Power and Control

In the social world, power is a concept with two very different meanings--'power to' and 'power over.' . ‘Power to’ refers to the ability of a person to change the circumstances of his or her life by creating and exercising options. 'Power over' refers to the ability to limit the options of others.

It is naive to think that a civil society can run without any power over. Police have limited power over civilians, for instance. When 'power over' passes a threshold, it is reasonable speak of “control” Parents have control over small children. But as the abilities of children increase, good nurture requires that power over them be relinquished steadily and be replaced by influence. Influence is the ability to affect how others perceive and manage their options. Influence does not take options away. Intimate partners always desire to influence each other.

Insecurity tends to make some people try to control situations and outcomes. Surely this imposes some inconvenience or friction on other people, but largely, other people can avoid such situations, assert their self-determination, or detach. Desire for control at this level is maladaptive but not abusive.

Taking it to the next level, and controlling people, however. becomes power over,' This is the definitional element of abuse. This type of control is always malignant, and will quickly grow to be constant. If the survivor resists or tries to disregard the control, the situation will escalate rapidly.

Having one’s ‘power to’ make choices overruled by another person’s ‘power over’ leads to an experience of powerlessness.  Powerlessness early in life tends to produce a later undue interest in power, sometimes in ‘power to’ but most commonly in 'power over'.

A strong interest in achieving power and control in a relationship, ironically, can produce in a primary aggressor, the ‘feeling’ of being controlled. This is because the disquieting effects of a partner’s independent actions trigger coercive responses that are in the primary aggressor’s repertoire but not in their self image. But this sensation of being controlled is very different from the fact of being controlled. The primary aggressor still has the same safe options that he had before. He is tortured by his own expectations and intolerance of surprise.

The connection between power and control in a culture and in a relationship within that culture has often been drawn. The power and control point of view only cares what the 'other' or the target is doing or will do. It does not care what the other is expressing. Individuals who try to change a situation by expressing rather than acting are at a disadvantage when they are up against power and control. (Of course taking action frequently draws retaliation.)

There is a tendency for a controlling person to believe they own what they control (and ownership implies being able to do anything one wants without accountability). This is valid for personal possessions or small activities that were created by one person. But it is not true for communities or assets that have developed over time with the work of many people. We are all not just beneficiaries but also stakeholders of much of the infrastructure of the country we live in because earlier generations have built it up. Obvious examples are universities and medical centers, but the same might be said of an industry that has been in existence for many generations, like the mining or auto-industries. Those presently empowered to manage this infrastructure do not have a right to sole determination of what happens, because they did not create the value, though they may control it.

A stakeholder is a person that has a moral right to a say in what happens in a family, group, or company because of contributions or long involvement. Stake holding can be inherited from previous generations. When it comes to a family, the same principle applies. A primary aggressor that say happens to control all the money may say that this gives him the 'right' to make all the decisions, but this is based on power not morality. All members of a family are stakeholders in the family, this is the basis behind spousal support and child support in divorce law. The law does not always up-hold moral rights, sometimes it upholds the right to retain power.

One of the effects of domestic abuse on a survivor, is a steady diminishment of the sense of power to act in their her best interest. When this is addressed by advocates, it is sometimes called ‘empowerment.’

Love includes an interest in the empowerment of the partner. Power over and love are incompatible. Love leaves room for influence and leadership, but influence can’t be forced. Leadership is based on attraction not compulsion. When an interest in power over and control is held by either partner, escalation and abuse are inevitable.