Updated: Jul 21, 2021
I've been chatting with quite a few people recently, who have found themselves in a submissive role in their romantic relationships. It concerns me, that they don't feel strong enough to stand up for themselves when they want to. It also worries me, that they love the person who is manipulating them.
What might surprise you, is that these people are male and female. We've heard, a lot lately, about the coercive control and abuse that women can experience (thanks to #metoo). What we don't hear about, is when men are manipulated into situations that they can't escape.
I'll give you three examples of coercive control.
One person, who has a grown-up child from a previous relationship, has no contact with that child or their own siblings. This person's life revolves around their current long-term partner, that partner's child, and work.
Another person, who has been married to the same spouse for decades, is constantly told they're stupid - by their spouse, their children and their in-laws. They haven't seen a friend in many years, because they're not allowed to have friends.
Another person, who again has been married to the same spouse for decades, is not permitted to have contact with their own siblings. It's an unsaid thing, but if a sibling calls or texts, their spouse will get angry.
These are incredibly simplified versions of their stories, so I don't identify anybody, but they all have this in common:
Each person has a partner who exercises some kind of coercive control over them. Each person has been manipulated to stay, and to put up with the conditions of the partnership.
Could you pick which were male and which were female?
The fact is, this experience can happen to anyone. To an outsider, these partnerships seem so strong and admirable - they've survived a long time! They might have kids, pets, grandchildren; they might go on great overseas holidays (even with family members or friends) ... but if you ask, "When was the last time you saw ...?", you might discover what seems to be a rift. Dig a little deeper, and you might find that no-one did anything wrong, but they haven't seen someone who would have been part of their support network in many years.
So, why might these people be cut off from their own support network? Simple. The partner, exercising the coercive control, sees their in-laws and their partner's pre-relationship social groups as threats. It's okay to have friends who are mutual friends, or friends who are the controlling partner's friends; but not your own individual crew. The old gang from high school is gone; you only have friends who are your partner's. It's okay to spend time with family, as long as they're not your birth family.
Why might someone exercise coercive control? That partner might have attachment problems (for example, they have had a bereavement or other loss of someone special, and "never really got over it"). If that's the case, they will be keeping away the competition, because they are worried that your support network will bad-mouth them to you, and convince you to leave.
When you think about it, it's a bit circular! They worry you'll leave them, giving you reasons to go ... so why do you stay?
If you've read previous posts and my first book, [RE]BIRTH: Self-Transformation over Tea and Tarot, you'll know that I have what's called a "lived experience" of this. That means, I have been in a relationship where I have made a commitment to stay with someone, and he isolated me from my family and friends. I never felt like I could invite them over for dinner, or even for a cuppa. I never felt free to go out with them for a meal, or to visit. If I did, and he came with me, he would do things to embarrass me (like get drunk, or flirt with one of my friends) or make me feel like I had to leave. If I tried to leave by myself, he would throw a tantrum. There were times when he tried to make me feel small, insignificant, and unworthy through the words he used when speaking to me (though he'd tell everyone else that he was so lucky to have me). There were even times when he was physically abusive.
So, I'm speaking from the perspective of someone who knows how it feels to be inside that kind of relationship; and from this perspective now, of being free from it.
For me, I stayed because of his children. I loved them. Whenever I tried to leave, I'd go back to my parents' home, and he'd arrive there to beg me to return. I needed Mum and Dad's support, but I always felt like I didn't want to put them through it. I didn't want to worry them.
I know that the friends and siblings, of these people I've mentioned, have tried to keep in touch. But, if you have to keep it a secret from your partner, then you're scared of them. You shouldn't have to be scared of someone you love, if they love you too.
So, what is love? I can tell you, what it's not. Love is not saying, "If you go to coffee with your siblings, I might not be here when you get back." Love is not saying, "Who would want you, you're an idiot." Love is not making your old friends feel like they're unwelcome whenever they call or visit. Love is not keeping you from your own parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, children from previous relationships ....
Love is definitely not "walking on eggshells".
Love is welcoming you, and your pre-relationship life - your parents, your siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, everyone who was part of your past - because they are parts of you. Love is wanting to get to know them too - because they fill in the stories of your life that your partner doesn't know, because they didn't share those parts of your life. Love is trusting - love isn't afraid that you'll leave whenever you're out of sight. Love is kind - love wants you to be happy and safe, even when you're somewhere else. Love is considerate - love thinks about how to care for you, but also how to empower you. Love is helpful - love doesn't need to be asked to do stuff around the house, because love will just muck in and get it done. Love is honest - love doesn't keep secrets. Love is brave - love doesn't walk on eggshells. Love is stronger than hate, but it's also bigger than fear.
If you love someone, and they are controlling you, then you have three choices:
Option 1: You can stay, and "shut up and put up";
Option 2: You can stay, but help your controlling partner to see how they're hurting you, and ask for professional help to uncover their attachment problems to restore your relationship to something more mutually and unconditionally loving;
Option 3: You can leave, and find all the people who are waiting to support you through the next chapter.
If you choose Option 1, you remain isolated. You get further and further down the rabbit-hole, and you lose your way out. I can't guarantee that your loved ones of old will be waiting for you to change (or, indeed, if they'll still be alive). How will you know where to find them, when your controlling partner dies (or leaves you for someone else)?
If you choose Option 2, you still remain isolated, with no guarantee that your controlling partner will engage in the psychotherapy. If they do, then you have a chance. If they don't, then you could be looking at a harsher version of option 1 (especially if they have a personality disorder).
If you choose Option 3, hopefully you can find someone from the old crowd. If you can, they will be so glad to see you, and happy to get you in contact with others. You might not get the warmest welcome back, because they could think that you chose your partner over them; they might feel like you abandoned them, and you'll need to make amends. Do it; it's worth it. If you're lucky, you will have the warm welcome back, like the prodigal son.
Take that welcome and run with it. Listen to what your old loved ones have to say, because they will have the wisdom of perspective. You only have one perspective (and that's your controlling partner's). It's time you felt what it feels like, to take back control of your own life .....
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