control.  Someone with sparse experience of having power and control will be uncomfortable and challenged to own and exercise power and control in subsequent relationships and situations.  The therapist looks to help the partners find a functional satisfactory balance for them both.  Unfortunately, a need for and the practice of domination to seize or maintain power and control can result in abusive rather than benevolent or mutually beneficial exercise of power and control.  In society, domination may be based on economic, racial, ethnic, class, religious, and other differences.  In heterosexual relationship, it can be based on gender.

"Corvo and Johnson (2003) describe how theory of and intervention with perpetrators of domestic violence are rooted in feminist perspectives of the 1970s and 1980s, when there was recognition of women's subservience and the birth of the desire to become free from 'patriarchal control'. Within this framework, the perpetrator of domestic violence was identified as a 'patriarchal terrorist', whose motives for violence were to control women" (McMurran and Gilchrist, 2006, page 108).  The therapist should examine the relevance of this perspective and to what degree.  Dirk for example may want to control his wife- a specific woman.  On the other hand, he may want to control any woman in the role of his wife, or need to control women in general. Dirk may need to be in control for the psychological security it gives him, because he must avoid being out of control or being controlled.  Individuals experience from infancy a need for control in life and/or the consequences of not being control.  Coopersmith (1968) considers power and control as one of the four foundations to self-esteem.  Lacking having developed healthy mechanisms, batterers and other compulsively controlling individuals try to control others to prove that they are powerful, rather than weak, vulnerable, and fearful.  The following graphic of the Wheel of Power and Control shows how power and control is expressed as domestic violence (theduluth-model.org, 2012).

The individual may claim that he or she has never "really" hit his or her partner.  The therapist should challenge what "really" means.  That may mean challenging Dirk what "sorta" hit Madeline was.  As opposed to outright denial, an abusive partner holds that minimizing is not "really" lying.  Simultaneously, Dirk may cite various behaviors by Madeline to justify some intense reaction of his- that is, she is blamed for what she gets.  Examination of the wheel of power and control includes minimizing, denying, and blaming among the eight ways to exert power and control:

using coercion and threats,

using intimidation,

using emotional abuse,

using isolation,

minimizing, denying and blaming,

using children,

using male privilege, and

using economic abuse.

None of these requires physical contact much less striking someone.  However, they can be effective to control someone- that is, restrain or compel him or her against his or her will.  When these techniques become more intense, it becomes a short step to physical or sexual violence.  Threats of violence can become acts of violence, especially when other tactics are not sufficient to control the partner.  In addition to showing aggressive, destructive, and violent behavior within the household, prior experience of being hit or beaten makes threats or the possibility of being hit again highly intimidating.  There does not have to be an overt threat once the partner knows it has happened before and therefore, can happen again.  All of these tactics are both means to perpetuate and are outcomes of domestic violence.  With traditional patriarchal models, the need and practice to control with violence has often focused on male domination of female partners.

"The feminist literature on battering in heterosexual relationships emphasizes battering as a tool to maintain power and control.  In heterosexual couples, this means that the man enforces his male privilege through the use of violence.  However, the issues of power and privilege and their impact on battering must be examined more closely in dealing with couples who differ from the white, heterosexual norm (Almeida et al., 1994).  Lesbian batterers are multiply disempowered as women and as lesbians.  Battering of a female partner, then, is not so clearly an enforcement of the social hierarchy, but a complex expression of multiple social and personal factors" (Balsam, 2001, page 32-33).  From the perspective of gender-inequality and domination, domestic violence is motivated by the need to control women.  While this orientation can have valuable insight into domestic violence in many couples, it separates this type of violence and the perpetrators as distinct from perpetrators of other kinds of violence- for example, child abuse, assault and battery, bullying, and so forth.  Any theory or conceptualization can offer benefits for assessment and treatment, but rigid adherence to a single perspective ignores a multiplicity of elements and issues that influence domestic violence.  As a result, potentially beneficial interventions will be set aside.  By dismissing anger as a motivating or key component to focus solely on male motivations to control women, effective and appropriate interventions dealing with arousal and anger may be minimized or eliminated.

On the other hand, "The argument against focusing on anger is that domestic violence is not anger driven but rather a range of tactics used by perpetrators to control their partners, hence teaching anger management will actually serve to exacerbate the problem rather than alleviate it.  Furthermore, to acknowledge traits, such as impulsivity, as inherent dispositions that may predispose the individual to act violently on the spur-of the-moment allows offenders to evade the personal responsibility of their choice in acting aggressively, particularly since violence is more evident in certain contexts (Wilkinson & Hamerschlag, 2005).  Gondolf and Russell (1986) examined whether anger control interventions were suited to 'batterers' and concluded that, in general, they were not, because

(1) spousal abuse is not anger-driven but rather driven by the need to control women;

(2) they do not taking premeditation into account;

(3) they imply that the victim provoked violence;

(4) they allow the perpetrator to claim to the victim that he has been cured, hence placing the victim at greater risk; and

(5) perpetrators can ''reduce anger control to a set of gimmicks that enables them to get their way less violently while continuing their abuse'' (p. 3).

Instead, Gondolf and Russell (1986) advocated that treatments should focus on challenging sex-role stereotypes and relinquishing the need to control women" (McMurran and Gilchrist, 2006, page 108-09).  The therapist should be careful to assess whether anger or control, or both anger and control are the compelling issues in a couple.  There may be key relationships between the two factors.  Anger at the partner may precipitate attempts to control him or her.  Or, inability to control the partner may trigger anger.  Or, is Dirk ignited by some other emotion, factor, stress, or situation that prompts both anger and controlling behavior?  The major diagnostic separation may be between domestic violence triggered by anger versus abuse done without high arousal.  This distinction requires substantial examination from the possibility of antisocial personality disorder driving intimate partner violence in some couples.  As a significant dangerous variant of domestic violence, sociopathic motivations further complicate the general question of an individual's violence potential.  These issues will be examined in the subsequent examination of antisocial personality disorder in couples  In the author's book "How Dangerous is this Person?" a process is presented to determine the probability of violence in individuals based on various characteristics and characterological profiles. .  Antisocial personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder create special challenges to the couple, couples therapy, and special dangers in terms of domestic violence.  As such, the therapist must give additional attention to couple therapy when one partner has paranoid personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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