When I was a child, children’s books were not as “nice” as they seem to be today. Perhaps that’s why I still remember some of them. There was one particular illustration, supposedly showing how “turtle soup” is made. I didn’t know if there was really such a thing- still don’t in fact- but the picture was fascinating. The turtles all looked very happy as they queued up to jump into a big warm bath. The ones already floating in it looked very happy and relaxed. At the bottom of the bath was a tap from which cans were being filled with turtle soup. At some point the turtles had turned into soup. But until then, they were enjoying a comfortable warm bath. And by the time they realised what was happening they were too weak and floppy to jump out.
Like those turtles, people can be changed into something they had never intended to become. If they’d seen it coming they’d have run a mile. Controlling relationships can feel very comfortable at first. You’re with someone who protects you (or whom you protect in some cases). They’re not like anybody else you ever met. And your life before you met them feels so different, it’s as if you were a different person back then. And perhaps you have indeed become a different person, moulded and re-created for your partner’s benefit, without you even noticing what’s going on.
There are dozens of articles on how to know when you’re in a controlling relationship. But they’re almost all focused on the partner- the one who’s trying to control you- and they all paint him (in the articles it always seems to be a him!) as a pretty sinister and tacky kind of guy. This is fine so far as it goes. Trouble is, if they’re any good at what they’re doing, you won’t recognise them from the article’s description.
So this is all about you. How would you know if someone has been working on you, possibly for weeks or months already, to change you into their dependent plaything? How to recognise when your warm bath is actually a saucepan?
As a therapist helping people re-create themselves I’ve had the opportunity to study how some people take control of others, erasing their previous personality. In most cases the controllers seem to have a natural talent for manipulation. But some may have actually taken online courses in it, or even had expensive personal tuition from experts on the dark side of the “pick-up” scene!
Their techniques can be detected through the changes in your own thinking and behaviour when you’ve been at the receiving end. Let’s take a closer look. For how long have you been cooking?
Do you feel safe in your partner’s company despite the scary things that are always happening when you’re together? Is your partner always part of every experience you enjoy? Is life boring or scary whenever you’re not with your partner? Does your partner already know your most embarrassing and humiliating secrets? Is your life with your partner an emotional rollercoaster, with rapid switches between anxiety and relief? Did you experience tremendous relief when your partner rescued you after having left you stranded in an unfamiliar place?
You may be in the first stage of being Emotionally Trapped. You see, in reality you could get on fine without your partner. So the controller must create the illusion that life without them would be long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. They take on the role of your protector. But what do they protect you from? Would you have even been in that situation if you hadn’t been with them?
Think of the last five really great experiences you’ve enjoyed. Did every one of them involve your new partner? Do they insist on being part of every event that your friends or family have planned?
Now think of the five most embarrassing or even shameful secrets you’ve ever shared with anyone, including best friends, family and professionals like doctors. How many of them have you already shared with your new partner? And how long did that take? Knowledge is Power, and you have given that power to your partner. What have they given in return?
Think back over a typical day or evening with your partner. Do you recall a frequent and constant rapid switching between sad and happy, safe and secure, worried and relieved? In particular, did you several times experience a wonderful feeling of relief? Relief from what bad feeling? How had that bad feeling been created?
You’ve seen the technique a hundred times in movies and on TV. It’s the good cop/bad cop routine, and it’s massively effective. Faced only with the “bad cop” you might discover unsuspected powers of resistance. But the “good cop” has you drop your guard, so you’re all the more vulnerable when the bad cop reappears.
When did you last see, or even contact, your family or friends? Has your partner now become “your everything?” Are you already living in, or contemplating moving to, a place where you won’t know anyone except your partner? Do you now feel you really don’t need anybody else? Have you come to feel that none of your family and friends are good for you?
The water is getting hotter, and you may now be in the second stage of the Bubble World. The most secure prison would be where the prisoners don’t know there’s anything outside the walls. Check your phone or social media to see how often you’ve been in touch with friends and family over the past month. Now pick another month from before you met your partner. Spot the difference. Now ask yourself, am I bothered? You used to value those relationships. How did you come to feel that they meant nothing to you? If you feel like you no longer need your friends and family, you may be entering a “bubble world” in which everything outside of your relationship is meaningless.
Let’s test the bubble now. Imagine for a minute that you’re not together any more. Just do it. Did that feel sad? Or did it feel terrifying? Could you not actually force yourself to imagine such a thing, even for one minute?
Think back to a month or so before you met your partner. Remember what you believed back then, what mattered to you. Has knowing your partner been a revelation to you that the world is quite different to what you formerly believed? Do you now feel that before you met your partner you were never really happy, even if you thought you were? Do you worry how your partner will react if you make a decision independently? How often in the past week have you asked permission? Does it always seem to turn out badly when you don’t? Have you done anything in the past week that your partner doesn’t know about, or won’t find out about? Do you often doubt your own memory, when your partner tells you what actually happened?
The soup is now simmering nicely, and you’re at the third stage of Personality Meltdown. Before remoulding you into the perfect image they require, your partner must persuade you to despise your old self and the values and connections associated with it. You won’t fight to hang onto something you no longer value. When you frequently or always feel the need to ask permission, your normal decision-making ability is already being ground down. You used to make decisions every day, and thought nothing of it. Sometimes they turned out well, and sometimes not. That’s life. Now of course couples normally consider each other’s needs and feelings. But think back to the last few times that permission was not granted. Was any real reason given? And if the reason was “because I say so!” did that feel okay? If it did then you are halfway to frog soup already.
What happens when you do make a decision? If it always turns out badly, how does that happen? Is the “badly” just your partner’s reaction? Does that now feel so much more important than any other outcome, good or bad? Your partner’s reaction doesn’t have to be spectacular by normal standards. By this stage in the process, a long cold silence could be as effective as a slap in the face.
Do you ever do anything that your partner doesn’t get to know about, either before or after the event? Do they know you’re reading this? How bad would it be if they found out? Are you preparing an excuse already? Like the living cells in your body, your personality needs a boundary to keep it from dissolving. That boundary is the privacy you have in your own mind.
Here’s where it can get really creepy. Your partner shows you something you’re supposed to have done- dented the car perhaps- and you don’t remember doing it but you realise you must have done because they say so. If your partner is sympathetic rather than critical your resistance will be disarmed, making the technique all the more effective. It’s called “gaslighting,” after the film “Gaslight” in which a man persuades his wife that she is going mad.
Is your favourite feeling the relief which you experience when you’ve done exactly what your partner wanted? Does the old you before you met your partner feel like another person, a fake? Do you now look and dress and talk completely differently? Are you nowadays doing things which used to seem dangerous or disgusting to you? Are you now living somewhere far away from your family and former friends? If not, does the idea attract you? Does everyone except your partner (and perhaps his special friends) now seem completely crazy or stupid? Can you hardly believe the kind of people whom you formerly hung out with?
You may have now reached the fourth and final stage, the Artificial Personality, where the controller gradually replaces your old personality with another of their own design. This is a simple training process. At first they will reward any behaviour that is more or less what they require. But later their demands will become more exacting. You will have to work much harder for the same reward. And by this stage you won’t even resent it. You’ll do anything to stay inside that bubble, you and your partner against the crazy, scary, stupid world outside.
Splitting from a controlling relationship is only the beginning. You will need to rebuild the capabilities and connections which the controlling partner took away, and recognise the false beliefs which they implanted. But here’s the good news. However deep into the process you have gone, you can retrace your steps and find your way out of the “Bubble World.” You can rebuild your personality stronger than before. And the next time a wannabe controller sneaks into your life, you’ll see them coming!
My Ebook “BREAKOUT! How to recognise or recover from a controlling relationship” is available as a free download from www.plymouth-hypnotherapist.co.uk Just click the “download now!” button on the homepage.