What distinguishes occasionally abusive behavior from an abusive relationship is the systematic attempt to control or dominate. Although control and domination are often used synonymously, they differ in motivation.
Control is driven by fear or anxiety. When motivated by fear, controlling behavior is an attempt to neutralize a perceived threat to self or relationship. Examples are nagging a partner to stop drinking, flirting, or yelling or continually criticizing his/her driving, job performance, or friends.
Control motivated by anxiety is an attempt to prevent discomfort. Examples are nagging a partner to do things the way you want them done, just because you feel uncomfortable if they are done another way. Not surprisingly, people with high temperamental anxiety are more likely to engage in this kind of control, as they fall into the trap by trying to regulate their anxiety by controlling their environment. They see their partner’s resistance to feeling controlled as an aggressive attempt to make them feel uncomfortable.
Domination—coercion, threat, intimidation—is motivated by the low-grade adrenalin rush of feeling superior and, more cogently, to prevent the shame or humiliation of challenge to their perceived superiority.
In general, women abusers are more controlling, although they may engage in some domination tactics, like inducing shame to get compliance with their will, e.g., “A real man would do the right thing,” meaning whatever she wants him to do.
In general male abusers are more dominating, although their coercion can be indirect, such as not speaking to you if you don’t park the car in the certain way.
Abusive behavior toward women tends to invoke fear of harm, isolation, or deprivation:
“You’re going to hurt me, ignore me, reject me, make me feel unlovable, or leave me without comfort, help, money, or resources.”
Abusive behavior toward men invokes shame—dread of failure as a provider, protector, lover, or parent. Although it rarely causes fear in men—most male victims are not literally afraid of their abusive wives, although they dread their behavior—the behavior is nonetheless dreadful and psychologically damaging when it says or implies:
“You’re not a real man!”
“No woman could love you.”
“You don’t make enough money.”
“You don’t get promotions because people don’t like you at work.”
“You’re lousy or disgusting in bed.”
“You’re a loser – compared to the other guys I could have married.”
“You’re a wuss.”
“Your own kids don’t like you.”
Men who bear the brunt of their wives’ resentment, anger, or abuse have the added social shame of “cowardice,” for “letting her get away with it.” If he fights back he becomes the primary abuser. If he takes it, he’s “pussy-whipped.”
Our culture does harm to both sexes when it shames men for being victimized and encourages women to think of themselves as victims, regardless of their behavior.