Power and Community in Domestic Violence

By: Mary Allison Joseph, Violence Prevention Coordinator

One of the many long-standing myths surrounding domestic violence is that the root cause is poor anger and stress management. In reality, like much of social injustice, domestic violence revolves around power: creating or maintaining an imbalance of power in order to control another. Further, as with all social injustice, all of us have important roles to play.

The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence utilizes a Power and Control Wheel to diagram the eight patterns of behavior commonly seen in abusive relationships: 1) coercion and threats, 2) intimidation, 3) emotional abuse, 4) isolation, 5) minimizing, denying, and blaming, 6) using children, 7) economic abuse, and 8) male privilege.

Much of the language around domestic violence is highly gendered (even the Power and Control Wheel utilizes feminine pronouns to reference the victim). It is certainly true that in heterosexual relationships in which a man is abusing his partner, he may weaponize male privilege in order to control his partner. However, this is just one specific example of an abuser’s ability to wield relative societal power as a tool. Abusers may similarly leverage other types of societal power, like physical attractiveness or economic status, for example.

In addition to exploiting societal power to control their partners, those who commit domestic violence create a power imbalance from within the relationship itself. A recent study on intimate partner violence in lesbian relationships, for example, found that while abusers could not employ male privilege as a weapon over their partners, they did share all of the other seven patterns of behavior in abusive relationships with their heterosexual counterparts (Register 2018). These patterns, including isolating, blaming, and intimidating the partner, create a power imbalance within the relationship that creates dependency.

While power is definitely at the heart of domestic violence, there is no single identifiable cause of domestic violence. A social ecological model allows us to gain an understanding of domestic violence by looking at the complex relationship between an individual, their relationship, their community, and their society. “These four connected levels… combine to create an environment in which [intimate partner violence] is possible and the abused is silenced by multiple forms of social control” (Register 2018).

And combining these two understandings, of domestic violence as an abuse of power and as part of a dynamic that includes the community at large, allows all of us to reflect: what role do we want to play in our community to combat this abuse of power? How can we, as bystanders, ensure that we’re not fostering an environment that allows for domestic violence?

While there are some generally applicable truths, like believing survivors and offering nonjudgmental support, the truth is that our role as bystanders will be highly individualized, based on the situation, our sense of safety, and our particular comfort levels.

To learn how you can be a prepared and effective bystander and ally, email Mary Allison Joseph about attending a Green Dot training or overview talk.