Controlling and abusive relationships tend to follow a pattern. These relationships are all about fragile and unstable egos running the show.
Needing to be in control and controlling others is about fear of outcomes. It is about a fear of being left, abandoned, or rejected. To stave off those fears, the controlling one does everything in their power to manipulate the other person. Keeping their partner off balance by shifting – usually abruptly, from balanced, to unbalanced behaviour.
In the most unstable egos, that shift can show up as extreme verbal abuse, or physical violence. It’s the switch from kindness to verbal attack, or calmness to violent outbursts, that is used to wear the controlled one down. And it is a wearing down.
At first glance it may appear as if it’s the one that’s being controlled that’s the weaker partner. Yet in actuality that person is allowing themselves to be controlled. This person has the power to leave, they’ve just been manipulated over time, into believing that they’re powerless. They come to believe, because of specific manipulation strategies, that they are powerless to help themselves.
Walking on eggshells
One of the first signs they’re being controlled is the feeling that they have to walk around on eggshells. They’re never quite sure what it is that will set their partner off. Is it going to be the eggs being too runny, or them watching a particular TV show? Maybe it’s speaking too loudly or too quietly.
It could be talking to friends or family and having a great time. Perhaps they’re accused of not being emotional enough, or being too emotional. The controller gets to dictate the parameters. Changing those parameters regularly, ensures their partner never quite knows what the rules are.
There’s usually a lot of testing of the waters by the dominant one at the start of the relationship:
- Can I get away with this behaviour without consequence?
- Will they accept my apology when I lose my temper over nothing, the first time I do it?
- Can I use make up sex and/or affection to ensure my bad behaviour is forgiven?
Boundaries are constantly being tested. That testing of boundaries is then combined with periodic displays of vulnerability. Bad behaviour is often explained away by the tearful recounting a childhood trauma.
In the moment, those tears or feelings of sadness may be genuine, but they can also be a great manipulation strategy. Not that the controlling one is always aware of that. The acting out is not something they can own in this stark way. If they could own it, then they wouldn’t be able to continue to inflict pain in the same way.
There had to be some kind of real trauma from their past to create their controlling persona in the first place. So the expressions of vulnerability and sadness are sourced from a real place, but they can also be used strategically as a manipulation tool, when needed.
The one who’s in the role of victim in the relationship, has usually ignored their gut instincts from the very beginning. For example, the first time their partner raised their voice or withdrew abruptly was explained away. The first slap or punch perhaps justified as being caused by the victim pressing the controller’s buttons. Being harshly criticized for their cooking or how they looked, or behaved, might have been excused away as valid opinion.
Low self esteem
Sometimes the victim does stand their ground or try to walk away in the early stages. But if their self esteem is very low, they are much more likely to let themselves be drawn back in. They are more likely to crave the attention and intensity of the relationship, because of the familiar feelings it evokes. Maybe they have become addicted to that intensity. That addiction showing up as attachment to the drama, and the wild (or sometimes tender) make up sex, that these type of relationships often spawn.
The controlled person can also be powerful characters themselves. They may not look or sound like a stereotypical victim. If that’s the case then it’s even easier for them to explain away their partner’s bad behaviour. They may chastise themselves for being too insensitive, too outspoken, too mouthy. Or they may tell themselves: ‘if only I were more patient, a little more reserved, less insecure, etc. we’d be happy.’
This meeting of two truly insecure egos generates combustion and confusion. The longer they’ve been in the relationship, the more toxic the abuse becomes. They’ve now gotten into a groove, a pattern of abuse, and it becomes harder and harder to break the cycle.
Breaking the cycle
When the cycle does break it’s very rarely the abuser that breaks it. It’s usually the victim who’s been pushed to their limits who ends it. It may take them having a child and watching that child become traumatized that becomes the tipping point. At its most extreme, their own life may actually be on the line.
It’s at this tipping point that the victim actually begins to reclaim their power. This being the power they have given over, given away, to this other person. They usually need support to take that first step of walking away from the madness. Commonly, they feel too broken at this stage to do it on their own.
Whatever the particulars that caused them to make this decision to leave, the overarching reason is that there is nowhere left to hide. They can no longer lie to themselves about the seriousness of the situation. The only way out at this point is to tell themselves the cold, hard, truth of what’s really going on.
Unstable and insecure egos need to control. Insecure egos combined with no clear boundaries, allow themselves to be controlled. It’s this that has to be owned, to finally break the cycle and end or heal, the relationship.
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This post is republished on Medium.
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