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When Your Partner’s "Caring" Feels More Like Controlling

Controlling people want to isolate their partners from their support system.

Source: astarot/Shutterstock

It’s rare for a person—deliberately—to subjugate to their will someone they care about. Typically, when someone acts manipulatively toward another, their motive, at least consciously, isn’t to control them at all. It’s simply to increase the likelihood that the relationship will better address their wants and needs. That is, despite how the other person might take their action, it’s usually not so much against a partner as it is for themselves. And, to be honest, aren’t we all motivated to enter into intimate relationships primarily because we believe they will make us happier? So, realistically, we can never view caring for another as a completely selfless act.

It can hardly be over-emphasized, though, that while behaviors conventionally labeled “controlling” aren’t devoid of self-interest, we can’t simply understand them as acts of interpersonal aggression, either. There’s typically no “malice aforethought” going on here. Yet, given the destructive effects of such behavior, that’s precisely how it feels to the one on the receiving end—regardless of the controller’s actual intentions. For, once again, the controller is likely only acting in ways they assume will enable them to experience more comfort and security in the relationship.

We can hardly miss the irony here. For the controller, through their exertions to feel safer and less anxious by “managing” their partner’s behavior, can’t help but make the one controlled—the “controllee”—feel less safe and more anxious. And, because of these inevitable results, such manipulativeness deserves to be seen as a form of abuse. For if the controller’s efforts are frequent enough—and “bullying” enough—they can result in serious damage to the controllee’s confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect. At their worst, such dominating or contentious behaviors jeopardize the controllee’s fundamental integrity, putting their core sense of self at grave risk.

In the kind of dysfunctional relationship I’m describing, it’s always the partner experiencing verbal (or even physical) attacks who has the authority to determine whether a partner’s behavior is out of love—or something quite different. And it’s fair to assume that as a consequence of such harsh treatment, virtually no recipient is going to feel very much loved or cared about. On the contrary, they’re likely to feel discounted, demeaned, or humiliated.

If we’re to fully grasp the complex interpersonal dynamic of controlling behavior—the “how” and “why” of its relational destructiveness—probably the concept most in need of understanding is that of threat. For paradoxically, what makes controlling people so manipulative, and at times overbearing, are their underlying insecurities and self-doubts—typically, every bit as hidden from themselves as from their partner. Whether or not the controller realizes it, they’re obsessed by the threat that the person they so much need to feel securely attached to could walk out on them.

So, unconsciously experiencing their bond as fragile—as it may have been much earlier, with their own parents—they’re driven to do everything in their power to protect its vulnerability. Too many of their behaviors toward their partner, therefore, wind up being far less about bonding or caring than about binding. The controller may deceive themselves into believing their actions are expressions of love; in regularly correcting their partner or telling them what to do, they see themselves as “taking care” of them. But what they most often communicate to the recipient/victim of their supposedly benign intentions is control, control, control.

Further, when these dominating behaviors are extreme, the person subject to them can’t help but feel hostage to the controller’s incessant criticisms, restrictions, and demands—that is, if because of their own self-doubts and insecurities, they haven’t already left the relationship. While almost any outside observer would see the controller as the dysfunctional one in the relationship, the maladaptive “dance” between controller and controllee typically betrays mutual dysfunctionality—unless the one controlled can’t, for a variety of practical reasons, safely exit the relationship.

Returning to the notion of threat, or mutual threat, while the controller is unrelentingly acting to “capture” the allegiance—if not the submission—of the controllee, the so-constrained controllee feels threatened by all that the controller is doing to subordinate them. Undeniably, too, the one threatened is also imprisoned by their own powerful anxieties about abandonment.

Ultimately, what’s most threatened for the controllee is their autonomy—in a sense, their very selfhood. Covertly, the person controlled regularly receives the message that to preserve this all-important relationship and be loved (however conditionally), they must sacrifice their pre-relationship identity. Inasmuch as their behaving independently threatens the controller, they must abandon their personal freedom.

Ironically, this whole scenario takes place under the guise of the controller’s “caring.” But what—unconsciously—it does by design is to deprive the controllee of their freedom to be and act as themselves. Regardless of whatever positive spin the controller may put on manipulative behavior, its purpose is clear. What may have begun as genuine caring has deteriorated into what we can only regard as belligerent controlling.

For example, a controller may strive, through repeated negative evaluations, requests, entreaties, and even demands, to isolate the controllee from their friends—if not their entire support system. The controller may also subject them to acute pressure to give up activities that nurture them. And they may attempt to make the controllee feel deeply indebted to them, and to rely on them exclusively to fulfill all their dependency needs. Obviously, the more the controller succeeds in these efforts, the less threatened they’ll feel about their partner’s one day deserting them. And if they routinely disparage the partner—making them question their intelligence, attractiveness, competence, etc.—the one so denigrated may become convinced that no one else would have them, anyway.

Expanding on the above, the controller may induce nagging guilt in their victim for spending “too much” time with others—or accuse them of caring more about these other relationships than about themselves. And they may warn their partner about the dangers of getting too close to these people who, presumably, are only interested in exploiting them. They may also lose their temper with the controllee for holding onto such “abusive” relationships and force them to reconsider how much they really need these ties—as in, “Why can’t I be enough for you?!”—and consequently making the controllee feel obliged to give them up.

Wearing their partner down, they can speak with such authority that eventually the controllee begins to doubt their own judgment and may conclude that they really have no option but to yield to their partner’s preferences. Otherwise, they fear that the intensely stressful conflicts they repeatedly experience will go on endlessly. Finally, it may be just easier to capitulate than to continually fight to uphold their dignity and autonomy.

Controllers are also notorious for feelings of jealousy, which explains their possessiveness and habit of interrogation. They’ll constantly “check up” on their partner and perform continuing surveillance on them; ask—or insist on knowing—with whom they’re e-mailing or texting; spy on their phone and social media messages; react violently to anything that seems suspicious to them (including accusing their partner of cheating without meaningful evidence); or demand that their partner inform them at all times of their whereabouts.

In short, they won’t—or can’t—respect their partner’s privacy, because any life their partner has apart from them provokes their anxiety. Therefore, as much as possible, such individuality must be curbed, restrained, eliminated. And before the controllee quite realizes it, they may find themselves confined by all sorts of rules and regulations. At its worst, it’s almost like living under house arrest.

(A caveat: I’m not talking about the kinds of controlling behaviors that more or less characterize all relationships. For in any union both partners, understandably, prefer that things go their way—such that, to whatever degree, their communication will involve a certain amount of manipulation. To underscore the whole concept of relational control, I’ve chosen to focus on how it can play out in the extreme.)

If you or your partner can relate to any aspect of what I’ve described—whether as controller or controllee—what can you do? Following are a few suggestions:

For the controller:

  • Respect the right of your partner (whether girl/boyfriend or spouse) to associate with whomever they like. If you believe a relationship is bad for them, explain why, but allow them the final decision as to whether to continue it—and don’t denigrate them for doing so.
  • Only ask about their communication with others out of genuine interest and to share their life with them. And allow them the freedom to disclose only as much about these relationships as they choose. Your curiosity (or your insecurities) must take a backseat to their need for independence. No snooping!
  • Allow them the space to act autonomously. That is, to get together with family and friends as they see fit and to engage in whatever activities are fulfilling to them. If their doing so worries you or makes you jealous, that’s your issue, not theirs—and, with or without professional assistance, it’s something you need to work on.
  • Don’t try to argue them out of their viewpoints or preferences. Remember, you’re not the same person, and everyone needs to be true to their thoughts and feelings. If their differences make you uneasy, you’re free (tactfully) to share this with them—but not to sit in judgment.
  • Don’t establish rules that your partner must follow if they’re to maintain your love. Again, it’s okay to state your preferences and priorities, but it must also be okay for them to state—and abide by—their own. Remember, compromise is key in any committed relationship.

And for the controllee:

  • Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. The controller may seek to punish you for being assertive, but if you fail to set limits on their attempts to dominate you, you may not lose your partner, but you’ll almost certainly lose yourself. If your partner eventually backs off, it will be because you showed the courage not to.
  • Don’t let your partner direct what you do or say, or tell you what you should give up. Unless you’re clearly neglecting the relationship, how much you talk with your friends is your prerogative, no one else's. So don’t agree to any request or demand that doesn’t feel right to you. You should be able to affiliate with whomever interests you or makes you feel cared about. And you need to distinguish carefully between what your partner wants from you and what you want—and need—for yourself.
  • Be aware of any negative changes in your self-image that relate to how your partner treats you—whether it’s through perpetual belittling, or being made to feel stupid or inadequate. If the relationship is leading you to feel “diminished,” it’s up to you to tell your partner which behaviors you’ll no longer tolerate.
  • Don’t let their emotions control you. If you’re acting more autonomously than they can handle, they may express resentment, break down and cry, or start screaming at you. Keep in mind that such behaviors—though they may appear genuine in the moment—are manipulative and meant to quell their anxiety by exerting that much more control over you. They may seek to justify such outbursts on the basis of how much they care about you, but don’t be fooled: Such expressions are hardly ever about love. Rather, they’re veiled expressions of the controller's own emotional fragility.

If on your own, following these guidelines proves untenable, professional counseling, whether it’s individual or couples, is definitely in order. For if your relationship is to be saved—and is worth saving—it may require some serious psychosurgery.

    © 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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