There are are a number of styles of controlling behavior. Each type of controller operates with a different vocabulary, and each gives a different spin to the demands, pressure, threats and negative judgments that they use.
Punishers – Eat the food I cooked for you or I’ll hurt you. Punishers are the most explicit. They let us know exactly what they want and the consequences we’ll face if we don’t give it to them. They may express themselves aggressively or they may smolder in silence. In escalated situations, the threatened consequences of not acceding to a controller can be significant: abandonment, emotional cutoff, the withholding of money or other resources. The most terrifying extreme is explosive anger and/or threats of physical harm.
Self-punishers – Eat the food I cooked for you or I’ll hurt myself. Self-punishers turn the threats inward, threatening what they will do to themselves if they don’t get their way. High drama and an air of crisis, often blamed on the controlled, surround self-punishers who are often excessively needy and dependent. They often enmesh themselves with those around them and struggle with taking responsibility with their own lives. The ultimate threat self-punishers can make is that they will kill themselves.
Sufferers – Eat the food I cooked for you. I needed it for myself. I wonder what will happen now. Sufferers are blamers and guilters who expect us to figure out what they want and ensure that they get it. Sufferers take the position that if they feel miserable, sick, unhappy, or are just plain unlucky, we are expected to help them – even if they haven’t told us how. They let us know, in no uncertain terms, that if we don’t help, they will suffer, and it will be our fault. Sufferers are pre-occupied with how awful they feel, and often they interpret our inability to read their minds as proof that we don’t care enough about them.
Tantalizers – Eat the food I cooked for you and you just may get a really great dessert. Tantalizers put us through a series of tests and hold out a promise of something wonderful if we’ll just give them their way. They are the subtlest controllers. They encourage us and promise love or money or career advancement, and then make it clear that unless we behave as they want us to, we won’t get the prize. Many tantalizers promise emotional payoffs full of love, acceptance, family closeness and healed wounds. Admission to this nirvana requires one thing: giving in to what the tantalizer wants.
These styles, of course, are not mutually exclusive – they can overlap.
Are You Rewarding Bad Behavior?
It’s easy to focus on other people’s behavior and to think that if they change, things will be fine. But does that make practical sense in matters such as these? In many ways, this problem is more disturbing and costly for us as we are the ones on the short end of the transaction. As adults, there is something we can do about it.
With knowledge can come change.
The price we pay when we repeatedly yield to unfavorable demands is enormous. It eats away at us and escalates until it puts our most important relationships and our whole sense of self-respect in jeopardy. Our compliance condones bad behavior and every time we reward someone for a particular action, whether we realize it or not, we’re letting them know in the strongest possible terms that they can do it again.
Change has to begin with us. We are not helpless. We need to act.
Change Your Response, Change Your Life
In the simplest sense, to change this dynamic we need to alter the way we respond to it.
Step One Don’t respond the moment a demand is made. Give yourself time to think and assess the matter. We want to respond – not react.
Step Two Let go of your emotional ties to being controlled, at least briefly, and try to be an independent observer. Gather the information you need to construct a wise response – one that is neither enabling nor confrontational. Likely there is a long history of bad, demanding behavior and enabling responses / resentment, so this is going to take some discipline not to be triggered or to overreact. You may want to enlist a confidant – someone you respect for their emotional maturity and ability to read others – to act as a sounding board. Remember, it’s problem resolution, relationship retraining – not a battle.
Focus on the demand at hand, not all the past history. Assess how significant a particular demand is. Remember that there are different levels of demands, and know where to be strong and where to be flexible- demands that are of little consequence, demands that involve important issues or personal integrity, demands that affect major life directions, and/or demands that are dangerous or illegal.
Step Three Respond in a constructive way.
Non-defensive communication Do not defend or explain your decision or yourself in response to pressure. Use phrases like “I’m sorry you are so upset. I can understand how you might see it that way.” Without fuel from you, the controller’s attempts that worked so well in the past will fizzle. Choose time and place carefully. Lay down conditions for the meeting, announce a decision and stand by it – offer a suggestion that they not respond immediately. Anticipate their answers. Practice or role play. Consider how to respond to the person’s: Catastrophic predictions and threats, name-calling, labeling and negative judgments. The deadly whys and hows – demanding explanations and a rationale for your decision. For silent angry people, stay non-defensive.
Enlisting the controller as an ally When emotional control reaches an impasse, it’s often helpful to shift the conversation by involving the other person in your problem-solving process. Approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.
Bartering When you want another person to change his or her behavior, and at the same time you acknowledge that you need to make changes of your own, barter may be in order. It’s win/win. It enables resentments to be put to one side.
Using Humor In a relationship that is basically good, humor can be an effective tool for pointing out to the other person how their behavior looks to you.
Step Four Be ready for some pushback or more aggressive responses. Often things will get worse before they then get better – our resolve will be tested – this is common in any type of relationship retraining. We need to have perseverance and confidence that both sides will eventually adjust, and it will end or reduce the feelings of being controlled.
Step Five Periodically evaluate the progress. Keeping a log of events, actions, and outcomes is helpful for this purpose. A lot can be learned from looking at the history – what works, what does not, and if progress is being made. All of this should be factored into our decisions of how we go forward.
Know When To Involve Others
Most emotional blackmail is hurtful, but not dangerous. This article is addressing the former, not the latter.
However, in some cases the pressure and threats may involve physical or sexual abuse or illegal activity. When they do, do not go it alone. If it seems as if behaviors may escalate to this, do not go it alone. Visibility is very important in abusive situations; friends, family, lawyers, the police – all can have a significant centering affect on someone who dysreglates into abusive behavior. In these cases, safety planning is also very important. Contact your local domestic abuse resource for help with this.