Working with Controllers

Controlling behavior is the systematic domination and oppression by one person in a way that makes it clear that another person(s)  is not safe physically and/or emotionally. 

Control tactics are the tools by which controllers dominate and oppress.

Characteristics of control tactics:

  • They are used to get the person’s way by any means it takes.
  • Their intention is to change others’ behavior, feelings, or opinions.
  • The behavior is disrespectful to the needs, opinions, and feelings of others.
  • The control can be physical, emotional, sexual, or mental.
  • They are a consistent pattern in the relationship.

Controllers exercise control because they can due to their underlying belief system.

 Attitudes and beliefs of controllers:

  • They deny and justify because they believe anything is reasonable to get what they want. 
  • They see other people and things as responsible for how they behave.
  • They are threatened by healthy separation and disagreement.
  • They believe they must control situations and others in order feel safe or secure.
  • They see others as controlling them if they don’t get their way.

When controlling behavior is used in a relationship where there is a power difference or vulnerability (physical, financial, social, emotional) in order to manage and manipulate another person, this is called abuse.  Power differences can occur in intimate relationships or at work or school.

We are most vulnerable to controlling behavior in intimate relationships.  This is due to the expectation that there will be love and trust in relationships.  When behavior occurs which contradicts this, people become confused, hurt, and fearful. The willingness to use an intimate partner’s vulnerability to get their way becomes an an emotionally destructive power play.

What many professionals focus on well is physical safety.  Emotional fear and vulnerability that results from not being psychologically safe is often neglected. This is particularly true in cases where the domestic abuse is psychological without any overt physical harm.

Controlling people use hostile power or hostile autonomy as a pattern in their intimate relationships and possibly in other areas of their lives.  They learn to behave this way in the world for reasons that would seem logical given what they’ve learned growing up.  However, this behavior does not get them what most people want in the world, and in fact, often gets them the opposite of what they want: love, respect, and acceptance.

When working with a controlling person, therapists and others are often in the position of  deciding how best to respond to the behavior.  Responding to the behavior of controlling people is a two pronged issue.

  • The first issue is accountability and safety.  It is ethically necessary to send the message that controlling behavior is not acceptable in any form.
  • The second issue involves enlisting the person who has controlling behavior in an effort to change this behavior and adopt non-controlling beliefs and behavior.

Treatment for aggressive and controlling behavior involves trying to do both.  One mistake that is commonly made by individual and couples therapists is working on underlying psychological issues before accountability and safety are established.

This is a mistake because understanding one’s self better does not mean that a person will change their behavior.  What often happens is that people instead understand themselves and how they got where they are, but feel justified in continuing their behavior.  This is particularly apparent in working with controllers.  They focus on your agreement with them (even if you don’t actually agree) and ignore how they are harming.

In order to change someone’s belief system from one which justifies Watching and Controlling behaviors, you must first confront their behavior in language and structure they take seriously.  This means therapy in order to be effective must have Watching and Controlling that is therapeutically effective. Giving Nurturing and Protecting or Affirming and Understanding too soon will lead to undesirable results.

Nurturing and affirming behaviors are interpreted as submission or agreement when someone has a belief system that allows for control of others.  Healthy differentiation is not understood – often not even on the radar screen.  In the controller belief system, if someone is not “in control”, then that person is “submitting” or “agreeing”.  Thus, the necessity for a strong stance that is in the Watching and Controlling realm.  Gradually, as there are demonstrated changes, the therapist’s behavior can shift more into the Friendly Influence and Encouraging Friendly Autonomy behaviors.

Certified abuser treatment programs incorporate Watching and Controlling behaviors in their treatment plans.  This is necessary not only because of the need for accountability.  In addition to being ineffective in changing behavior, therapists who err by initially being too nurturing and affirming will also end up inadvertently colluding with the abuser in ways which isolate and oppress their partners more.  Here are some common ways that happens.

  • Blaming the victim – Due to the nature of couples therapy, there is a tendency to hold both people as responsible for the problems in the relationship.  Being empathic, affirming, understanding, and nurturing to controllers in this context will lead to the oppressed partner perceiving that the therapist is validating the controller, and she IS to blame.
  • Isolating the victim – If we do not get input from victims or give them information regarding services to the controller, we are participating in isolating that person.  No matter how clear we are with controllers, they will report things to the victim from their own perspective.  What you say is distorted.  This results in victims often hearing they are to blame and feeling the system doesn’t support them.
  • Addressing the controller’s self-esteem, depression, primary – Controllers may have mental health issues and/or alcohol and drug issues to address as well as controlling behavior.  It’s important to see these as separate and perhaps related issues but not as causal.  In other words, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, or alcohol problems do not cause controlling behavior.  Alleviating any of these problems does not translate into the person ceasing controlling behavior.  Only attitude and behavioral changes regarding power and control create changes in controlling behavior.  Therefore, any other form of treatment will not be effective in changing controlling behavior unless they address the basic belief system.
  • Discounting emotional abuse – One of the most common errors is in discounting the effects of emotional abuse.  Physical/sexual abuse is easier to understand because it is so concrete.  Emotional abuse is psychological control and is even more effective in controlling a person because it is longer lasting and makes it unnecessary to exert continuing physical force.
  • The myth of severity – Physical abuse is sometimes discounted when there are less lethal or physically injurious forms present.  The inculcation of fear and intimidation occurs with any form of abuse regardless of its lethality, due to shock, violation of values and beliefs, and unpredictability.
  • Being intimidated by the abuser – Professionals can be intimidated by abusers’ behavior or by fear that they will alienate them.  Learning effective ways to respond to controlling behaviors helps counter their manipulation and control of sessions.

Working with controllers is difficult but rewarding when they choose to change.

The measure of any treatment success is victims reporting that they feel safer.



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