Daughters of mothers who are controlling often find themselves attracted to people who treat them as their mothers did, even though that childhood treatment made them feel insignificant, lacking a voice and authenticity, and unhappy. As long as we fail to recognize the way in which our childhood experiences have shaped us and our own behaviors, we’re likely to be drawn to what we know: The familiar. While it’s counterintuitive—after all, this daughter really does yearn to come into her own and be loved for who she is—it’s not really surprising.
Why overt control can seem appealing (at first)
Daughters of mothers who are sometimes present and sometimes not and who grow up with a model of relationship that is unreliable can also be attracted to controlling people but for a different reason: They mistake the “my way or the highway” approach with security and order. An emotionally chaotic childhood in which a child spends her time wondering if the “Good Mommy” or the “Bad Mommy” will show up creates a deep-seated need for stability and, at first blush, a person who needs to be in charge appears to supply that in spades. But, over time, control begins to look very different as one woman, 38, explained:
I was actually grateful for the way he took things I was conflicted about and dealt with them for me. It made me feel safe and cared for. Of course, I didn’t realize that it was my weakness, my inability to articulate my needs, my willingness to be putty in his hands, that was the real turn-on for him. When I started talking back and actually voiced my opinions, he turned on a dime. I was either with him and silent or against him.
It can take time for a woman who’s unsure of herself and doesn’t trust her own feelings and thoughts to realize that she’s being made invisible by her partner; in fact, in some cases, it can seem “normal” since it echoes her childhood experiences.
Daughters who grow up with dismissive mothers may feel as though the spotlight is finally on them in a relationship with someone—it could be a lover or friend—who is highly controlling. There’s usually a courtship period during which the partner is on best behavior and highly seductive, and works hard at drawing you in. You might not even notice that you’re being controlled, not at first at least. This observation shared by a woman, 34:
I thought we were really best friends. In hindsight, it’s clear that she treated me as I thought I should be treated—a DIY project that needed taking on. I felt loved because she cared even though what she said always sounded like something my mom would say. The way I dressed was wrong, my hair was terrible; okay, I fixed it the way she thought I should look. My apartment was an undecorated mess so I fixed that too. But when I met a guy I liked, she never liked him and, yes, I’d be persuaded she was right. This went on for years until I met Mark and what she said didn’t matter to me. I knew what I had. She cut me dead, tried to turn our mutual friends against me (which only worked some of the time), and that was that. She wanted a puppet, not a friend.
It’s often easier to see how controlling someone is in moments of discord than it is in the daily flow of life. It’s not whether a couple fights, as marital expert John Gottman, has noted but how they fight that matters and reveals the true dynamic of the relationship. (And its chances of success.) The control junkie in your life isn’t likely to brook much discussion or give-and-take—there can only be one King or Queen of the Castle, after all—and the ways in which he or she tries to shut you down are those identified by Gottman and other psychologists as the most toxic to a relationship. They include criticism (attacking someone’s personality or character rather than a specific behavior), displaying contempt (insulting and abusing the person), defensiveness (denying responsibility and deflecting it on to the other person), and stonewalling (withdrawing when a demand is made). Stonewalling is also known as Demand/Withdraw and even has its own acronym (DM/W) which puts it in a category by itself.
If you look at these four tactics—what Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—it’s not hard to see why an unloved daughter might not see the patterns initially. It’s likely that she experienced verbal aggression in her childhood so an attack on her essential character might seem familiar, as is the display of contempt. Defensiveness might not ring a bell either since she’s also used to other people justifying their treatment of her and it’s likely that her mother stonewalled her at one point or another. But—sooner or later—she will get it.
Overt control is one thing; covert control is another.
Covert control: another shade of narcissism (and manipulation)
In his book, Rethinking Narcissism. Dr. Craig Malkin notes that the narcissist is more likely to exert what he calls “stealth control,” rather the overt kind. The reason is that the narcissist doesn’t want to have his needs known so he doesn’t want to ask for anything. As a result, he gets what he wants in much more subtle ways. For example, deciding on the spur of the moment, that it’d be more fun to go out of town for the weekend than go to that play you’ve wanted to see, and changing up the dinner reservations so as to “surprise” you. Or deciding that the kitchen remodel money you’ve set aside ought to be spent on something else. It doesn’t have anything to do with surprise, of course; it’s about getting him what he wants. And ignoring and marginalizing your wishes. Over time, you could actually forget that you once had your own thoughts and desires. The same pattern can, of course, happen with a narcissistic friend who preempts plans you’ve already made, grimaces every time you make a suggestion.
Another common pattern of covert control is undermining your friendships.
Pulling you into his or her orbit
A key element in covert control is making sure that you’re isolated in some fashion because it increases the narcissist’s hold over you; one way of doing that is to undermine your friendships and other ties because it makes you more dependent on him. That could be accomplished by setting up “conflicts” when you’ve made plans to see a friend—effectively making you choose between him and a friend—or by undermining those friends or questioning their loyalty or even the nature of the relationship itself. That’s what Dory, 46, ultimately saw happen:
My friends didn’t like him from the get-go. They understood how controlling he was when I didn’t. But he did his best to shut them out of my life…By telling me that they weren’t worthy of me, pointing out their flaws, making me question whether they had my back. I lost one girlfriend after another until one friend sat me down and handed me a list—a literal list—of the things Rich had done to cut me off from other people. Well, when I confronted him, he revealed his true colors and threatened me. That was that. Finally.
Making you lose sight of yourself
While this is hard to do with someone who’s grown up securely attached and has confidence in herself, it’s actually not that difficult to do with an unloved daughter who’s plagued by insecurity. The truth is that acknowledging her own needs and wants and feeling that they are valid and warranted doesn’t come easily to most unloved daughters to begin with. But with a partner who is actively trying to take control, she’s even more likely to become marginalized and invisible. Again, over time, it’s likely that she will begin to see the pattern—either through discord or simply the weight of her own increasing unhappiness—but it won’t be easy.
Our childhood experiences can make us vulnerable in adulthood but only if we leave them unexamined. The best way to disarm unconscious patterns is to drag them into consciousness and begin to understand the ways in which our behavior today is motivated by what we experienced years ago.
Photograph by Toa Heftiba. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.