Being able to spot controlling behavior in a relationship is incredibly difficult if you are actually in the relationship. This is why people in abusive relationships can be there for years. They don't actually realize what is going on. There are many reasons for this and you can read more about these here.
For a third party it may be relatively easy to recognize the controlling behavior in a relationship of a friend or family member, for instance. This is all well and good, but trying to convince the victim of what is going on can cause a lot of conflict. The victim just cannot hear criticism of the manipulator, they defend them at all costs. Or the victim cannot recognize that a behavior is actually abusive, they have some excuse or justification for it.
What I want to do here is to explain the controlling behavior in a relationship with the manipulative tactic behind it in order that the victim can begin to make sense of what is being done to them, and why.
People often think that the controlling behavior in an relationship starts some time into the relationship. Many victims say that at the start they felt that they had met their soul mate, Mr. Right, or Miss Perfect. They had found someone who understood them, someone who got them like no one ever had before. The victim says that they felt really special because this fantastic new person in their lives was actually interested in them. They asked questions, they listened, they wanted to know all about them. The victims report that this person treated them like royalty, giving them compliments, time, gifts, attention and there was a whole smorgasbord of good feelings that went along with everything.
I am suggesting that the controlling behavior in a relationship starts in the first minute. This whole process I just described is a set up. It is creating a very particular first impression in the mind of the victim because the manipulator knows that first impressions count and are difficult to change later, especially when there have been so many good feelings attached to it. This is why many abused people think that the abuser is basically a good person, even when they can see some of the abuse. They have such good memories of the start of the relationship it is difficult to realize that their abuser is actually abusive.
Of course, at the start of any relationship there are good times and gifts and nice feelings, but the trick of the manipulator is to create the connection with the victim very fast and very intensely so that the bond is actually stronger than in a normal, healthy relationship. All the good feelings are connected to the manipulator. The victim feels great about themselves, but only in relation to the manipulator! This is how the manipulator starts to create dependency in the victim.
Notice the emphasis on the feelings and emotions. The victim feels great, they feel they have met their soulmate, it all feels right to them. The manipulators are masters at emotional manipulation. At the start of the relationship, the victim is motivated to do things to please the manipulator to get more of the good feelings. Later on, the victim is motivated to please the manipulator in order to avoid the bad feelings the manipulator creates when they are upset. More about this later.
In any controlling relationship there are typically lots of critical comments about all sorts of things, your family and friends, your likes and dislikes, your clothes, hair, work, hobbies, your thoughts, decisions, feelings and actions. Because they are coming from someone you trust, you give these comments importance. But they are not actually for your benefit. You may be told they are, but they actually have the effect of making you doubt yourself and even not like yourself. They will end up making you think that you are flawed or defective in some way and that you need to change these things so that you can be more pleasing to the manipulator. In this manner you are constantly trying to adapt and improve yourself so that you earn the approval of the manipulator instead of provoking their anger.
A particularly nasty ploy on the part of abusers is to criticize you and then when you are upset, to claim that they were only joking, or that you take things too seriously, or that you shouldn't take thing personally. The fact is that the criticism was very personal. They are deliberately pushing your buttons. Then when you get upset, they are also criticizing you for a second time. This type of thing is devastating and you are too emotionally upset to be able to reason your way out of the situation.
An important aspect of the criticism (as well as other things) is the repetition. There is a study that shows that if three people tell you something, you are very likely to believe it. However, if one person tells you the same thing three times it has 90% of the effect of three people telling you. When you hear the same critical comments over and over again, they become 'normal', they become true, they become reality. Just think about how often the manipulator has made critical comments about you, the same comments over and over again, sometimes for years. You believe they are true and you may even have 'evidence' of that. But what if the evidence is a set up? He or she says something that really bothers you, you get upset and angry. They do it again later. You get angry again. Then they start saying you have anger issues. They continue to provoke you and you get angry when they do. They keep reminding you that you have anger issues. You end up believing it, even though you are normally a calm person who usually avoids confrontation. But they have managed to label you as someone who has anger issues. (You can substitute anger for other things, clumsy, stupid, lazy, selfish, mean and so on.) They have basically turned you into someone you are not and they are then criticizing you for being that way. This is textbook behavior in a controlling relationship.
There may be frequent threats in abusive situations but there are 2 in particular that I want to highlight. If these two are present then you are being very heavily controlled.
The first is the threat of leaving. In abusive situations, the victim is make to be dependent on the manipulator. This is put in place in various ways. It means that the victim may be terrified of leaving. They do not consider leaving to be an option. This works at the level of a phobia, a fear unrelated to reality, and may keep the victim in place for years. The manipulators are aware of this and they will threaten to leave or get a divorce, knowing that the threat will make the victim do anything to avoid a break up. This means that the manipulator knows they only have to mention a divorce to get their way. This is obviously a horrible way for the victim to live. So if you find yourself in a relationship where every little argument makes you feel like the relationship is in danger (whether they are threatening to leave or not) then you are in a very bad situation and you need to get out.
The second threat that is a major warning sign is where the manipulator threatens suicide if you leave or do anything that goes against them. Some of them will say the word suicide, others do not. They make references to not being able to go on in life, or not being able to continue and so on. This type of vague language is often even more powerful than saying the word suicide because the victim fills in the gaps and knows what is meant. The thing here is that the manipulator may threaten this for years and never follow through. If they do actually 'attempt' suicide, careful scrutiny reveals that they may have taken pills or cut themselves, but there was never any actual risk of death. They took 4 pills, not 40, or they cut skin but not any blood vessels.
However, nobody wants to feel responsible for somebody taking their own life and the threats are enough to keep many victims in an abusive situation for a long time. Remember victims are dependent on the abuser (although they may not recognize that) and they are also programmed to believe the abuser, to take care of them and put the wants and needs of the abuser before their own.
These are the 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situations. The manipulators are masters at setting up situations like this. If you make a decision alone you are criticized for leaving them out. At times when you are unable to make a decision, you are called weak and useless. If you say nothing when they are shouting at you, you suffer. If you answer back, they escalate and things get worse for you. If you don't tidy up, they get annoyed. If you do tidy, they ask why you haven't done another thing.
These situations are used to criticize, berate and belittle you. This is part of the destruction of your personality in order to change you to be more like the kind of person they want around them. You can read more about this process in the article about narcissistic boyfriends.
The abusers are insatiable. They never have enough. The more you give, the more they want. The more they get, the more they expect.
It doesn't matter how much effort or time you put in, how much money you spend, how creative you are or how perfectly you have performed the task, they have the ability to pick on something and criticize that and they make you feel like you are never good enough. It's counter intuitive but when they criticize you, you are actually motivated to step up and try harder. You want their approval. You fear their disapproval. You are programmed to need them to say good things about you.
I say it's counter-intuitive because many people will tell you that if someone spoke badly to them or abused them they would not tolerate it, they would leave. But having been in an abusive situation, you know that the dynamics are different. Leaving is not a viable choice. The idea is that if you can just get it right, if you can just do what they want, they will be pleased and the relationship will improve.
Now that you are reading this, you are realizing that they were simply setting impossible tasks for you and punishing you when you didn't achieve them (more double binds!)
Fear is a major driver for people and the abusers take full advantage of this. Over time they build a lot of fear in their victims but the interesting thing is that often the victims are not aware of the level of fear that they are living with. Most of the decisions made and the things done are organized around not upsetting the abuser.
There is fear of the abuser's anger, fear of the disapproval of the abuser, fear the abuser may get physically violent, fear that the abuser will withdraw 'privileges' or retaliate in other ways, fear of losing the relationship and even fear of not being able to survive without the abuser.
Sometimes the victim is so fearful that they cannot say what specifically they are afraid of, they just know 'it will be bad'.
Fear and guilt are the 2 major factors used by the abusers to control their victims. Governments, despots, dictators and tyrants the world over understand this.
Controlling behavior in a relationship involves the abuser making the victim(s) feel guilty over a whole lot of things. There seems to be no end to the things they can make you feel guilty about, your perceptions, thoughts, decisions, beliefs, feelings and actions, your family, your friends, your past, your work, your hobbies, your successes, your strengths and weaknesses, who you are, and even who you are not (not living up to your potential)! Basically, you name it, they can make you feel guilty about it.
You can read the second part of this article about being in a controlling relationship here.
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