Lisa Aronson Fontes Ph.D.

Invisible Chains

Micromanaging Every Move: Inside a Controlling Relationship

No one easily gives up their right to make decisions. But it happens.

Posted Sep 19, 2015

Coercive control is not about one partner simply being “bossy” or “a nag"; it’s about domination. People do not easily give up their right to make decisions about their own lives. But some people are so micromanaged by their partners that they can hardly remember what it’s like to make decisions freely for themselves.

Drawing by Liz Bannish
Source: Drawing by Liz Bannish

Controlling people often assert power by micromanaging their partners’ everyday life. An abuser might restrict his partner’s food and activities and come up with a detailed schedule of what she should do with her time. He (or she)* might govern how his partner expresses her emotions, what she watches on television, and which sites she visits on the Internet. He might require her to stop talking to the cat, to sleep on her back, or to fold her clothes a certain way. Each day, he might decide what clothes she will wear and require rituals related to hygiene, exercise, or beauty. He may say he is doing all this because he “cares about her” and “wants her to be her best.” Implied in each one of the demands is the assertion, “If you do not do what I say, I will punish you.” People who are victimized try to comply to avoid uncomfortable or dangerous conflicts. This compliance reduces conflict in the short term, but contributes to a victim’s long-term isolation and a sense of being smothered.

A controlling partner often exerts control in spheres that pertain to stereotypical gender roles. For instance, he might make elaborate demands regarding keeping house, preparing food, personal appearance, child care, and sex. An abuser might require that his partner put food into the shopping cart or cabinets in a certain way. He may demand that she iron his socks and underwear or attend to household chores on an inflexible schedule, even when she is ill.

This extreme behavior is different from a situation where the man is simply rigid and overly particular. In coercive control, the abuser’s expectations become demands that the partner must fulfill with little regard to her own preferences or well-being—and she faces consequences for disappointing him.

Here's an example of micromanagement in a coercive control relationship:

Neighbors thought "Lucinda" and her husband, "Marty," lived a charmed life with their two children in a tidy home. However, the true nature of their relationship was hidden. Marty forbade Lucinda to leave the house without him, and insisted she keep the blinds drawn at all times. He demanded that she keep a record of her activities every half hour. He required her to dress in extremely revealing clothing and high heels when he paraded her around town. He chose her nail polish and demanded that her hair be perfect at all times. Dinner was to be on the table at 6 pm and the television off at 9 pm. Marty required Lucinda to go to bed at the same time as their young children, so he could have some time “by himself” each night. She suspected that he used this time to live a secret life on the Internet. When he came into their bedroom hours later, he demanded sex. Lucinda loved her husband and children but she also felt trapped by her husband's restrictive demands.

Drawing by Liz Bannish
Source: Drawing by Liz Bannish

Even when micromanaged, people turn toward freedom just as a sunflower turns toward the sun. People who are subject to their partner’s control find ways to secretly defy them, for instance by “accidentally on purpose” doing things “wrong” or thinking “forbidden” thoughts.

With the help of a domestic violence advocate or a therapist who understands coercive control, many people who are victimized become clearer about their limits, and some are able to end their relationships.

* I’m writing here about the most common situation, where men control their wives and girlfriends, but victims and victimizers can be of any gender or sexual orientation.

Interested in learning more about micromanagement and coercive control? Check out my book, Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.

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