My Way or the Highway – How to Recognize Subtly Controlling Behavior

The following behaviors are present in both abusive relationships, and also ‘merely’ unsatisfying relationships. Alone, they are probably insufficient to constitute an abusive relationship. However, combined with stronger actual or threatened behaviors, they may complete the web of control. To recognize abuse, it is helpful to understand all aspects of control. Misusing people includes both controlling and exploitative strategies. While it has been tempting to include ‘merely’ exploitative strategies, they have been left out to keep the focus on the way control works.

Ingratiating Behavior: Most people have a habit of being nice for casual interaction. When it is conspicuously overdone, however, it is meant to create a sense of obligation or guilt, and block confrontation, since that would make the confronter conspicuously “not-nice.”

Never Being Understood: Good listening and good communication, especially during a conflict, relies heavily on the act of paraphrasing or repeating what the other person has said. Counselors are taught this on day one, and all good listeners come to it intuitively. One controlling habit, however, is to refuse to acknowledge that someone has “gotten it’, no matter how carefully the listener has refined his or her statements. In fact, complaints sometimes seem to reverse themselves to keep one step ahead of the listener’s understanding. This can be a defense against anxiety, but when employed by an aggressively critical person is probably best understood as controlling.

Silent Treatment: Everyone wants to feel on good terms and in harmony with those around them. Any small factual or everyday communication can also serve to confirm relations are okay, or if there is a problem, define the extent of the problem. Silent treatment functions to keep the recipient in suspense of what will happen, and unsure of ‘what they did wrong’, and ‘how bad it is.’ This keeps others unable to attend to their own business but also unable to fix the problem. Usually they end up trying to cater to the silent person anyway possible, just so things can ‘get back to normal.’.

Expecting Mind Reading: This involves acting unhappy until others guess what they want. It has the dual advantage of getting what they want, and being able to plausibly deny that they wanted it. This makes it almost impossible to address the appropriateness of what is wanted, yet the pressure is still felt.

Defining Problems: There is an instinctive urge to address and not disregard a communication from others that there is a problem. If this is constant , however, we are kept busy defending or answering the issue, and our own concerns never get a hearing. It is always possible and always easy to pick a part competent or even excellent work. (While it is many many times more difficult to do such work).

Asking Questions: There is an instinctive urge to answer questions, so asking questions, even seeming innocuous ones, is a powerful situational tool for controlling a situation. The person asking the questions controls the situation. Police and corrections officers are all taught this. Asking questions when one already knows the answer works the same. Sometimes, questions are deliberately chosen that will embarrass or put the person asked in a bad light.

Excessive Talking. It is natural and instinctive to pay attention to someone that is talking. Whatever a person is saying, it will be hard to ignore them, especially face to face. There is even a social norm that not listening is ‘rude.’ A person that talks excessively, however, keeps attention on themselves, keeps bystanders away from other tasks and their own needs, and most importantly, keeps bystanders away from a quiet awareness of their own state.

Never Agreeing: This is similar to never being understood. A tell-tale sign is that the difficult person will, if necessary, contradict his or her previous opinion in order to avoid agreement.

Pretending Not to Understand Others. Often, instead of plainly disagreeing, a person will say they don’t understand the speaker. This is more common where the person does not want to hear what is being said. This may be an attempt to be polite but often it is a way to undermine the speaker. It is an ad hominem attack that implies the speaker is incoherent, or a dis-organized thinker.

Abusing Truisms Truisms are general statements about life that are hard to dispute. Most people use them to summarize or consolidate experience. The most general way to abuse truisms is to spread a demand out over a truism filled monologue. The demand is harder to resist because of the ‘true’ atmosphere. To resist the demand seems like disputing the trueness of the truism. Also the truisms make the demand seem more reasonable.

There is also a group of truisms that is frequently employed just when accountability is asked for. Examples of those are “Everyone is human”, “Everyone deserves a second chance”, “Don’t kick somebody when they’re down”, “Everyone makes mistakes”. All these truisms apply to a setting of overall accountability. In the setting of power and control, they are just attempts to live irresponsibly.

Trolling: This is asking for a general opinion, and then responding to the answer as if it is a personal attack. The target meant no ill will, but will be drawn into a situation in which slowly, in defending the original impersonal statements, they seem to start actually attacking the troll, who then has ‘moral high-ground’ and the target feels guilty and eager to do something for the troll. This term comes from the internet where the pattern is more plainly seen, but it has always been used in other contexts as well.

Double Standard on Social Norms. Social norms are deeply ingrained in most people. Social norms develop when responses that work well overall are trained into children. If someone is always reminding others of their obligations under social norms (“don’t be selfish,” etc..), it is often missed that that someone his- or herself does not follow the same norms. Even when this discrepancy is noticed, it can still be hard not to follow the norm.

Toxic Delegation Here the controlling person asks the target to do something for them, saying they can’t do it for themselves. But whatever the target does the controlling person is criticized, not just as inadequate but evidence of negligence or poor judgment. The target then, feeling committed and at fault, becomes desperate to please the controlling person. This is a combination of ‘defining problems’ and ‘trolling.’ Playground wisdom is helpful her: “beggars can’t be choosers.” If a person really needs help, it is not legitimate for them to criticize any good faith effort.

Walkless Talk The controlling person talks indignantly and frequently to the target about what ‘should’ be done: cleaning, cooking, work duties. The target believes the controlling person must be doing a lot of it, tries to ‘help’ by doing as much as they can. In actuality, the controlling person is doing very little of the activity, it just seems like they are because they talk about it so much.

Changing the Subject for Other People. This occurs when at least three people are talking. If a subject comes up that is uncomfortable for one person, that person may insist on changing or glossing over the topic even though the other two (or more) seem eager to continue. Truisms may be misused for this purpose, or the subject may be labeled improper, or ad hominem attacks may be made. Even if the two (or more) people that want to continue recognize the interference, if one points it out and protests, the subject has already been changed! While it could be stated that the the people who want to continue the subject can do so later, certain frequent groupings (family dinners, work, etc) are a natural stimulus to conversation, and to thwart natural behavior in others is controlling.

Constantly Correcting: Disputing or correcting someone on points irrelevant to the main point being made is a status transaction. An argument constantly derailed by such corrections is just a raw power struggle, (at least to the difficult person) and will never settle anything.

Raising the Bar. It is natural to want to succeed in any task undertaken, and being given a challenge can be exciting. These human traits can be exploited though. First a reasonable task is given. If it is completed, another somewhat more difficult task is given immediately instead of acknowledgement, as if this new task is necessary for the first one to be real. This can go on and on with the target never able to succeed because the bar of success is always kept just out of reach. The targeted person can become so eager to please that they lose their bearings on what is reasonable, or what they want.

Ransoming Back. This is where something is taken from the target, and when the target asks for it back, an exchange is proposed. The target will often comply under the premise to get something one has to give something. But what the target is getting back is just what they should have in the first place. Cooperation is commonly kidnapped, because it is so easily withheld, and then something is given to trade for cooperation that should exist in any work or close relationship. The same is often true for disruptiveness, the peace someone should have is ransomed back.

The Chain of Yes: In this ploy, an easy, possibly flattering request is made to which the answer is almost surely “yes”. More and more requests are made, each just slightly more demanding or less agreeable. A string of “yesses” is produced. It is natural at this point to have difficulty saying no, and so targets will tend to go farther in agreeing to an unfavorable request than they would have if asked in the beginning. This effect can take hold after even one or two “yesses”

Lying This self-explanatory

Use the Cover of Other People. This happen say when someone asks in public for something seemingly innocent that the other person has a good reason not to give. Because it is a strong social norm not to expose conflict, it will be hard to say no (for some reason the person saying no is deemed to be the one ‘starting’ a conflict.)

Projective Identification: This is a term from psychology, but it is a very useful idea in explaining some types of subtle control. In projective identification, another person is manipulated to act in a way that justifies the manipulating person’s attitude or position. It usually works this way 1) an interpersonal accusation is made which touches on the sensitivities of another person. 2) the accused person protests, loses composure, perhaps counterattacks, and 3) the behavior or attitude of the accused person after the accusation is used as justification for the accusation. Projective identification usually works by stimulating fear, anxiety, guilt, or shame in the target person, and ‘benefits’ the projecting person by lessening those four things temporarily.

Posted on April 6, 2014, in Narcissism. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. My ex was the king of walkless talk. He talked a lot about what he going to do, but didn’t do anything. He told the story as if he had. It was disorienting and I had been trained not to challenge him. Challenges brought on excessive talking with a lot of truism. “I’m just a square peg trying to fit myself in a round hole” To this day I feel so disillusioned about our relationship. He talked about getting married, but in hindsight I can’t see that he did anything that was indicative of those intentions


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