Screwed-up Relationships: The Basics

Power and control in relationships

                             Topic: The paradox of controlling behavior.

I often talk to my clients about dealing with abusive and controlling verbal attacks or demeaning comments by one partner in a relationship. This is one aspect of the "power and control" analysis that is often used in domestic violence training.
Getting out of a controlling relationship is not always just a matter of breaking up or getting divorced. When children are involved, the parties (and their families) will always be in a relationship with each other as parents and family to the child.
Speaking of controlling verbal behavior, I want to mention something that seems paradoxical.
If one person has the power to resist and not feel controlled by the other person, even if they don't use it every time, they aren't really being controlled. The behavior may look the same and even feel the same to the other person, but if they can decide and choose how (or if) they will be affected by the "controlling" behavior, they are still completely in control.  


More about power struggles

Disagreements vs. conflict vs. power struggles.

The following simplified way to look at how people talk to each other may be useful in helping you deal with conflict in a productive, positive way.
        A disagreement is a difference of opinion about something (or everything). 

          Parent 1:  “Johnny should play football next year”. 

          Parent 2:  “I don’t agree. I don’t think he should play sports at all, especially football”.
         Sometimes the person will give a reason for their opinion, but not always. The result may still be an agreement (especially if the other parent already knows the reason). Or, it may become conflict. The important thing about a disagreement is that it is mostly “rational”, not emotional.
        Conflict is a disagreement with a lot of (usually negative) emotion. Emotion is partly how we feel and partly how we think. Although any disagreement can involve strong feelings (politics, for example), conflict tends to be a negative feeling toward the other person, not just the issue.
Power struggles are best illustrated by this example of an emotional, no-win argument: “Yes I will”. “No you won’t”. “Will”. “Won’t”.
       Each person involved typically feels like they are locked in mortal combat, a verbal boxing match, with the other person. This means that the disagreement cannot be resolved by persuasion or a compromise. It is a “zero-sum game”. That is, if one person wins, the other loses, and vice-versa. In extreme cases, it may feel like a struggle for survival.                                                                              As human beings, we are capable of using our superior brain power to resolve conflict, or using our animal instincts to defend our need to “win” the conflict. We need to feel that we are in control of a situation when we think that our authority is threatened. This is true for children as well as parent 


Domestic Violence

Frequently Asked Questions: A guide to domestic violence law.

What is Domestic Violence

The legal definition of domestic violence

 "Domestic violence" or "abuse" means the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, as that term is defined in section two hundred four of this article: (1) Attempting to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causing physical harm to another with or without dangerous or deadly weapons; (2) Placing another in reasonable apprehension of physical harm; (3) Creating fear of physical harm by harassment, stalking, psychological abuse or threatening acts; (4) Committing either sexual assault or sexual abuse as those terms are defined in articles eight-b and eight-d, chapter sixty-one of this code; and (5) Holding, confining, detaining or abducting another person against that person's will.


Control vs. Respect

What is controlling behavior?

The following is oversimplified, partly because both parties may be controlling to some extent. And there may be other factors involved, such as money problems, drugs, mental illness, etc..
Controlling behavior:
Unilaterally deciding something that affects both people without any serious attempt to allow the other person to have a say or disagree.
Or, Verbal attacks to intimidate, coerce or threaten the other person unless they do what that person wants.
Or, Manipulative behavior such as showing affection, promises to change, agreeing to seek counseling, etc.  


Empowered: You control half the relationship

You only control 50% of the relationship, but you control 100% of that 50%


Resolving Conflict through better communications the SMART way.
S.M.A.R.T. Communication:
Subject. Message. Attitude. Response (and Rules). Timing (and Talk).

A: I want to sign little Johnny up for football. Subject: child; descriptive.

B: I don’t think it’s a good idea. He’s too small. He’ll get hurt. Evaluative.

A. That’s bull (raising his voice). You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just stupid, aren’t you? Emotive/evaluative/ “you”

B. That’s a lie. And, anyway, you don’t care if your own son gets hurt. Emotive/“You”

Response: Is it a real question? Should I respond? (Note: “aren’t you?” isn’t a question).

Rules: Even if the subject and message are okay (concerns the child), being disrespectful is unacceptable.

Attitude: Def: a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior.

Timing: Not every message needs or deserves a response, but if you feel strongly about responding, you can “sleep on it” and, the next day, be less emotional.

Talking: This refers to the option of calling the other party or meeting and talking in person. It may be a better way to communicate complicated or emotional subjects that are not well suited to cold words in a text.
Key concepts: a) Avoiding the “you” word. b) telling someone how they feel; c) choosing how you feel (and act). 



To text or not to text

 With all the texting going on it's no surprise that a lot of conflict is carried on that way. Texting can be helpful, as a way of avoiding long-winded arguments and verbal abuse by phone or in person. But it has problems of its own, too. Here are some tips to avoid ongoing negative communication by texting, facebook, etc.
First, if you receive a message from the other parent, ask yourself: Should I reply?
The decision to reply or not depends mostly on whether the other person is asking a serious question or just "running their mouth".
How can you tell if it's a serious question? Look and see if it has a question mark at the end. If not, it's probably not a question and, therefore, does not require any response whatsoever. You can just read it and move on to something else.
Second, Even if there is a question mark, it isn't necessarily a question. "You are a real jerk, aren't you?" is not a question. It is an attack. You do not have to counterattack.
Third, Even if something is a real question, it may not be about something you want to discuss. Divorced or separated parents need to talk about the children, but not about each other's lives. For example, Ricky's father texts you, saying: "Did you remember to give little Ricky his medicine"? This appears to be a serious question which deserves an answer. Probably a yes or no is sufficient.
Fourth, since bad communication and conflict often go together, and both may involve a power-struggle between the parents, it is also important to "keep control" over the conversation, even when it is a simple, reasonable question that deserves an answer. For example, don't follow the same old pattern of arguing and name-calling when a simple "yes or no" will do.
In fact, it may even be best not to answer right away at all. Sometimes you can wait until later, after the "fun" of playing an emotional cat-and-mouse game has worn off.  


Domestic Violence and Child Abuse

West Virginia law says that domestic violence around children is child abuse. The non-abusing parent should still try to get herself and the child out of the abusive situation. 

 The legal definition of child abuse is:

(A) A parent, guardian or custodian who knowingly or intentionally inflicts, attempts to inflict or knowingly allows another person to inflict, physical injury or mental or emotional injury, upon the child or another child in the home. Physical injury may include an injury to the child as a result of excessive corporal punishment;

     (B) Sexual abuse or sexual exploitation;

     (C) The sale or attempted sale of a child by a parent, guardian or custodian in violation of section fourteen-h, article two, chapter sixty-one of this code; or

     (D) Domestic violence as defined in section two hundred two, article twenty-seven, chapter forty-eight of this code.

Help for Victims

Domestic Violence Programs

If you are a victim of domestic violence, contact S.A.F.E. for assistance. This can include a referral to Legal Aid for free advice or representation in Court.

McDowell County: (304) 436-8117 or 6181

Mercer County: (304) 425-8738 ex. 2102 or (304) 324-7820

Wyoming County: (304) 732-8176 


This is a short video by Legal Aid of WV about a Domestic Violence Protection Order hearing in Family Court.

Legal Aid of WV Information website

Click here to find out more about Domestic Violence Protective Orders