What is a controlling relationship? The short answer is that it's a relationship in which the manipulator creates a reality and then forces the victim to live within that reality. The manipulator controls the individuals behavior and emotions, their thoughts and beliefs. They control the information available and they control perceptions as well as decision making. They control the victim's sense of self and their sense of their place in the world. The manipulators make themselves the center of the universe of each victim and dominate every aspect of the victim's life.
The process used to do this is fairly standard, whether it's a romantic relationship, a friendship, a teacher/student relationship, a therapist/client situation, a work situation and it's the same process used in cults to recruit, indoctrinate and control members of the group.
But before we get to that, let's look at the details of what is a controlling relationship...
The reality the manipulator creates usually has the following characteristics (in no particular order):
They are always right, you are always wrong.
Things have to be done their way.
You are afraid of them and of their temper.
Your life is organized around making sure they are happy and have what they want.
You get what you want only if they are satisfied first.
You are often walking on eggshells to make sure you don't upset them.
They lose their temper quickly, sometimes for no reason at all.
They switch out of the temper as quickly as they got into it, and act as if nothing happened, while you may be an emotional mess for hours afterwards.
They say cruel and hurtful things but then justify them away. They may even blame you for saying them, even claiming that they are said for your own good, or for the good of the relationship.
They control the finances. They always have money for what they want, but you don't. You may have to explain to them exactly what you are spending and why.
You are not allowed to criticize or challenge them, but they do this to you, a lot!
In fact, there seems to be one set of rules for them and another set for you. The rules change sometimes but you are not told when they have changed. You only find out when you are in trouble for breaking them.
The manipulator makes you feel guilty a lot.
You are also afraid of them, but you probably don't like to admit it.
They may control your clothes, your hair style, your food and drink.
They may control the amount of time you are allowed to sleep. If they start arguments just before bed time, if they wake you when they come to bed or if they don’t let you sleep late in the morning when you are tired, then they are sleep depriving you. Somehow this is acceptable.
When you got into this relationship at the start, the person seemed perfect. They were kind, considerate and they made you feel great about yourself. Now they more often than not make you feel awful about yourself. So bad, in fact, that you are all the time trying to change to make them happy.
You spend most of your time with them, or alone. You spend much less time with your friends and family now than you did before. The manipulator may make disparaging comments about your friends and family, start arguments when you want to spend time with them or even making you feel bad for having these friends or family.
You have to answer your phone or reply to messages straight away or there is hell to pay. They don’t feel the same sense of obligation and may or may not respond to you.
They have your passwords to everything but you do not have theirs.
You are not allowed to keep secrets from them. They may want to know everything, what you do, where you are, who you are with, what you speak about. But you know very little about what they are up to.
They threaten you, either overtly or covertly. They say that unless you fall in line they will do all sorts of things, from taking away your stuff or your privileges to taking the kids away, physically hurting you and threatening to leave or divorce you. This is particularly nasty because they know you are dependent on them and you don't want to lose them so you end up doing whatever they want, because you can't bear to even think about losing the relationship.
The thought of not being in the relationship causes terror or panic. You have a phobia of losing them, even though you don't like the way you are being treated but you know you should leave. In this reality, you may even feel that you won't be able to survive outside the relationship.
You also have a lot of other contradictory thoughts and feelings. You love them but you hate them, too. You want to take care of them but you are very angry at them. You know in your head you have to leave but you feel you can never get away. You feel obliged to stay and make it work but you know it will never get better.
Everything they do for you is conditional. If they give you anything such as time, attention, money, whatever, you know you will have to pay for it.
They are very competitive. They cannot lose. If you get one up on them, you know there will be payback. You just don't know when it will be or what form it will take.
Whatever you do, however much time or effort you put into something, no matter how hard you try, it's never good enough. They always want and expect more.
You are made to feel that YOU are never good enough.
They can talk a lot. In fact they can talk so much you end up feeling confused and irritated and you give in just to get them off your back. You couldn't explain to others what some of these conversations were about.
You feel that you are going mad trying to make sense of the situation. They blame you for everything but at some level you know it's not all you, but you can’t think straight. You can't understand how this person who loves you (or so you believe) can be so cold and cruel towards you.
You have done sexual things that you are not comfortable with in order to please them
You have done other things too, that you wouldn't otherwise do, in order to placate them.
You see him or her in public acting like the nicest, friendliest person ever, and you think "If those people only knew what s/he is like at home!"
Any time something goes well for you, you are successful or you enjoy some thing, they destroy the moment by criticizing, starting an argument or punishing you.
At the start of the relationship there were lots of rewards. You were made to feel great, although it was always in relation to them. Now, there are way more punishments than rewards.
When you are rewarded, you feel great. You think that things are back on track and things might be the way they were at the start. You are given hope again. Hope that things will continue to be good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. The abusive behavior kicks back in very quickly.
Obviously not all of these things have to be present to consider that you are in a controlling relationship.
If someone knew they were going to give up everything they had in order to serve the selfish needs of an abusive, cruel partner, they would run a mile from that person. Nobody goes out looking for a controlling relationship, not even "subconsciously". So how do they end up in such circumstances?
The manipulators are not stupid. They know they need to hide their true nature if they are to convince someone to start a relationship. So they do exactly that. They pretend to be friendly, caring and attentive. They assess their target to figure out what the target wants and needs, what the target fears and dislikes and what the target's weaknesses as well as strengths are. Then they present themselves as a perfect fit. They offer the target exactly what that target is looking for. This is why so many people in abusive situations say that they thought they had met Mr. Right, Miss Perfect or their soul mate.
The controllers do what it takes to make it as easy as possible for the target to say yes. This is called love bombing. If that means getting the target to fall in love with them, then they do that, too. Once a person is head over heels in love, it is very difficult for them to think straight and to rationalize. They cannot even heed the warnings of friends and family that things are moving too fast. They have no sense of problems or difficulties and they plow ahead into the relationship, committing very quickly and giving all their attention to the manipulator.
Manipulators often use the pity play on top of this. A pity play is where the manipulator talks about an abusive past where they were taken advantage of in some way whereby this elicits pity in the listener. We are hard wired to take care of each other and the manipulators know this. If they can get someone to feel sorry for them, they know they are well on the way to controlling that person. The target in this case is in love with the manipulator and is now pushed into thinking that they will take care of this wonderful person in front of them like no one else ever has. The target is now in big trouble!
It is important to distinguish here between some people who are controlling in relationships because of childhood trauma, mental illness or because they were treated badly in previous relationships. Here we are talking about people who control for the sake of controlling, that is, psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists.
Once the manipulator knows that the target is committed, and fooled, the bad behavior kicks in. The target rationalizes it away, often with the help of the manipulator. Stressful day, accident, won't happen again, I was upset, etc. etc. But over time, the bad and controlling behavior gets worse and worse until it becomes the norm.
The target, who is in love with the manipulator, tries harder and harder to do what the manipulator wants in order not to have the manipulator angry and upset. The target believes if they change their behavior, the manipulator will settle down and things can go back to the way they were at the start, fantastic!
The alternation of nice behavior and controlling behavior, compliments and criticism, actually enhances the dependency of the victim on the manipulator. People think, "Oh, if someone abused me, or said horrible things about me, I would just walk away. I would leave. I wouldn't tolerate that!"
But when someone is involved in a controlling relationship like we are describing here, with the love and the dependency in place, when the abuse starts, the opposite happens. The victim is committed to the relationship, they have had a brilliant time with the manipulator at the start of the relationship so they know that is possible, and they want things to be good. They are led to believe that if they just change this or adapt to that, then things will be fantastic again. So the most obvious response is to try harder, to step up and do what the manipulator wants so that good times can be had again. So instead of walking away, the victim, because of the reality that they are living in, strongly believes that the best thing to do is to try harder to please the manipulator.
In a controlling relationship there are typically insults, criticism, belittling, scoffing, and personal attacks. The manipulator directly attacks the person at the level of identity. Instead of "That's a ridiculous thing to do" the manipulator says "You are ridiculous for doing that."
The victim is labeled all sorts of things, stupid, weak, useless, worthless, a waste of space, flawed, defective, sub human, and so on. The manipulator basically attacks the personality, making the victim feel very bad about who they are.
The victim is also blamed for everything bad or wrong in the relationship and told that if only they were more... (you fill in the blank) the relationship would be much better.
This drives the victim to change in some way to better their situation. They stop doing or saying certain things. They start doing and saying others. Pleasing the manipulator becomes their main activity. Nothing else is as important. They have no space for anything else in their head. Their time is spent organizing themselves around the manipulator.
The manipulator gives direct instructions as well as vague suggestions about what they want. The victim ends up in the role of following the orders of the manipulator. The manipulator turns the victim into the type of person they want around them. Think servant, or slave. This submissive person ends up providing the manipulator with whatever they want, money, attention, praise, adoration, sex, time and so on.
The victim changes their behavior, their thinking, their decision making, their beliefs, their ideas about the world and their role in the relationship. In effect, these changes add up to a personality change. The manipulator has imposed a different personality on the victim. This is why victims say that they have lost themselves in the relationship and why family and friends say that they do not recognize the person any more. They have had a false personality imposed on them by the manipulator.
This is called a pseudopersonality, pseudo meaning false. This was first described by Edgar Schein in the 50s when he studied the prisoners of war after the Korean war. These prisoners continued to believe in communism even after they had been released. Their beliefs did not flip back to what they were before they were captured, as is normal. The psychologists realized that their captors had somehow not only changed their behaviors as prisoners but had also changed their attitudes and beliefs in a way that was stable over time.
The same thing happens in a controlling relationship. The techniques of mind control that are used are very strong and they are repeated daily over months or years. The resulting pseudopersonality persists even after the victim leaves the abusive situation, whether the victim realizes how abusive the situation was or not.
This pseudopersonality has certain characteristics. It is programmed to believe the manipulator over everyone else. It is programmed to be dependent on the manipulator. It is programmed to put the desires and wants of the abuser first, before its own. It is programmed to do what the manipulator wants. It is programmed to need the manipulator to know what to do, and even to know who it is. If the victim gets a compliment then the victim believes they are ok, they are good. If the victim is criticized, they believe themselves to be defective or bad or worthless in some way. This is the extent to which a manipulator has control over their victims in the situations we are describing here. The victim literally knows who they are and whether they are ok depending on how the manipulator treats them.
The effects of this power imbalance are enormous and it begins to explain some of the unusual behaviors and characteristics of the victims.
The pseudopersonality has difficulty making decisions and thinking for itself. It is very submissive. People who used to be strong, confident types are turned into weak, fearful people who literally cannot understand that they are being abused. They are more concerned about the health and well being of the abuser than their own well being.
The victim has difficulty with memory, concentration, understanding, sleep, trusting others and is afraid of the future. The inability of the pseudopersonality to think logically means that the signs of the controlling relationship can be difficult to see.
A major problem is that the pseudopersonality does not simply disappear when the individual leaves the abusive situation. It persists. And it is recognizable to other manipulators.
This means that when the person with a pseudopersonality meets a manipulator in the future, the manipulator recognizes the fact that the person has been abused before and that individual is an easy target. The manipulator then sets to work, picking up where the last one left off. This is why people end up in other abusive situations, NOT because the victim needs someone to make their decisions for them or because "they are used to abusive situations".
If after reading this article, what is a controlling relationship? and you realize that you are in such a situation, the best thing you can do is to get out. I know that might sound terrifying, but learning more about mind control, the manipulators and what exactly has been done to you is fundamental.
You can read more here about the signs of mental abuse, things manipulative people say, do psychopaths know what they are doing?, healing from emotional abuse and recovery from an abusive relationship.
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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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