You know the saying, ‘My way or the highway?’ That’s my guy. No discussion. No questions. He wasn’t like this when we were dating or at least I don’t think so. He seemed accommodating, in fact. But since we’ve been married—five long years—he has to be the undisputed King of the Castle. It’s awful. And he absolutely denies it too which is crazy-making.
That’s what “Delia,” 37, wrote me in a message. She was writing me about something else—her controlling mother—and then she volunteered this statement. And you know what? It’s not altogether surprising that she went from a childhood with a controlling parent to a marriage with a controlling husband. Counterintuitive but true.
How is it that we recreate the toxicity of our childhoods as adults?
We are all drawn to the familiar
This happens on an unconscious level, according to attachment theory, and it’s not the same as choosing a mate because he actively reminds you of someone you love.
Our experiences in early and childhood—how we are responded to, shown love and affection, and tended to—create “mental models” of how relationships work and how people act and respond. These generalized and unconsciousness models act as a filter on our experiences and shape our behavior; they become unarticulated but nonetheless guiding assumptions about the larger world and the people in it.
If we are responded to and shown love and affection by our primary caretaker, we grow up believing that the world is a place where people are to be trusted and close connections help us thrive; we think well of ourselves, trust our judgment, and believe that others will see us as we see ourselves. These are the hallmarks of a person who displays secure attachment, and he or she will be drawn to others like him or herself. They are likely to spot someone who needs to control early on in relationship, and will act to either change the person’s behavior or sever the connection. The securely attached woman wants a partner, not a puppeteer.
But something like 40-percent of us (and perhaps as many as half) don’t have our emotional needs met in childhood. We may be responded and tended to either inconsistently or not at all; we learn lessons about love and support that underscore the need for self-protection and armoring. Or deprived of love in childhood, we may be desperately hungry for it as adults but anxious and worried that it will be taken away or disappear. Brought up by a parent who manipulates, controls, or puts us down constantly, we are likely to normalize these behaviors even as adults.
Our mental models of relationships—all of them unconscious until brought to conscious awareness—lead us to seek out these toxic patterns in our adult connections. Why? Because they’re familiar. They are comfort zones that offer no comfort, as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Her Life.
4 mistakes the unloved daughter makes
Because she’s normalized how she was treated and she’s in search of the love and attention she lacked, the unloved daughter’s working models will, alas, sometimes lead her to certain basic—and treacherous—misunderstandings. The controlling partner knows all of that; that’s why he’s chosen her.
Now, let’s look at why she’s chosen him.
- She mistakes control for strength
A woman who mistrust her own perceptions and is always worried about her own judgment can easily fall into the trap of thinking her partner’s need for control demonstrates decisiveness. That was certainly the case for Linda, 37, who reflected on her husband of six years: “I was attracted to how un-wishy washy he was. He was so opinionated and I thought that made him strong. I didn’t see that he was a control freak and a bully.”
She’s not alone. And the daughter’s need to be taken care of may facilitate her continuing blindness to the real reason behind his behavior.
- She confuses control with loving attention
He’s texting you constantly—asking how and where you are—and you think it’s proof-positive of the depth of his feelings. He’s lovebombing you—putting the relationship on speed dial, buying you gifts, telling you how wonderful you are—and you don’t see how he’s insinuating himself into every aspect of your life.
In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin highlights what he calls “stealth control” as a hallmark of the narcissist’s behavior. The problem is that stealth control can be easy to miss or mislabel. Because the narcissist doesn’t want to make overt demands, he gets control by switching up plans under the guise of giving you something better or more expensive. You wanted to spend the weekend with your friends but he surprises you with a trip so wonderful that, of course, you’ll cancel, thinking he’s so sweet. But what he’s really doing is asserting control, and what you’re doing is losing sight of yourself and your own needs.
- She thinks control is protective
A woman in search of a white knight, especially those whose families of origin were emotionally chaotic and hard to navigate, initially may think the way her partner handles everything for her is a form of protection or offers her some kind of security.
That’s what Angie thought when she met Steve at the age of 25: “He seemed to have it all together. Good job. Nice apartment. Attractive. And I felt great about his running my life, how I dressed, how I looked. I thought it was caring, a sign of devotion. But it wasn’t. It took me eight years to figure it out. The minute I asserted myself, he pushed back hard.”
In truth, the controller is looking to capitalize on your vulnerabilities so that you stay put. He likes the power he has over you.
- She normalizes abusive behavior
This is where the familiar—yes, those unprocessed childhood experiences—really put the unloved daughter in harm’s way. Her tolerance of toxic behavior combined with her learned responses to it—making excuses or denying, reverting to pleasing and the like—absolutely keep her locked into the controller’s orbit.
Paradoxically, her basic lack of understanding of what love looks like will keep her stuck in place, and her controlling partner knows that. He knows how hungry she is for love. Is this something you’re doing?
Knowing what you bring to the party is a tool that can help you leave the party under your own steam.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by Ryoji Iwata. Copyright free. Unsplash.com