If you are living with a controlling person, or think that you may be, there are 3 fundamental things to be clear about. It's important to establish what kind of person you you are dealing with, what you are prepared to do about it and what you are not prepared to do.
Let's have a closer look at each of these 3 things.
Many articles about living with a controlling person start with the assumption that the controlling person does so because of anxiety, insecurity, a 'lack of structure' in childhood or mental health issues. They then offer suggestions about how to manage such situations.
I am going to mention 3 groups here, and although it may seem that it would be easy to distinguish them, for the individual living with a controlling person, it can be very difficult, for reasons that I will explain later. However, it's very important to be sure about which category you are in.
The first group are the ones who like order in their lives. These are people who are neat and tidy, they have processes that they use, they have their ways of doing things and they don't often like to change. For all intents and purposes, they are normal, healthy individuals who have healthy relationships and their partners get along with them (most of the time!) When a person starts a relationship with someone like this, they generally know about these traits at the start of the relationship and they find a way to figure things out.
The second group are those who genuinely have been hurt in past relationships or who do have mental health issues. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can affect not just the life of the sufferer but the life of those around them. Someone who has been cheated on in the past will naturally be suspicious if they see their new partner engaging in behaviors that remind them of their ex. A person who was adopted as a child may have concerns about commitment in relationships, abandonment issues and problems with self esteem later in life which may or may not show up as controlling behaviors in relationships. There are well recognized treatments for such issues and many people in this category learn to overcome their difficulties and have fulfilling relationships and satisfactory lives without ruining the lives of others.
The third group is the group that I want to explore here. These types control for the sake of controlling. Their relationships are based on domination and exploitation of others. They get a kick out of being in charge, they take advantage of others in all sorts of ways and they get people to give them things and do things for them.
So if someone is of this nature, how do they even get into a relationship? How do they have friends? How do they end up married?
Great questions! And the answer is that they trick people into it. They hide their true nature at the start and pretend to be the ideal partner, Mister Right, Miss Perfect. They basically pretend to be whatever the other person (their target) is looking for. They quickly figure out what the target wants and needs, and provide exactly that.
(The other situation, of course, is where the controlling person is part of the family. In which case the initial aspects of the relationship spoken about here don't necessarily apply but everything else does.)
Initially they are friendly, understanding, attentive, charming and caring. The target looks at this fantastic person (because that's how they present themselves!) in front of them, and they think "How great that this person is interested in me!" The target feels special, unique, grateful, thrilled. The target often thinks "This person really gets me!"
What's not to like? The target falls for the wonderful person who has just arrived into their life. And it typically happens fast. Usually it does not matter what warnings the target hears from family or friends, they are so euphoric that they can't think logically. They are in love.
This phase is called 'love bombing' and it's designed to create a special impression in the mind of the target, because these controlling people know that first impressions count. And oftentimes, part of the back-story of these controlling people is that they had a difficult childhood, or their ex was abusive, or they have been hurt or taken advantage in some way in the past. This past history is a deception but it is so common with these types that it has a name, the 'pity play'. They know if they can elicit pity they are well on their way to controlling others, because as humans we are hardwired to be empathetic, kind and generous. So the target is head over heels in love with this person, who is 'injured' in some way and the typical response is 'Of course I will take care of you! I won't treat you badly at all. I will love you so much that you will get better, you'll see!" (Remember I mentioned that the target may find it difficult to know which category they are in? This lie is part of the reason why. More about this again later.)
So far, the controlling person has been controlling the perceptions, emotions, thoughts, decisions and behaviors of their target. The target believes they have met their soul-mate.
The target has now been well and truly caught...!
What happens is that the unconditional love that you have been showered with becomes conditional. They begin to let you know what they like and what they don’t like, what the expect and what they no longer want. They may not say it directly, but you get the message that in order to continue receiving their care and attention, you have to adapt. Initially in small ways, later in bigger ways.
(In a family situation, the child learns from an early age that the care and attention of the parents or other family member is conditional. There are lots of rewards and punishments, although the child is obviously not aware that this is what is going on. As far as the child is concerned, this is just the way the world is. You can read more about toxic parents here.)
These initial changes seem minor, you stop doing some little things and start doing others. Because the relationship feels so good, you are happy to adjust in order to keep your new partner happy. After all, that's what couples do, right?
But all these little changes add up over time. But from the inside, you don’t realize how much you have changed. Your friends and family may make comments about not seeing you so often or how you seem to be under pressure, or even that you have changed since being in this relationship.
But you pass these comments off, because your partner has become the center of your universe. You spend a lot of time trying to please them. It may seem that you are now in a relationship with two different people. There is that marvelous, friendly, sexy, caring person that you fell in love with and there is also this grumpy, aggressive, uncaring, critical creature that you are living with. When they arrive home, you are never sure which one will come through the front door. You are walking on eggshells most of the time around them, trying not to upset them, working hard to do things to keep them happy in the hope that soon you can have nice times with the gorgeous person you fell in love with.
You are putting up with all sorts of behavior that you would never have tolerated before. They criticize all sorts of things about you, they make you feel bad about who you are, you are ridiculed for having emotions and they are constantly punishing you. And you feel that you can't tell others what is really going on, usually for fear of reprisal.
There are internal conflicts. At one and the same time, you love this person, you believe that they love you, and you hate the way they treat you. You may have thought of leaving but that creates terror. You feel you need this person more than anyone else in the world but there are times you can't stand being around them. You feel like you are going crazy trying to figure things out, you think you might be the problem because you are being told repeatedly that you are, but some part of you knows that it's really their fault.
If you are living with a controlling person of this nature, it's vital that you understand what you are dealing with. Many of these types are psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists. That may be a shock for many reading this because your idea of a psychopath probably does not match up with the person you are living with. A psychopath is someone who has a personality disorder. This means that they have no emotions and a huge ego. I know it may seem that your partner does indeed have emotions, they care. But there are also situations where you realize they were cold, heartless, cruel. If you are living with a controlling person such as this, it may take a while to sort this bit out.
Many people don't know that a psychopath or sociopath is a person who does not experience emotions. It's generally accepted that humans have emotions and it's difficult for people to get their head around this idea. So what are the implications when a person does not experience emotions?
It means that they do not have empathy for others. They never feel bad for anything they do. They are not affected by another person's suffering. They can be callous and cruel in what they do and say in order to have their own way. And they are very good liars.
All these things have very significant knock on effects. You can't trust what they say. Even when they apologize, they don’t mean it and they are back doing the same upsetting behavior minutes later. No matter how convincing they may sound when they promise to change, it never happens.
These people are motivated by control and dominance over others. They consider themselves superior beings, they are never wrong and any problems that occur around them are always the fault of others. Any time you point out their faults or mistakes means that there will be payback because they have to demonstrate their authority over others. They won't let you win or be ahead or better than them in anything.
Their wants and needs come first, second and third. Yours are a very distant fourth. Their decisions are perfect. Yours are ridiculous. Their opinions are the only ones allowed. They decide what is true. They decide what is real. They decide what words and actions mean. There are special rules for them, another set of rules for everybody else. They make the rules. They change the rules whenever it suits them and they don't have to tell you that the rules have been changed. You only find out when you break the new rules, and because you have broken the rules you deserve to be punished (according to them!).
These people also destroy your personality, make changes and freeze these changes in place, basically turning you into the type of person they want you to be. Think slave, or servant. You can read more about the particulars of this false personality, or pseudopersonality, here. And you can read about the process of creation of the pseudopersonality in these articles about narcissistic boyfriends and narcissistic husbands.
If you are living with a controlling person and what you are reading here resonates with you, then first of all, well done for recognizing it! It's not easy to see that you are in a psychologically abusive situation for many reasons.
The best thing you can do is to get out of the abusive situation and undo the damage (and the pseudopersonality) that has been done to you, although not necessarily in that order. While some people may be at a point where they are more or less ready to leave the relationship, some people have to undo some of the beliefs, get rid of the fear and terror and understand more about their situation before they can make the decision to leave and actually act upon that decision.
Do get help! First of all, talk to a trusted friend or family member about what exactly is going on. You have probably not done so up to now, or at least you may have told them some of what is happening but not all of it. You need people around you who are on your side. You will need help and support to deal with your situation. Sometimes this can be a bit tricky because many people do not understand what it's like for you and they will tell you to 'just leave, just walk away' but you know it's not as simple as that.
For that reason, it's useful to work with an expert in this area. They will help you to understand what is going on, how the controlling person has been manipulating your thoughts, actions and emotions and what you need to know in order to move away. This is a specialized area and if you have worked with therapists in the past who did not understand mind control, you will know how this may not be helpful. Working with an expert in mind control will save you a lot of time and money.
Do learn about manipulation, mind control, psychopathy and narcissism. However, you have to be very careful where you get your information. There are lots of psychopaths and cults out there offering help for such things as narcissistic abuse recovery and all they are doing is recruiting vulnerable people into their group and taking their money. There are also lots of articles written and videos produced by people who have been victims but have not fully recovered themselves and they may often reinforce bad and destructive beliefs in other victims.
It is usually not worth getting into long conversations with the controlling person about your situation. There is lots of advice out there about how you should tell the controlling person how upset you feel about their treatment. If you are dealing with a psychopath, they already know. The reason they treat you badly is so that you feel upset! They have no intention of changing, and your telling them how their behavior upsets you only confirms for them that what they are doing is working!
The same goes for 'setting boundaries'. From the word go they have been tearing down your boundaries. They are much better at pushing you past your limits than you are at putting limits in place. Don't waste any more time. You cannot negotiate with someone like this.
'Don't take it personally' is another frequently suggested piece of advice. The problem is that the psychopath has so much information about you that they know how to make the insults and criticism very personal. They know exactly how to press your buttons to make you feel all sorts of things, from happy to guilty to angry to sad and so on. In fact, they have frequently 'installed' such buttons in order to be able to control your emotions. The reason that such advice occurs is that there is an assumption that the controlling person has personal issues of their own that are driving their behavior and you have to take this into account. However, as we have seen with the psychopaths, this is not the case. They behave this way because of their nature and they know exactly what they are doing.
Don't justify or excuse bad behavior is a much better thing to consider. I am not saying this is easy, it's not. As humans we like to have explanations for things, especially things we don’t understand or have no control over. For example, when the new wonderful, caring loving person in our lives begins to behave badly, which seems to be out of character, we come up with justifications for it. He is having a bad day, she is stressed at work, he made a mistake, it happens to us all. We rationalize it away. The controlling person themselves will often provide the justification. I was adopted, or abused by a previous partner or (...other excuses...), and that's why I am acting this way. And at the time, it all seems to make sense in one way or another. But the problem is that these justifications become reality. The victim acts as if the justification are true, even when they are not (and remember the psychopath is a professional liar). And in this way people end up tolerating all sorts of bad behavior.
The trick is to try and separate out the behavior from the justification. This can be tricky for the victim and talking to others may help here. So for example, the manipulative husband locks himself into his home office for hours. He claims he is adopted and is searching for his real mother. The fact is that he is in his room, not helping with the running of the house. Or he criticizes your friends, saying that he is doing it to protect you from them. The fact is that he is criticizing your friends. That's what you need to pay attention to. Another frequent occurrence is where the manipulator insults the victim in a very cruel way. When the victim then gets upset, the manipulator then criticizes the victim for being too sensitive or for 'not being able to take a joke'. In the moment, it's all too easy for the victim to accept the 'excuse' and blame themselves for feeling upset. But again, the fact is that the manipulator is being hurtful. That's what the victim has to pay attention to.
If you are living with a controlling person of this type, it really is best if you don't try and figure out how to manage or deal with them. It's not possible to have a relationship of equals with them. And don't keep hoping they will change. You have been in the relationship with them for how long now? And they really are not getting better, are they? They may promise that they will change but each time things improve for a short time and then they are back at it all over again. Your time is precious. Your life is important. Don't waste any more of it being abused.
And do not ask them for help, discuss what your problems are with them or depend on their help or support. This is incredibly difficult, I know, because you are programmed to be dependent on them and to believe what they say. (These things also make it very difficult to know which of the three groups you are in, as I mentioned above.)
If you are currently living with a controlling person of this nature, you can read more about abusive relationships, toxic families, some important ideas about leaving a controlling situation, how to get away from a controlling husband and how to divorce a sociopath.
And remember, the most important things are to get help and get out!
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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