Seeing Domestic Abuse Through a Political Lens

“It’s unfortunate that we all have lived with abuse and that our society tolerates it. I would like to wish the pain away . . . but I know it can also serve a purpose – to help us identify and recognize abuse in the future.” Women’s Voices group participant

When I decided to go to graduate school, I chose a social work degree because of its emphasis on seeing people in the context of their lives. Social work values both the micro and the macro. Since my training specialized in clinical work, I was trained to assess mental health issues through more than a medical lens. I made domestic abuse my specialty, and soon saw that through a macro lens.

Helping domestic abuse survivors goes beyond any symptoms they present, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  The symptoms occur within the context of coercive control, and are not simply evidence of mental health problems. Victims can of course also have diagnoses unrelated to abuse, just as the general population, but too often medical and mental health professionals have not looked beyond the diagnoses to their lived experiences.

Little attention is given to the cultural values that underlie and support all forms of abuse. Instead, it is portrayed as purely a personal problem. Controlling behavior occurs in the context of all kinds of relationships, within all socioeconomic backgrounds, and across all cultures. A few statistics demonstrate the depth of the epidemic:

  • Nearly one in four women in the United States reports experiencing violence by a current or former spouse or boyfriend at some point in her life[i];
  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives[ii]
  • Roughly one in 13 adults has grown up in the United States experiencing unhealthy control by another person[iii];
  • Referrals to state child protective services involve 6 million children, and around 3.2 million of those children are subject to an investigated report[iv];
  • 27% of Americans have experienced past or present workplace bullying[v];
  • United States residents underwent an annual average of 1.7 million violent workplace victimizations between 1993 and 1999[vi], the latest statistics available.
  • 848 priests were dismissed between 2004 and 2013 for sexual abuse, and 2,572 members of the clergy had been disciplined.[vii]

Survivors profit from learning about power and control dynamics, and from seeing a comprehensive checklist of controlling behavior that allows them to identify what they’ve experienced. In addition, recognizing how control permeates all our institutions outlines the depth of the problem and lessens their personal stigma and isolation.

Examining the motivation and beliefs that drive all those seeking power and control explains why those relationships feel so confusing. Information regarding how control affects anyone experiencing it provides validation as to why they often feel powerless and crazy.

Exploring the cultural beliefs and values that permit power over others leads them to see that their personal experiences have political roots. Cultural stereotypes and expectations discourage trusting their instincts and encourage giving up their interests for others. They better emerge with an understanding of what is necessary for their healing when they learn about the ways they are seduced into accepting control.

Resource books, such as “Why Does He Do That?”[viii], “When Love Goes Wrong”[ix], and “But He’ll Change”[x] provide valuable support. Support groups at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services and other domestic abuse programs provide safety planning, support, and empowerment.

Specialized therapy groups such as Women’s Voices help address the inevitable erosion of self-confidence  that comes from experiencing controlling behavior as well as provide recovery tools. I am in the process of seeking a publisher for my book and workbook that will bring the resources of my group and individual therapy to a broader audience.


[i] Adverse Health Conditions and Health Risk Behaviors Associated with Intimate Partner Violence, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. February 2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at

[ii] Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., … Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control:

[iii] Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. New York: Cliff Street Books, 1998.

[iv] Child Maltreatment 2014, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau, Published January 25, 2016.

[v] Gary Namie, PhD, Research Director, Assistance from Daniel Christensen & David Phillips. © 2014, Workplace Bullying Institute;

[vii] Cumming-Brucemay, Nick. “Vatican Tells of 848 Priests Ousted in Decade”, New York Times, May 6, 2014.

[viii] Bancroft, Lundy. “Why Does He Do That?:  Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.” New York: A Berkeley Book, 2002.

[ix] Jones, Ann and Susan Schechter. “When Love Goes Wrong: What to Do When You Can’t Do Anything Right.” New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.

[x] Hunter, Joanna V. “But He’ll Change: End the Thinking that Keeps You in an Abusive Relationship.” Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010.


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