Sometimes, even experienced people don’t recognize control-freaks until they’re in a relationship so far that they have to fight fiercely to get free. Madge was divorced, without children and had established a good career. She’d purchased a house she loved and had a wide circle of professional and personal friends who admired and respected her intelligence, competence, good sense and friendship.
When she met Frank, also middle-aged, she thought she’d found the missing piece she wanted in her life. He seemed to think so also. He quickly gave her a friendship ring and moved into her home. He knew what he wanted, had lots of plans for his success and seemed to know the right people in town.
But, after a few months, Madge began to recognize the controlling side of Frank.
When they were courting, Frank had given his reasons for wanting to go to the places and meet the people he wanted to. Madge usually agreed and it seemed like no big deal to acquiesce since she wasn’t as determined as Frank. But after he moved in, she began to realize that they always did what he wanted and he got very angry if she put up more than a token resistance. He stopped giving reasons and merely gave orders.
He began to re-organize her home the way he liked and simply ignored what she wanted. Or he could always win debates with her.
Frank never hit her, but she began to realize that she was afraid of disagreeing with him. He got so angry and he was so sure he was right that he wouldn’t back down. She slowly accepted his claim that she wouldn’t be invited out without him. And she was afraid that he might even dump her. Then she’d look like what he told her she was; past her prime and on the down side.
None of his work projects seemed to pay off, but he always had new and bigger plans. He kept pointing out that her friends were jealous of his ideas and plans. They didn’t appreciate his talents and potential, and they sabotaged his projects. He said, “We won’t with your old friends any more, but with your contacts, I can cultivate important people who appreciate me.
At a party one night, Madge was having a wonderful time when he suddenly came to her and said, “We’re leaving now.” She asked if anything had happened and he replied, “No. I’m just bored so we’re leaving.” She said, “I’m having a great time so if nobody got you angry, I’d like to stay a little longer. Surely you can find someone interesting to talk with for a while.” Frank spat back, “I said we’re leaving. That means right now!”
Madge now says that she still doesn’t know what shifted in her, but she said, as sweetly as she could, “No. If you want to leave, you can take the car, but I’m staying. I’ll get a ride or a take cab home. I won’t be long.”
Frank stormed off. When she arrived home a few hours later, he was furious. He yelled, “I’m in charge. If you don’t do what I want, you can get out of my house.”
Madge felt like a chastised little girl. She thought, “I wasn’t considerate of him. I could have left with him as he wanted. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world, even though I was having a wonderful time.” She begged him to forgive her; “I won’t argue with you any more.” When she said that, Frank finally smiled and said, “That’s my girl. Don’t talk back any more and I won’t have to punish you.”
At 2 a.m. Madge woke up with a start. Her fists were clenched and she was shaking with rage. “Wait a minute,” she thought. “It’s my house, not his.” At that moment her head and heart turned around. She saw Frank clearly for the bully he was. Even though he hadn’t hit her, he was a sneaky controlling, stealth bully.
As I show in my books and CDs of case studies, “How to Stop Bullies in their Tracks” and “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up,” the story of a wife stopping a controlling husband, bullies are not all the same, but their patterns of behavior, their tactics, are the same.
Here are seven of the early warning signs of a stealth bully:
- They make the rules; they control everything – what you do, where you go, who spends the money and what it’s spent on.
- They push boundaries, argue endlessly and withhold approval and love if you don’t do exactly what they want.
- Their standards rule – your “no” isn’t accepted as “no;” they’re always right and you’re always wrong; their sense of humor is right and they’re not abusing you, you’re merely too sensitive. Your issues generally don’t get dealt with – theirs are more important so they can ignore your wishes.
- They control you with their disapproval, name-calling, demeaning putdowns, blame and guilt – no matter what you do; you’re wrong or not good enough. Or they control you with their hyper-sensitive, hurt feelings and threats to commit suicide.
- You’re afraid you’ll trigger a violent rage – you walk on eggshells; they intimidate you with words and weapons; they threaten you, the children, the pets, your favorite things. You’re told that you’re to blame if they’re angry. You feel emotionally blackmailed, intimidated and drained.
- You’re told you’re incompetent, helpless and would be alone without them.
- They isolate you – they won’t allow you to see you friends or your family, go to school or even work.
Madge could now see that Frank was merely a domineering fast talker, who brought in no money. He had been sponging off her all the time he had taken control of her life. And she had allowed him to.
I won’t detail the difficulties Madge had in getting Frank out of her house and life. That’s when she discovered that he’d done this before to many other women and knew how to intimidate her and make her look bad. But she got courageous and strong, and she got free.
Controlling boyfriends, husbands, teenagers, parents, bosses, co-workers and friends use the same methods. That’s why we can find ways to stop most of them. If we don’t stop bullies, they’ll think we’re easy prey. Like sharks, they’ll just go after us more.
Of course, individual coaching will help you design tactics that fit your specific situation.