3 Sneaky Strategies Abusers Use to Seize Control in Romantic Relationships (And How to Fight It!)
Ever wonder why people have a hard time leaving people that abuse them?
Raised in a family where my father abused everyone with my mother’s tacit consent, I pondered this question for long periods of my life.
“My father was one of those men who sit in a room and you can feel it: the simmer, the sense of some unpredictable force that might, at any moment, break loose, and do something terrible.” ― John Burnside
Even while harm was done to her children, my mother never contemplated leaving my father. She never reported him to the police or sought advice from a lawyer.
Five years ago, at age 65, my mother was rushed to the hospital for a head injury, after my father repeatedly bashed her head to the floor.
Still, she stayed.
I shared our story in “It’s Not All About You.”
In my late thirty’s, I fell into a toxic relationship myself. I never expected this since I grew up watching abuse unfold. I thought I knew better.
I know first hand how difficult it is to leave.
According to the Domestic Violence Prevention centre, most abused will, on average, attempt to leave an abusive relationship between five and seven times before successfully and permanently doing so.
It is true that some abused stay because of financial dependency (see “Saving for Freedom”).
However, many, such as myself, got stuck in a toxic relationship even though we are financially independent. Why?
“I am living in hell from one day to the next. But there is nothing I can do to escape. I don’t know where I would go if I did. I feel utterly powerless, and that feeling is my prison. I entered of my own free will, I locked the door, and I threw away the key.” ― Haruki Murakam
It is easy to see this as solely a will power problem. Sure, will power plays some part, but it’s not the full picture.
Abusers deploy specific techniques to trap the abused. The abused, ensnarled by the abuser like an insect in a spider’s web, slowly loses control over time until eventually, they become dependent on the abuser financially, emotionally, or both.
What gives abusers power is secrecy. It is easier to manipulate unsuspecting victims when we are not privy to their manipulations.
This reminds me of the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” In a memorable scene towards the end of the film, Toto, Dorothy’s dog, tugged open the curtain to reveal that the seemingly all-powerful, all-mighty Wizard of Oz was nothing more than a diminutive older man.
The booming voice and larger than life persona? It was just him talking into a microphone while pulling levers and pressing buttons to project a large, ominous face on the screen.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” ― Wizard of Oz
Like Toto did for Dorothy and her gang of friends, I will pull down the curtain to reveal the dirty games abusers play.
I will then share techniques to counter the tactics.
Knowledge is power. The more we know, the less likely we will become a victim, and the more able we are to extract ourselves if we are in a bad situation.
1. Beware of the butter upper
“Flattery in courtship is the highest insolence, for whilst it pretends to bestow on you more than you deserve, it is watching an opportunity to take from you what you really have.” ― Sarah Fielding
Abusers always seek to gain our trust first before deploying control tactics.
When we trust someone, we let our guards down, and we are more open to their ideas.
Abusers like to use flattery to gain trust. Flattery is different from a genuine compliment, in that it is excessive and insincere, given only to further the giver’s interests.
Abusers like flattery because, first of all, it is cheap — it costs no money and requires only meager effort. Second of all, and perhaps more importantly, flattery works especially well on people who lack self-love. These people crave external validation and make for easy targets.
If we bask in the flattery instead of recognizing it as a red flag, the abuser can use this weakness of ours to make us reliant on them for validation.
“The toxic behaviors were there before you decided to enter into relationships with them. The signs were there. You may have chosen to look the other way, but the signs were there.” ― P.A. Speers
The “grooming” or “idealization phase” phase of the relationship can feel very intense and wonderful, especially to people that may not have received a lot of love or attention growing up.
#Leave if you can, but if you can’t…
“Flattery and insults raise the same question: What do you want?” ― Mason Cooley
If someone is buttering us up and trying too hard to push the relationship forward, recognize it as a red flag.
It takes effort for the abuser to hide their true color, and they know that time is not on their side. Because of this, they want to capture our hearts before we sense that something is off.
“I’ve found that when someone tells they love you too fast and overwhelms you and wants to move in right away, it’s a trap. Know a man like that most likely want to own you and control you in order to make himself feel powerful and significant. Know that things will change.” ― Rose McGowan
To fight back, use time to our advantage.
Date smart by taking time to get to know a person, observe them under many different conditions, and treat red flags seriously.
Guard our hearts as we observe their actions, not words.
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” ― Jesus of Nazareth
The canary in the coal mine is our emotions. Emotions are our friends.
Often, our subconscious is the first to notice that something is off. We feel uneasy, even when we may not be consciously aware of any issues.
If we sense some tension in our body, don’t brush the feelings aside. Instead, ask, “What are you trying to tell me?” and heed the answer we get.
For more on dating smart, see “How To Date Like A Pro (And Cut Through Frogs Quickly!)”
2. Game of see-saw
“Insecure people put others down to raise themselves up.” ― Habeeb Akande
Abusers deliberately project strength and power to hide a fearful core.
Very often, this impaired self-esteem stems from experiencing similar abuses in childhood, but abusers never developed enough awareness not to perpetuate the cycle.
They lack positive, emotional connection to themselves, and cannot empathize or connect with others.
Their lack of self-love makes them dependent on others for validation. They need constant attention and admiration from others to feel ok.
Since the opinion of others determines their sense of self, they also feel the need to control what others think.
Their fragile ego could not tolerate dissents.
To make up for their deep sense of insecurity and inadequacy, they put others down to raise themselves. By making someone else feel worse than they are feeling, they feel a little better.
“Abuse is the weakest expression of strength. It is weakness to destroy what you ought to protect, build and make better.” ― Kingsley Opuwari Manuel
They get off on knowing that what they say or do can trigger an emotional reaction. Whether the emotion is positive or negative is beside the question.
They feel powerful when they know that they can control our feelings.
#Leave if you can, but if you can’t…
“When you react, you let other control you. When you respond, you are in control.” ― Bohdi Sanders
To retain our power, do not react, respond.
Being nonreactive is hard to do, but nothing hurts an abuser more than our indifference.
Recall schoolyard bullies and how they get off on seeing victims suffer. The more upset a victim gets, the more the bully enjoys it.
Don’t try to reason with the abuser — if we focus on the content of what the abuser says, we’ll fall into the trap of trying to argue rationally, denying accusations, and explaining ourselves, and we lose our power.
The abuser has won by deflecting responsibility for the abuse.
Instead, “ flip the bozo bit” on the abuser. Do not pay heed to their words or actions.
Treat any insults as irrelevant as if they just called us a pink elephant, which, in reality, is not far from the truth.
Instead of seeking the abuser’s approval, turn inwards, and validate ourselves.
Practice self-love and set boundaries to let people know what behaviors we will and will not accept.
Make peace with not being liked or loved by everyone.
When we depend only on our own approval, we break the spell.
The abuser has no hold on us.
3. Intermittent reinforcement and addiction
“As I sat in my bed, watching old cartoons and reminiscing good times, your name flashed upon my phone, and thoughts of you flooded my mind. In that moment, I felt a million different things; regretful but apologetic, sure but uncertain, fine but shattered. You played me like a game board, and I was your puppet on strings. You never wanted me; you just wanted the feeling of being wanted. But I won’t fall for it anymore.” ― Unknown
In the 1960s, American psychologist B.F. Skinner devised an experiment where he placed a rat in a box that released a pellet of food when it pressed a lever.
Unsurprisingly, the rat would press the lever to get food.
The fascinating discovery is that when Skinner altered the box so that pellets came out on random presses — a system dubbed variable ratio enforcement — the rat pressed the lever more often.
The other benefit of variable ratio reinforcement? Even after the box no longer released pallets, the rat continued to press the lever.
The Skinner box plays with tension and release — the absence of a pellet after the press of the lever creates a tension that finds release via a reward.
Too little reward and the rat becomes frustrated and stops trying; too much, and it won’t push the lever as often.
Think this only works on animals? Think again.
Casinos build slot machines based on Skinner’s research to dole out rewards at a variable rate. Gamblers keep playing, even though logic tells them that it is a losing game.
They have become addicted.
Similarly, to control victims, abusers intersperse abuses with a honeymoon period where they treat their victim extra nice.
This “abuse cycle” of tension and release keeps the victim coming back for more.
Though there are fewer good days than bad days, the good days will be so amazing that the victim’s mind begins to play tricks on itself — the victim wants to believe that the abuser is genuinely remorseful and will change.
Unfortunately, as is always the case in this type of dynamic, over time, the abuse escalates, while the honeymoon period gets shorter and shorter.
Eventually, the honeymoon period disappears altogether once the abuser realizes the victim could no longer escape.
My mother told me years ago that my father no longer apologizes to her. I wasn’t surprised.
#Leave if you can, but if you can’t…
“Some of us learn control more or less by accident. The rest of us go all our lives not even understanding how it is possible, and blaming our failure on being born the wrong way.” ― B. F. Skinner
To fight back, see the abuse cycle for what it is, a”variable ratio reinforcement” Skinner box.
Do not let the honeymoon period fool us into thinking that the abuser has changed. They have not.
An abuser often harbors deep-seated trauma. Unless they are aware of the issue and are committed to change, the chance of recovery is nil.
“What are you going to do? Are you going to live in the dark, locked in here? Afraid to look out, answer the door, leave? Yes, he’s out there, and he’s clearly not going to leave you alone until one of three things happens: he hurts you and gets arrested, or he makes a mistake and gets arrested, or you stop him.” ― Rachel Caine, Fall of Night
Set strong boundaries and stay true to ourselves by enforcing boundaries with action.
If we left an abuser, use these “ 9 Tips to Heal a Broken Heart” to heal ourselves, so we do not fall back to the grips of the abuser in a moment of confusion.
And reflect on the experience, so we do not make the same mistake again.
What we refuse to see has a way of coming back to haunt us. I wrote about my experience in “What happened in childhood, does not stay in childhood.”
“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich
Abusers are continually testing the waters to find targets. Easy targets are people that ignore their feelings, do not heed red flags, and are desperate for love and approval from others.
A solid inner core is the best defense we have against abusive tactics. Work on loving ourselves, so we are strong mentally, and indigestible for the abuser.
By shining light on the dark art of abuse, my hope is that we all have the tools to make better decisions.
Life is both too long and too short to live under threats and disrespect.
My best wishes to a more beautiful and healthy life.
PS For more discussions, join me on Facebook at “ Healing from Childhood Trauma. “
Previously published on “Hello, Love”, a Medium publication.
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