The signs of a controlling relationship can actually be hard to recognize. This is why people end up in abusive relationships for a long time and why some people end up in one abusive relationship after another. If they were easy to recognize, people would leave controlling relationships very quickly and there would be much less harm done!
Whether you are outside the relationship looking in, or actually in a controlling relationship, there are many factors which make it difficult to recognize what is actually going on. Here we will examine some of the most common signs of a controlling relationship and look at the particular factors that hide the reality of the situation.
But first we need to define controlling. For our purposes, a controlling relationship is not one where one person is demanding because they are ill or are going through a bad patch and want and need a lot of your time and attention. We are talking here about a situation where one partner sets out to dominate and control the other and they do this because they want to dominate and control, not because they are lonely or needy or insecure or they feel bad about themselves. The controlling people we are talking about set out to manipulate and control others deliberately. They are typically good at it because their nature allows them to do it and because they practice. So before getting into their nature, let's have a look at some of the signs of a controlling relationship that can be difficult for the victim to recognize and why.
Many people know that cults and abusers in intimate relationships isolate their victims (so that nobody can tell them the truth about the manipulator) and that this is a 'red flag'. So why does it still happen so often? Why don't people see that they are being distanced from their support network and just walk away from the controlling spouse? Let's examine a typical sequence of events.
A couple get together and the relationship moves very quickly, which, by the way, is one of the important signs of a controlling relationship. Within a couple of weeks, he moves into her place. She is over the moon, telling everyone about the new love of her life, how perfect he is and that finally she has met someone who really understands her and is taking great care of her. Shortly after moving in, he starts making comments about her family and friends, with whom she has had good relationships up to this point. Nothing very critical, just that she seems a bit dependent on her parents for some one who is her age and that one particular friend of hers makes him feel uncomfortable. He can't put his finger on it but there is something about this friend that is not quite right for him.
She laughs at the idea of being dependent on her parents but in her mind she is secretly wondering if she is dependent or not. She asks herself what he sees that makes him say that. Over the next few weeks she spends a lot of time with the new love of her life (as in any relationship) and a bit less time with family and friends. When she suggests seeing her family he suggests that they actually do something alone because he is so in love with her that he wants to be able to give her all his attention. She is flattered and agrees not to see her family.
Some more time goes by, she speaks by phone with her parents and they suggest meeting up again. She says that she will arrange something with her boyfriend. When she brings up the subject with him, he jokes about the parents not wanting to lose their little girl and that they want to keep her close, keep tabs on her and so on. Eventually she goes to visit her family with him. He may be charming and effusive or he may be very quiet and kind of timid. Either way after the visit, the comments start about her parents. Again, nothing shocking, just that her father has this particular thing he does and her mother was fussing a lot and such things. She agrees that these things are, indeed, true.
Her parents were not thrilled with this new boyfriend but their daughter seemed so happy so they think that maybe he is ok.
Over time, he continues to make comments about her parents, repeating things about how they were hanging onto her and telling her what to do (whether they actually were or not!). Hearing these things over and over again, she begins to have doubts about her parents.
If the parents get upset because she has canceled coming to see them or because she has not been along for a while, she will typically report back to her boyfriend about what they said. He twists and distorts this information, making out that he was right, they are trying to keep her dependent and control her. He claims that they won't allow her to make her own decisions. She begins to feel bad about what's going on with her boyfriend and her parents although there have been no direct clashes between them.
If the parents do indeed say anything to her about not liking him, when she tells him what they said (as she will), then he has even more ammunition with which to criticize the parents. "Are you having a nice time with me?" he asks. "Of course," she replies. "Then why would your parents not want you to be happy?" he shoots back. And from there he points out that their comments are simply more evidence that they are trying to stop her development, to stop her from being independent, they are trying to control her decisions and control her life. She hears these ideas repeatedly.
Then when she does speak to her parents she is concerned about what they are going to say. She is defensive about her boyfriend. She points out that they don't know him like she does, they just need to get to know him better and try to understand things from his perspective. After all, he has had an abusive childhood or difficult parents or a difficult previous marriage or was bullied in work or some other significant problem. Eventually there may be full on arguments with the parents over this boyfriend. She defends him (because she can't see anything wrong with him - we will get to that later).
When she tells her boyfriend about the arguments, he keeps saying that he was right all along, they are not interested in her happiness and just won't let her make her own decisions. He points out that they won't even listen to her opinions although the parents have actually spent lots of time listening to what she has to say. He says that she will never be happy if she listens to them, they are the source of her problems, they are the ones starting the arguments, they just won't let up about her boyfriend, they bring it up every single time she talks to them.
The daughter hears these ideas over and over. It seems to her that what the boyfriend is saying is true. She cannot actually see that he is provoking all this.
Eventually it becomes easier just to avoid her parents. She feels bad when she even thinks about talking to them because she knows that there will be problems. And when she discusses it with her boyfriend, or even husband at this stage, she knows that she will feel even worse. So she makes a conscious decision not to talk to them very often. She may even make the decision not to talk to them at all. The important thing here is that she thinks she is making the decision to cut off from her parents and the reason she is doing it is that her perception is that her parents are causing too many problems for her.
While all this is going on, the boyfriend has also started openly criticizing her friends. When she spends time alone with them, he will let his displeasure be known, either by arguing with her, giving her the silent treatment, often for days, withholding affection or some other significant punishment. He may never actually say the words 'Don’t go out with her or them!" but all the messages he sends are that he is not happy about her being with her friends. He may even criticize her for being such a bad judge of character for having such people as friends.
The end result is the same. The girl feels so bad at the thought of spending time with her friends because she knows that it will upset her boyfriend that she begins to not see them. She will feel that they are getting more distant from her anyway. The fact is that her friends will have less and less to talk about with her because her attention is so focused on him that even when she is with them she will often be quiet and withdrawn. She won't recognize this but her friends will. They may feel awkward with her and they may tell her what they think of the boyfriend.
Once again, when the boyfriend finds out what they friends are saying, he will use this to criticize the friends and put them in the same category as the parents. He will make her feel so bad about them that she makes the decision to spend less and less time with her friends. She does not see that he has pushed her to make the decision by controlling her emotions and thoughts. She believes fully that she has made the decision herself. Such friends may be put in the category of 'not the friend I thought she was', or troublemaker, or someone with a grudge, or some such thing which makes it easy for the girl to deliberately give up the relationship and walk away.
In this way, the controlling and bullying husband or boyfriend manipulates the perceptions, beliefs and emotions to get the girl to make certain decisions and act on them. The idea that the girl believes she is making her own decisions is fundamental in understanding why people don't see that they are being isolated. They believe the family or friends are causing the problems and in this way it's easy to blame them for the situation and break away from them. But all the time the person believes they are doing things off their own bat, so to speak. They don't actually recognize the psychological pressure being applied to them from the boyfriend that they think loves them and is looking out for them. Their perception of the world has been so manipulated that they don't see what is actually happening and their actions makes perfect sense to them based on what they believe.
People generally know that in an abusive relationship there is a lot of attacks on the victim. These attacks can be on the person's appearance, the person's thoughts or beliefs or attacks on the person themselves. So how come victims end up tolerating years of criticism and humiliation without recognizing it?
To understand why the victim has difficulty spotting this one of the signs of a controlling relationship you have to keep in mind the history of the relationship here. Controlling, abusive men and women know they have to hide certain things from their targets if they want to start a relationship with them. If the target finds out very early what the manipulator is like, they will simply run a mile. Therefore the manipulators have to trick their targets into getting involved in a relationship. They do this by presenting themselves as the perfect partner for that particular victim. They pay the victim a lot of attention, with lots of compliments and even flattery and they typically pretend that they have a lot in common with the victims. After all, we like people who are like us and who have the same interests. The controlling people also offer the victims whatever they need in that moment, whether it's emotional support, financial support, spirituality, personal improvement or the solution to a particular problem. Typically the victim believes they have met the perfect partner, their soul mate.
This means that the victim falls head over heels in love with this person very soon into the relationship. This first impression of the manipulator is very powerful and is difficult to shift later. It also means that because the victim is almost euphoric, they have no sense of problems or danger in their lives for a while. When the emotions are running very high or very low, it's actually very difficult to think logically or rationally. This is one of the reasons that the manipulators love bomb their targets. They don't want them thinking properly, they don't want them to listen to the warnings of friends or family and they want the targets to get used to being led and directed to think and act in certain ways.
This is also the start of the creation of the dependency of the victim on the controlling person. The victim likes the attention, the love and the compliments. It's natural for humans to want others to like them. So the victim gets used to feeling good around their new partner.
Then when the criticisms start, the victim is motivated to try and change things in order to elicit more of the compliments. After all, we'd rather feel good than feel bad. The controlling person who has been offering unconditional love up to this point, now starts changing the terms and conditions. The victim is led to understand, sometimes very subtly, that they have to conform to certain things if the love is to continue. If they don't conform, the message is that they might even lose the relationship.
Keeping in mind how strongly the bond is between victim and controller (in part because it was built very, very fast using strong influence techniques), the victim absolutely does not want to lose this relationship. Therefore the victim tries to appease the partner so as to maintain the relationship. They begin to pay attention to not upsetting the partner in order to keep the good times going. This means beginning to watch the partner carefully to monitor moods etc, to make sure they only do and say things that are pleasing to the partner.
(Because of the dependency, the threat of losing the relationship is a very strong motivator for the victim. The victim often cannot imagine a life without the abuser and so are prepared to do whatever it takes not to lose him or her. Knowing this the abuser will often overtly threaten to leave or get a divorce, knowing that it will get the victim to fall into line again. They may threaten frequently but don't actually carry through, which is torture for the victims! Sometimes the victims live with a vague sense that if they argue too much or complain too much that they may lose the relationship and this is enough for them to control themselves and go along with what the abuser wants.)
The alternation of compliments and criticism enhances the dependency of the victim on the abuser. In fact, the more humiliation there is, the greater the dependency, that is, the more the victim steps up and tries to please the abuser. You might think that if there was more humiliation then the victim would spot this and run, but that's not what actually happens in mind control situations. Because of the way the relationship was set up by the abuser, the humiliation actually motivates the victim to try harder to please the abuser. The victim has been led to think that the abuser loves them and cares for them and is actually looking out for them and even that the abuser is sacrificing some things for them. The abusers will often say to the victims directly that they are doing these things for the benefit of the victim and the victim ends up believing this. Yes, you would think that the victim should spot these things but you have to keep in mind that by this stage the victim's way of perceiving the world has been completely twisted by the manipulator. On top of that the victim's beliefs have been changed and their emotions are constantly being manipulated in order to control their decisions making and their actions.
Similarly to the isolation, the first of the signs of a controlling relationship we examined above, in this situation the victim is led step by step through a process. The controller does not go straight for critical comments or telling the person that they are not allowed to see their parents. Rather, the manipulator introduces an idea, reinforces it over time and when they are happy that it is accepted, then they push the victim to the next step. This step is easier to take having the first idea in place. When the victim is on board with this next piece, then they are hurried onto the next belief, and then the next and the next and so on.
So a sequence might be, your parents did their best bringing you up but they did make some mistakes... they didn't have the information that we have so they couldn't have brought you this far... it's understandable that they don't like what you are doing because they don’t understand it... if they are not willing to learn what you are doing, it's because they are not very sophisticated... if they are arguing with you all the time then it's because they are trying to hold you back, they are not interested in your real development/growth/happiness... they are causing you a lot of stress now, and if you check your past you will find many other examples of how they were trying to control you then, too, it's probably best not to spend much time with them... they are still fighting you? You are much better off without them in your life, I am your family now, I understand, I am with you, I support you, they obviously don't, they are just nasty and you can see them for who they really are now...
The abusers are constantly manipulating the impressions of the victims. As well as that, they actively control the person's beliefs, thinking and emotions. What happens is that all these things add up to basically changing a person at their core, at the level of their personality. After some time the victim thinks and acts differently and has different beliefs and a different world view from before. This is often very obvious to family and friends but the victim will typically not recognize just how much they have changed. This is in part because they have been led step by step through a process that they haven't been aware of and also because they believe that they have been making their own decisions the whole time.
This new personality is called a pseudopersonality or false personality because it has been imposed on the victim. This is all done without the consent or even the knowledge of the victim. You can read more about how the pseudopersonality is created in this article on being married to an abuser or in this article about healing from emotional abuse.
The things that are useful to know right now are that the pseudopersonality is programmed by the abuser to take care of the abuser, to put the wants and needs of the abuser first and it is programmed to believe what the abuser says and to not question or criticize. The pseudopersonality is basically a clone of the manipulator with many of the same beliefs, ideas and behaviors of the abuser. These beliefs include the idea that the abuser is superior, the victim inferior, the abuser is responsible for all the good things, the victim responsible for all the bad things, the abuser is the leader and the victim the follower.
So what kind of people do this to others? The answer is that when there are signs of a controlling relationship, in many cases the controller is a psychopath, a sociopath or a narcissist. These are people with a personality disorder which means that their relationship with themselves and others is disordered. Their relationships are based on power, manipulation and control. They take advantage of others in many ways for their own selfish benefit.
I won't go into too much details about these types right now. You will find more specific details here about psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists. The words sociopath and psychopath are often used interchangeably but some people differentiate between them.
What you do need to know is that these people have no conscience and a huge ego. No conscience comes from having no emotions such as guilt, remorse, fear, embarrassment or love. This means they can do anything they like and not feel bad about it. The huge ego means that they consider themselves superior beings and that they are entitled to whatever they want. They are prepared to coerce, abuse and torture people into giving them what they want and they never get upset about any damage they do.
I know this may sound extreme if you haven't considered these types before. But if you are seeing the signs of a controlling relationship in your situation or that of a loved one, you really need to consider psychopathy and narcissism. If indeed you are dealing with one, it's vital to understand them because when they are involved the rules are different. If you play by the normal rules, you will lose, it's as simple as that.
These types are good liars and they will even lie when it would be better for them to tell the truth. They don't accept responsibility for any mistakes they make, they have no sense of obligation in keeping their word or doing as they are ordered by the courts and they are unpredictable. Being in a relationship with someone like this means that you are in a high stress environment, even when you are not with them. You become hpervigilant, constantly monitoring them and monitoring yourself to make sure that you don't do or say anything that might upset them.
One of the significant signs of a controlling relationship is that it's never the abuser's fault and someone else, often the spouse, gets the blame. Early in the relationship when a controlling and bullying husband blames his wife for something, she may argue back because she doesn't think it's her fault. He then begins to twist and distort the information and accuses her of being, for example, argumentative. In that moment she is arguing with him and she has to concede that he is right about that. However, because of the emotional upset she doesn't recognize the subtlety that she is arguing, not argumentative, nor does it come to her mind that the reason she is arguing is that he is doing this thing again of blaming her. After a few rounds of this, she has heard him accuse her of being argumentative so often that she begins to believe it, even if it's only a partial acceptance.
Over time there will be a whole series of similar things happening. He says something cold and heartless and she gets upset and offended. He then criticizes her for being overly emotional and taking things too seriously. She then feels bad because she is very emotional and he seems calm and collected. Remember that he doesn't get upset, that's why he can stay calm and cool but she doesn’t know that there exist people who don’t have emotions and she thinks that he is genuinely able to manage his emotions. It’s important to keep in mind here that because what he has done is so callous and cruel she gets very upset. He made his remarks very personal and they were designed to do damage. Her response is normal and healthy to such a thing in that most people would have responded in the same way. And having deliberately provoked this response he now criticizes her for responding this very way.
This is a trick. It is deception. But her emotional distress prevents her from being able to think rationally and consequently she is kept from seeing it for what it is. Again, he seems to be right, she is emotional, she took it personally and she was unable to laugh it off. (Any advice not to take the criticism of a psychopath personally is doomed to failure. They know exactly how to make comments very, very personal and they are much better at doing it than a normal, feeling person is at 'not taking it personally'.) This, too, will happen over and over again and the pattern that the victim is at fault begins to be strengthened.
Another example would be when the victim makes a mistake and the message from the controlling person is that the victim is stupid, a failure, worthless etc. The manipulator attacks not the belief or the action, but the person. In the above example, it's 'you are argumentative' and not 'you are arguing again.' All these attacks on the person's sense of self (YOU are bad, YOU are the problem) explains how the original personality is broken down and changed and the pseudopersonality is installed.
Over time the victim is told time and time again that they are at fault, that who they are is the problem and it seems to the victim that there is evidence for this. What the psychopath or narcissist says in the moment seems to be true but it's only true if you take that one moment in time and you don't look at the bigger picture. As it happens the pseudopersonality is unable to look at the big picture because they are kept drowning in details by the psychopath. He blames her for the speck of dirt on the carpet, because the child is crying and because the food it too hot or cold with not enough salt. This keeps her head busy so that she doesn't have to time to stop and sit back and reflect on whether she even wants to be in the relationship or not. All she knows is that she loves him and she wishes that he would just treat her nicely the way he did at the start so they can have nice times together again.
On top of all this he knows how to play the victim card and he does it very well. This occurs in two ways. Firstly, when his wife complains about his doing something, he lists off a series of times when she did the same thing but on a grander scale (according to him), and she often ends up apologizing to him! And secondly, because of his past injury/illness/abuse, this is why he can't possibly be expected to ... (you fill in the blank) and in no way is it his fault. And if she or anyone else can't see that then they are to blame, it's their problem. Checkmate!
And there's more. I pointed out that the pseudopersonality is more or less a clone of the manipulator and in this way the identity of the victim is thus enmeshed with that of the abuser. So when the victim hears anyone criticizing or blaming the abuser for anything, it feels like a personal attack on the victim. The victim feels very strongly and will defend the abuser, often very aggressively. This public defense of the abuser solidifies the belief of the victim that the abuser is flawless and that outside influences are to blame for things, the victim, of course, being one of these things.
When someone is recovering after a psychopathic relationship, this acceptance of blame for everything is one of the patterns that takes some time and effort to undo because it is so deeply ingrained in the victim.
It's very common that the controlling spouse will manage the finances. They may have complete control over all the money with the victim having no clue what money is available, they may have access to the victim's accounts (with the victim not having access to the manipulator's accounts) or they may simply determine where and how the money is spent. In other words, the manipulator gets to spend their own money as well as that of their partner.
Here it is important to keep in mind that the pseudopersonality is programmed to believe what the manipulator says and is not allowed to question or challenge the manipulator's decisions. The pseudopersonality is led to believe that the abuser is better at handling money, or that it is 'a man's job', or that the victim is not good with money. With these beliefs in place (and remember the beliefs are put in place with very strong influence techniques and are often stronger than normal, healthy beliefs) the most natural thing in the world for the victim to do is to hand over control of the finances to the manipulator. They have literally no reason to challenge this idea if they strongly believe it's the best thing to do.
A girl goes out with her girlfriends for the night. Her boyfriend calls nine times during the evening and when she is ready to leave, he is outside waiting for her to bring her home. Later, her friends ask her if he is a bit jealous. She laughs it off and says no, that her new boyfriend is crazy about her, he cant get her out of his head, he doesn't want to be without her. She says he tells her he misses her so much that he has to call to hear her voice and he was worried about her safety and that's why he came to collect her, he didn't want her walking home alone.
Here we see that even despite her friends pointing out that there is something wrong, this girl is literally unable to see it. The combination of being head over heels about his guy, plus the fact that he has redefined his actions from 'jealous/controlling' to 'I do it because I care so much about you' (which reinforces her being head over heels about him!) makes it practically impossible for her to sense any danger or problems. Remember, when madly in love, people typically have no sense of problems or difficulties. Life is just marvelous and things just get sorted out easily enough. Their heads are so full of happy thoughts that they literally do not feel they have problems.
This redefining of things by the controlling partner is very common and it works by hiding the real reason from the victim. Once the victim buys into the reasoning, it's very difficult to undo that.
So if the controlling person has access to the password on her phone, it's because that's what loving couples do. Or, if you have nothing to hide, why wouldn't you share the password with your partner?
When he shouts at her it's because his parents abused him as a child and he can't do anything about it. When he is cold and unfeeling, it's because he has a touch of Asperger's/autism/bipolar/(something else) and he can't do anything about it (and so she is just going to have to deal with it). And when he asks constantly where she was and who she was with it's because his last partner cheated on him and he has trouble with it now.
All these excuses elicit pity from the victim, at least the first few times, and because we are social creatures when we feel pity we want to step in and help and support the poor, suffering person in any way we can. And over time, these excuses are trotted out over and over again until they become 'the way it is'. The victim believes these things and then makes decisions and bases their actions on the particular belief. Every time they act as if it is true, it reinforces the belief, even when that belief is pure fabrication (a complete lie!) on the part of the manipulator.
When a victim has based their actions on believing such lies, later, when they are recovering, it's often difficult for them initially to recognize that there is another explanation for things, and they will often try and defend the (strong) false beliefs for a while.
Outsiders may notice that a victim in a controlling relationship will frequently check with the controlling spouse or partner before making any commitments. Basically they are asking for permission. If the victim is challenged on this, they will deny that they need permission and will give an explanation that satisfies themselves as to why they are 'discussing things first' with their partner.
This is often an implicit rule that the manipulator has set up with their victim. At some point early in the relationship the woman announced that she was doing something without him. The controlling partner would then have made her feel bad in some way, for example, guilty for leaving him out, for not caring enough to let him know first, guilty for ruining the plans he had made. He would have made out that he was hurt because she was ashamed of him or because she didn't want him to get to know her friends or whatever. There may be a 'punishment' either before or after she does her activity. This can be a shouting match, the cold shoulder treatment, withholding affection, breaking something or threats. The next time she arranges something without him, he makes her feel bad all over again and there are more punishments. He may never say, 'don't make decisions without asking me first' or 'you need my permission to do anything' but when she makes a unilateral decision, there is a particular response, or set of responses from him.
She quickly learns that if she is going to make a decision alone, he is going to be upset and she will pay for it. For this reason, the punishment after the event is a nasty manipulative technique because when she sees the pattern, if she does her activity alone, the whole time she is also thinking about the bad mood he is going to be in when she gets home so it tends to spoil her activity.
Soon she realizes that it's better to not make unilateral decisions but that she should say something to him first in order to avoid the unpleasantness. She will often then justify this with one of the explanations he has repeatedly used earlier, 'I want to include him because that's what couples do' or 'I don't want to double book things' or 'we do everything together' or 'he likes to be involved in the family things'. Sometimes it is just 'I don't want to upset him'.
This idea of repetition is very significant. When we hear things over and over again, we tend to believe it. Tell a big enough lie often enough and some of it sticks... This is one of the reasons the manipulators repeat things. They want those things to be prominent in the minds of their victims. Think about the news channels and the repetition of the same news clips over and over throughout the day!
And even while he insists that she not make decisions without consulting him first, he may make unilateral decisions whenever he likes. Once again he will have different reasons and justifications for why he can do it. The thinking of the victim is often so twisted and distorted that she does not recognize that he is doing the very things she is not allowed to do. This may seem unbelievable but it's actually what happens when somebody has a pseudopersonality. There will be lots of contradictions that the pseudopersonality simply cannot recognize. Their reasoning is so jumbled up that they can think there are valid reasons (often multiple reasons) why they cannot do something but it's ok for the controlling partner to do it.
One of the tactics of the manipulator is to talk non stop. They jump from one topic to another, they link one thing to another where there is no logical link, they contradict themselves. When a person listens to a lot of that, their thinking becomes more like that of the psychopath or narcissist and what the psychopath is saying begins to make sense. At this stage, in the victim's head, everything is connected to everything else. They find it hard to actually tease things apart and make distinctions. This type of thinking is a major factor in making it hard for victims to make sense of what is happening to them and to actually see the signs of a controlling relationship.
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