Is Your Spouse Controlling?
What Are The Signs? How To Get Out
It can happen to anyone. So say the experts about what the chances are of getting romantically involved with a controlling manipulator. Even the most well grounded of us can find ourselves mired in the complex dynamics of a controlling relationship.
“We want to all be loved and needed, and find that Prince Charming. You can be very educated, very attractive, feel good about yourself, but we all have susceptibility, no matter how high our self-esteem is,” said Daniela E. Schreier, 37, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of the Chicago School based in Illinois. “If a person is coming onto you, wants all of your time, is the perfect sexual match with lots of passion, it’s hard not to be seduced by that. You may not notice that the person is taking over your life. By the time you look back and notice it, you are already sucked in.”
“And if you are even just the wee bit vulnerable or, worse, coming out of a broken relationship or from a place of shaky self-esteem, you are a particularly easy mark. Most controllers are charming in the beginning. They say things like, ‘I will always be there for you. You can count on me. I am the one who really understands you,'”said Susan J. Elliott, 51, a New York-based lawyer, certified grief counselor and founder and CEO of Getting Past Your Past Productions, LLC.
“They try to become a fixture in someone’s life and promote dependency. What happens over time, they start to take away your independence and become more controlling, more critical. They cripple your self-esteem until you are doing the dance they want you to do.”
And that dance is all about one person always leading and that person is the controller. The partner, according to Elliot, who is also the author of “Phoenix Rising: How to turn a devastating breakup into the best thing that ever happened to you,” has to be compliant and assume the subservient role.Elliot should know. She was in a controlling marriage for years and that experience has compelled her to take a closer look at the dynamics of such relationships.
“One common characteristic of most long-term, controlling relationships is that the victim, often is unaware of the depth of the manipulation that they have been subjected to over the years. In my relationship, I wasn’t aware of it until the last year. I really thought everything was my fault,” she said. “I thought if I could just straighten up and fly right. Everything I did was wrong. It was like if I cleaned the house, I couldn’t clean it well enough. He would say I left streaks on the floor. And if I was home cleaning the floor, then I was wrong for not taking the kids to the park. If I took the kids to the park, then why didn’t I clean the house? I was being held to impossible standards.”
According to Mary Jo Fay, 52, a self-proclaimed survivor-turned-advisor, that assumption of blame by the person who is actually the one abused is just part of what happens to the mindset of the victim. In many cases, the victim also takes it one step further becoming the proponent of the abuser as well and that particular psychological response has a name.
It’s called ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’ Back in 1973 in Sweden, bank robbers broke into a bank and strapped explosives on their captives. “By the time the police broke in, the victims were worried for the safety of the captors,” said Fay, a Denver, Colo.-based author of several books about narcissistic relationships, including the self-published “When your Perfect Partner goes Perfectly Wrong“. “The captives are actually trying to come up with a way to endear themselves to their captors to keep them safe. In the case of a woman in a controlling relationship, she is subconsciously trying to keep herself safe.”
Which might provide some insight into why many women end up staying in controlling relationships. Another reason may have to do with the optimistic nature of most people who genuinely believe that the person will change in the future.
“We have been socialized to give up so much of ourselves, to believe that we can complete someone else that we are made to feel guilty if we feel we failed. We need to get that out of our heads,” said Scheier. “To be very honest, its hard to see your world as it is. You have fallen in love with this person, you think this is the person you want to be with, and often you don’t want to see the truth. If you see it, you have to make a choice. You hope for change, even if you know there is no change coming. It is too painful to admit that this guy will never be what you need him to be. Hope is the last thing to die for all of us.”
“Control can feel good in the beginning. He wants to take the lead. He puts together the dates and all you do is show up. It feels really good to be taken care of, but it often masks the kind of control that is not healthy,” said Tina B. Tessina, 64, a Long Beach, Calif.-based psychotherapist and author of “The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You’re Far Apart .”
This tendency, she says, is one of the signs to look for at the beginning of a relationship to detect whether or not you might be dating a controlling person. Testing the water by not agreeing with one of his ideas is another. “I would say if he has a bad reaction when you don’t fall right into his plan, whatever it is, if he gets really upset, that is a bad sign. If there is an emotional response, more temper tantrummy or pouty than just crestfallen, that’s a problem,” Tessina said. “He should be able to handle that.”
“Seeing the behavior early by paying attention and noticing the signs is perhaps the only way to detect the true nature and intent of the person trying to draw you in. We teach people how to treat us. This behavior starts out in dribs and drabs, but there are always signs. If we are on date three or four, and he says to me, ‘My God, Mary Jo, are you always this stupid?’ and I ignore this strong signal, if I make excuses for him and don’t acknowledge that he even said that, I am teaching him it is OK to call me ‘stupid,'” Fay said. “The next time, he calls me ‘a stupid fucking bitch,’ well, maybe I think, ‘Yesterday, he was fine, and now today, he called me this. Nothing has changed, so it must be me.'”
“But a healthy woman, the first time he called her ‘stupid,’ would say, ‘No one calls me names.’ But we don’t do that because in part we are worried that if this guy disappears there won’t be another one.”
“In any situation with a partner that might be controlling, standing up to that person is the best way to flush out the truth. But be forewarned, though, sometimes that truth can be dangerous. Standing up to a controlling person and letting him know you refuse to obey will have one of three results,” Tessina said. “He may say, ‘OK, I get it’ and drop the control, but you need to be vigilant; it may crop up again. He may just go find someone else he can control and good riddance. Or he may escalate into abuse and violence. The third one is the dangerous one. If this happens, you must protect yourself immediately by getting family or friend support, or calling the police if necessary.”
“Which in many extreme cases is what happens if you should decide to leave the relationship. If he is in control of everything, you walking out threatens his belief system,” Fay said. “You just left, and if he is control of everything, that just doesn’t fit. He will either rage to get you afraid, or he will attack in some other way. Or he will suddenly do all sorts of things to get even with you. Or he will simply ignore you as if you don’t exist. Then you are not in his life to wreck his paradigm and he will find a replacement for you.”
For Elliot, it was a combination of all of the above. “After a particularly abusive episode, we separated, and even then he tried to control me. When he would take the kids for visitation, he would threaten to keep them if I didn’t listen to him and do what he said. Only through my therapist advising me to tell him, ‘Go ahead and keep them,’ did I start to zero in on what was going on. It took me most of the first year, but it was intense therapy, support groups, 12-step meetings. I threw myself into it. I just didn’t want to dance anymore.”