Domestic Violence and the Paradox of Power-Over

Why do people who want complete power over their partner resort to murder?

Posted Jun 22, 2019

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In September, 2001 Michelle Monson Mosure had endured a decade of abuse from her husband and father of her two children Kristy and Kyle, when she finally went to the authorities to get a restraining order. That day she recounted the physical abuse she underwent in the hands of her husband Rocky. He was beating Michelle in front of the children, and threatening to kill them to coerce her into obeying him. Yet only days after she received the restraining order, she recanted her testimony out of fear of retaliation, and the prosecutors were forced to drop the case. Two months later, Rocky shot and killed Michelle, and proceeded to kill their two children Kristy and Kyle, before turning the gun on himself.

It may seem counterintuitive that a person who wants complete power over their partner would willfully kill them. We admittedly say that killers “overpower” their victims, but once the victim is dead, there is no one to have power over. So, unless the killer is massively hallucinating, why does the desire to have complete power over another person so often culminate in murder?

One possible explanation is that domestic killers have become so bothered by the victim’s residual power that if they cannot take it away from her when she is alive, eradicating her is their only way to crush it.

Spiteful envy can motivate murder in an analogous way. Envy is an unpleasant reaction to another person’s perceived unfair advantage or possession. It has two components: a wish to have the envied person’s advantage or possession, and resentment of the envied because of their unfair advantage or possession.

As philosopher Sara Protasi has pointed out, envy cannot always be satisfied. For example, if you envy people who have their own biological children but you are infertile, then you cannot obtain the envied good, so your envy cannot be satisfied. But this need not prevent the envier from lashing out at the envied person by harming them in some way, for instance, by destroying the good “unfairly” in their possession. This is what Protasi calls “spiteful envy.”

The spiteful envier takes herself to be more deserving of the envied possession than the other person but doubts that it’s possible for her to make the possession hers. But destroying the possession she wishes that she had and that the envied didn’t may give her some sense of justice. If Sally envies Shelby for winning Simon’s love, and she thinks it’s hopeless to try to win Simon back, she might choose to destroy Shelby’s unfair advantage by killing Simon. As Protasi points out, “destroying the good is one way of taking the good from the envied” (“Varieties of Envy,” p. 23). This idea is encapsulated in the saying “Envy spoils the good it covets.”

A highly controlling hater may reason in kindred ways. Perhaps Rocky decided to murder Michelle and their two children once he phantomed that his desire to completely dominate her, to annihilate any remnant of instinctual resistance to him, would never be fulfilled while she was still alive, never mind that her “power” was virtually non-existent and could easily have been circumvented. Taking his own life might then have seemed logical from his point of view. He evidently lived for the distorted pleasure he took in asserting his power over her, depriving her of the slight semblance of agency she had managed to hang onto. Once she had died, his reason to live had died with it.


Protasi, S. (2016). “Varieties of Envy,” Philosophical Psychology 29 (4): 535-549.