Power and Control Wheel and Cycle of Violence in Intimate Relationships

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It hangs around noticeboards at women’s centers, doctor’s rooms, and various other crisis places where both women and men seek shelter and comfort from violence committed by their partners or spouses- the Duluth ‘power and control’ wheel. This wheel summarizes the violence mostly women experience in what is supposed to be the comfort of their home. Nearly one in three women has been sexually assaulted by a romantic partner during her life time (American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family, 1996. p.10)

Not all abuse is physical. Some women experience emotional, psychological, sexual, or financial abuse, some are unfortunate to experience all. Most if not all women report psychological abuse as being more mind-twisting, more painful and more damaging compared to physical abuse. Abuse can take any number of forms, and it can be hard for victims to even know what constitutes abise and whether or not what they are experiencing applies (Brown, 2019.)

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The Duluth power and control wheel has helped positively transform the understanding of the domestic violence dynamic. Created in the early 80’s by a group of battered women in Duluth Minnesota, the wheel helps mistreated spouses better understand the patterns of abuse they may be enduring (Brown, 2016). The center of the wheel labelled ‘power and control’ gives it strength and is held together by patters of tactics depicted in each spoke of the wheel and the rim representing physical and sexual abuse which is the goal and the effect of all the abusive tactics.

According to Juriana Hernandes, a marriage and family therapist, Abusers are canny, and have fake perceived kindness, love and adoration for the people they are abusing, which makes the victim target question themselves, as opposed to questioning the abuser’s true intentions, Therefore the Duluth wheel is an effective tool for people who are in abusive relationships.

The primary purpose of this paper is to highlight the various cycles of oppression that shape the experiences of victims of intimate partner abuse (IPA). The cycle of abuse and violence that keep the victims trapped and what makes them, mostly women unknowingly stay in abusive relationships and are sucked into a cycle that ultimately endangers their life.

Gender related killings in Kenya in the past year.

According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 39 percent of the women surveyed said they were abused by a husband or partner. But a 2008 report by the Federal Lawyers of Kenya, or FIDA, says almost 75 percent of the women they surveyed reported being beaten (Jonathan 2010).

“The few women who come here after being violated by their husbands or boyfriends agree to counselling and physical treatment but are reluctant to pursue justice,” says Nurse-in-charge Sabia Mwinyi. Almost half (47percent) of women age 15-46 years have experienced either physical or sexual violence, according to the (Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014.) Among those who have ever been married, husbands and partners were responsible for more than half (55 percent) of the sexual violence cases, while ex-husbands and ex-partners accounted for more than a quarter (28percent) of them.

The International Centre for Reproductive Health Kenya runs a gender based recovery center in partnership with the Ministry of Health that provides comprehensive, quality care for survivors of rape, sexual violence and sexual exploitation. Four of five in those who visit the facility are underage girls. At least 148 people were reportedly killed, 106 being women and 16 being children within the period of October 1, 2018 to November 15, 2019(Nation Newsplex, 2019). The federation of women lawyers (FIDA) Legal Aid Clinic says it handled 2,182 domestic violence cases between January and June 2018 alone.

The graph below shows the number of gender killings in 5 counties, Nairobi, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Kakamega, and Machakos in the last one year, with Nairobi having the highest number of deaths. (See figure 1)

In life, men and women crave to set up life-long caring partnership, to build a home together and to live securely, happily ever after. Once you have chosen your husband or wife, you have faith that it will all work out, simply because you love each other. However, for some, it is not the case. They end up in a cycle of pain and anguish as they try to understand and make sense of who is now not only a spouse but also the father to their children.

In the early 80’s, Ellen Pence and Michael Paymar founded the Duluth model (Pence & Paymer, 1993) which is commonly used by both victims and abusers. It was developed based on the experience of more than 200 victims at a Duluth battered women’s shelter, with the focus on male violence against women. Other wheels have evolved from it but the fundamentals of the original wheel are still relevant.

The power and control wheel illustrates that intimate partner abuse is made up of a series of behaviors and tactics that the abusive partner uses to maintain power and control over his romantic partner. (See figure 2). At the core of the wheel is the perpetrator’s goal of acquiring and sustaining control over his partner’s cognition, and emotions. Each segment of the wheel demonstrates one of the ‘tactics’ that a perpetrator may use to control his partner- they are eight in total as shown in the figure below. The characteristics shown in the figure are examples of how this power and control can be enacted by the perpetrator towards a victim.

Interestingly, not only have abused women identified these tactics as used against them, but perpetrators have acknowledged using the same tactics (shepherd, 1988). The outermost ring of the wheel illustrates the function of physical and sexual violence to support the power and control tactics. While physical abuse and sexual abuse may not be as frequent and spontaneous, the looming threat of these forms of abuse strengthens the power of the other tactics on the wheel. The victim’s hypervigilance about meeting the abuser’s needs, wants, whims, and expectations are fueled by the inability to predict the perpetrator’s behavior (Pence & Paymer, 1993).

Abusers believe they have a right to control their partners in abusive relationships and they use the following eight tactics.

Coercion and threats

Here the perpetrator keeps making and carrying out threats that they will do something that will hurt the other person. They got married they went on their honeymoon, and he strangled her with the bathroom towel. Really, really badly. There was a horrific, traumatic incident when he strangled her almost to death with the bathroom towel … So then after that for that six years of their relationship – … he never ever again used physical violence on her but whenever there was a moment of tension he would go to the bathroom and he would bring out a towel, and he would put it on the table. And that was the sign; and then she would just be, like, ‘and then I would just give in – I would just do whatever it is he was trying to get me to do’ (Wiener, 2017)


Making the other person afraid by using looks, actions, and gestures which makes the victim afraid or scared of what they may be doing wrong resulting in them always being conscious about themselves. The gendered emotional ‘put‐downs’ contained criticisms of victims’ roles as mothers and homemakers – criticisms of the way they dressed, the way they cooked, the way they looked after their children. (Wiener 2010)

Emotional abuse.

This tactic involves putting the other person down making the other person feel bad about themselves. They will call them derogatory names even in front of people, humiliating them. They will play mind games and make the other person think they are crazy.


The abuser is usually jealous and afraid that the partner might report them to friends and family members. They distant you, Initially it’s people that aren’t good for them because they think they are being used. ‘They use you, it’s only because you are so nice …’ kind of thing. And then it’s ‘he fancies you’ … so the woman disengages from the males in her company so it can go that way as well. (Wiener 2010)

Minimizing, denying and blaming.

The abuser here will shift responsibility for the abusive behavior, saying that the person caused it and even going as far as saying the abuse did not happen. they are at a point where they are pretty much believing what has been said over a period of time to the extent that they found it hard to see him as guilty of a crime because the blame was entirely on themselves and it informed who they were. (IDVA06)

Using children.

The perpetrators use the children to relay messages and threaten to take the children away and in extreme cases denying the other person right to interact with their children.

Male privilege.

If the abuser is male and the victim female, he treats her like a servant as he defines ‘male and female’ roles. He acts like the master of the castle and makes all the big decisions. He would come home at about eight o’clock and he would tell me then (not ever before) what it was he wanted to eat. And basically, … I would have to cook his dinner. Whatever it was he said he wanted at this point. (Weiner 2010)

Economic abuse.

The perpetrator does let the spouse know or have access to the family income, this increases the victim’s vulnerability since she is entirely dependent on the perpetrator. Without support, it is difficult for her to resist the world-view that he has and wants her to share (Stark 2007)


All these tactics and mind games keep the victim right where the perpetrator wants them. The victim is under the perpetrator’s mercy and now they have full control over them. The emotional abuse destroys their self-esteem, making it feel impossible to leave.

The impact of the control on the victim is devastating. She exists in a constant state of fear that she has not moderated her behaviour sufficiently to avert catastrophe for herself and her children. Her fear is real and not imagined, as it is based on a realistic appraisal of the perpetrator’s capabilities. But for the survivor respondents, the fear was not the worst effect of the abuse. Dutton talks about the way in which the psychological impact of abuse goes beyond symptom‐focused conditions such as anxiety to include ‘the ways in which battered women have come to think about the violence, themselves, and others as a result of their experiences’ (Dutton 1993, p.1217).

Majority of victims describe being destroyed emotionally and psychologically before the beating begins. They describe being caught unaware the first time they are hit, slapped, shoved, pulled by the hair and hit by an object. Unaware that another phase has just begun- the cycle of violence illustrated in the next chapter.

The Cycle of Violence.

Doctor Lenore Walker developed the cycle of violence theory in 1979. Instead of seeing domestic violence as a set of randomly occurring episodes of violence, Walker demonstrated how the violence followed a predictable cycle or pattern that repeated itself. With each cycle, the length of time required to complete it becomes shorter and the violence within it increases. To explain why women stay in abusive relationship,( Wilson 2019). she proposed her theory of three distinct stages associated with recurring battering in cases of domestic violence:

Phase 1- Tension-building phase.

Tension build up between the people in the relationship starts to increase and verbal, emotional, or financial abuse occurs. Often women feel that they are walking on eggshells, living in fear and trying to avoid an explosion (Cory and McAndless-Davis, 2005)

Phase 2- Acute tension.

In this phase, violence has reached its peak. The perpetrator experiences a release of tension and now this behavior becomes a habit. This is the explosion phase which is marked by brutal attacks, physical, verbal, psychological or sexual, the attacks occur more frequently than at the beginning (Cory 2005)

Phase 3- Honeymoon stage.

  • Remorse- the perpetrator starts to feel ashamed. They become withdrawn and try to justify their actions to themselves and others.
  • Pursuit- during this phase the perpetrator promises never to be violent again, blaming it on alcohol or stress at work. They become attentive to their significant other, buying gifts and helping around the house. It seems like they have changed. The person experiencing the violence feels confused and hurt but at the same time relieved that the violence is over.
  • Denial phase- Both people in the relationship may be in denial about the severity of the abuse and violence, both are happy and want the relationship to continue and intimacy increases during this phase while ignoring the possibility that the violence could happen again.

Over time, this phase passes and the cycle may begin again. The cycle continues for months and even years. For most women,the honeymoon phase is the most confusing part of the cycle. Your partner behaves in ways that appear to be loving and remorseful, but you may still feel uncomfortable. This confusion keeps them in the relationship. It is often when a woman feels ready to ‘give up on the relationship’, possibly planning to move out that the partner changes his behavior or promises to change his behavior. She then finds herself re-engaged into the relationship. The honeymoon phase keeps victms working on the relationship (cory, 2005)


for victims seeking help or refuge, understanding the cycle in it’s entirety helps them see what a difficult situation they are in. Each phase of the cycle is a different expression of abuse and you are left constantly trying to anticipate what is coming next. (

The longer you stay in an abusive relationship, the greater the physical and emotional toll. You might become depressed and anxious, or begin to doubt your ability to take care of yourself, leaving you feeling helpless and paralyzed.

The only way to break the cycle of domestic violence is to take action. Start by telling someone about the abuse, whether it is a friend, loved one, health care provider, or another close contact. You can also call a national domestic violence hotline. At first, you might find it hard to talk about the abuse. However, understand that you are not alone and there are people who can help you. You will also likely feel relief and receive much-needed support.

  1. Bentovim, A. (1996). Trauma-Organized Systems: Physical and Sexual Abuse in Families.


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