What are some dynamics of an emotionally controlling relationship?
I want to look beyond some of the of verbal criticism, put downs, and judgments that are the obvious elements of emotionally abusive and controlling relationships.
I want to take some space here to outline how some of the power and illusions of power aspects affect an emotionally controlling relationship. For this I’ll use the characters of Jack and Jill to illustrate a story.
Jack and Jill are a couple. Jack gets caught up in a crisis at work and doesn’t call Jill when he said he would. Jill feels left out, rejected, and gets mad at Jack for leaving her alone. She doesn’t like being alone and holds Jack responsible for her unhappy situation. Her internal or external dialogue might be something like, “He really makes me mad when he does that.”
What is critical to note here is that the emotion of anger and unhappiness is Jill’s. The second thing to notice is that she holds Jack to be the cause responsible for her emotions.
In another scenario Jack and Jill go to a party and for some reason Jill feels embarrassed by Jack’s behavior. She is concerned that people will think poorly of Jack, and that it reflects poorly on her.
The emotion Jill feels is embarrassment and the person she holds as the cause is Jack.
So in these two cases we have identified the emotions and Jill’s belief about who is responsible. It is Jill’s belief that she is angry or embarrassed because of what Jack did or didn’t do. In Jill’s belief paradigm if Jack had done something different Jill would be happier. Jill’s internal or external dialogue might include something like, “If you hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be so upset”.
In Jill’s mind she feels abused and it appears that Jack is mistreating her emotionally. This kind of mindset sets Jill up to do a 180 and be the controlling and abusive person in the relationship. She judges, blames, and condemns Jack. Her anger at Jack is completely justified from this victim point of view.
On the flip side Jack might very well fall into the same paradigm. If it is Jack’s belief that he is the cause of someone else’s emotional reaction then he sets himself up to be controlled in the relationship. This may sound backwards. How could Jack be the one being controlled if he is the one powerful enough to cause another’s emotional reactions? The answer is guilt.
Going back to Jack and Jill’s controlling relationship: Jill is angry at Jack for not calling or doing something she perceives as embarrassing. If Jack believes he is really the cause of Jill’s pain, then, he will likely feel guilty for hurting Jill. Jack will not want Jill to have another painful emotional reaction and he won’t want to feel the guilt of causing her pain so he will look for a solution. Jack will begin to modify his behavior to avoid Jill’s emotional reactions. No doubt Jill will have input into what Jack should and shouldn’t be doing to keep her happy.
Jill will tell him to call when he says he is going to call. Jill will tell him not to do those embarrassing things. Jill will suggest, ask, or even demand that Jack change his behavior in order for her to avoid her own painful emotional wounds.
On the surface it looks like Jack has all the power over Jill’s emotions. That is why Jack feels responsible and will try hard to do things right. Of course “right” is according to Jill’s expectations and requirements. Jill plays the powerless victim that doesn’t have control over her emotions, and by doing so she can guilt Jack into modifying his behavior.
Jill might also act with anger towards Jack when she is upset. The anger might also include criticism, judgments, and put downs for his actions, behaviors or looks. If Jill is disappointed with Jack in some way, Jack may feel he should act or perform differently so Jill isn’t disappointed. Again the illusion Jack lives under is that he is determining Jill’s emotions. Every emotional reaction that Jill has sends Jack into deeper guilt, self blame, self rejection, unworthiness and insecurity.
Jill uses the emotions of gratitude, acceptance, and love to reward Jack when he does something she likes, and to become upset or depressed and sad when he does something he doesn’t’ like. Her emotions are either a pleasant reward or an unpleasant punishment to Jacks emotional body and self esteem. In this way Jill uses the power of her emotional reactions to encourage or discourage Jack’s behaviors.
At one level it looks like Jill is in reaction to Jack’s action. But if you look at Jack’s reaction to Jill’s emotion, you see her emotions as a means of control that Jack reacts to.
Illusions of Power and Control
Jack believes he is the one responsible for both of their emotions so he feels somewhat powerful in this regard. This illusion of power can be somewhat seductive. But this isn’t true. It is just the illusion of power. Jack isn’t responsible for Jill’s emotions and he can’t control her reactions. Jill can’t even control her own emotions. She is just reacting to the interpretations and core beliefs in her own mind.
Because Jack is under the illusion that he is the powerful one in this relationship he doesn’t notice that his behavior is being controlled and dictated by Jill. He doesn’t see how he is modifying his behavior to every emotional reaction Jill has, or emotion he predicts she will have.
But no matter what Jack does, he can’t seem to get it right because Jill still has emotional reactions to the interpretations and core beliefs in her mind. Nobody has control over these interpretations and so nobody has control over Jill’s emotions, not even Jill. Jack ends up walking around on egg shells becoming hyper vigilant with fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, or not doing the right thing and setting off her emotional reactions of anger, disappointment, judgment, and criticisms.
Feeling Like It Is Your Fault
Jack becomes afraid of her anger and afraid of his self inflicted feelings of guilt and failure if he doesn’t behave just right. Jill persuades, and Jack agrees with the lie, that things would be just fine if he didn’t do the things that upset her. He believes that the problems in the relationship are his fault. They believe the same lie so it has the appearance of fact. Jack doesn’t see the big picture of Jill’s behavior because Jill has conditioned him to focus completely on his own behavior.
Beliefs Behind Staying in a Controlling Relationship
One of the reasons, (and there are quite a few) that it is difficult for an emotionally abused person to leave an abuser is that the illusion and feeling of power is very seductive. As Jack believes more and more that he is responsible for Jill’s emotions, he is under the illusion of being powerful in the relationship. He might feel like a failure and frustrated that nothing he does works, but at the same time is trying to fix everything about both of them. He is the one trying to fix things because he believes he is responsible for both of their problems. This kind of heroic effort feeds the false hope for a positive outcome and a positive self image as a reward.
At the same time, with the entire burden on himself, if the relationship fails he will interpret it that he failed. This is a self judgment of failure that may be too painful to consider. This logic of trying to avoid painful failure is part of what keeps him trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship looking for a solution.
If he considers what others will think of him his feeling of failure is amplified.
When you have the illusion of power over another emotions and responsibility over success and failure of the relationship it is easy to get trapped in the idea that you are the one that is failing when things don’t work out. You don’t see that your partner is not holding up their half of the relationship.
Some of these illusions fall apart when you wake up to the fact that you don’t control or determine another person’s emotional state. You are not responsible for their half of the behavior. You are not responsible for their emotional reactions of fear, anger, jealousy, sadness, and disappointment. You are not responsible for their emotions even if they say and believe you are. You are only responsible for your half.
No one can make you feel a certain emotion at any given moment. In just the same way, you can’t control the emotions another person feels. Taking responsibility for your emotions, and more importantly, not taking responsibility for anybody else’s is a be step in ending unhappy relationship dynamics.
These are just some of the dynamics of an emotionally controlling relationship and perhaps some insights on how the illusions and false beliefs in our mind keep us trapped. The key to changing these dynamics is awareness. First gain awareness of the emotions, and then awareness of where responsibility is being placed. These are a good place to start to break the cycle of unhappiness in relationship.
Whether you are the abuser or the emotionally abused that wants to break the cycle, begin by taking responsibility for your emotions, and don’t take responsibility for anybody else’s emotions.
For specific practical steps on how to do this, sign into my Self Mastery Course and practice the exercises provided.2