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"But I have such a Great Catch!" Treating Abusive Controlling Relationships
But I have such a Great Catch! Treating Abusive Controlling Relationships

Section 21
Skills Learned in a Controlling Relationship

Question 21 |
Test | Table of Contents | Couples

The Chinese character for crisis is made up of two parts: danger and opportunity. Crisis tends to light a fire that can initiate positive action. Crisis allows people to dip deeply within, to open doors that have been closed, to breathe energy into new directions, to be creative out of necessity. When someone goes through a controlling relationship, they develop lifesaving strategies to help them get through these difficult times. They acquire special skills that they may have labeled as “bad” or “useless.” However, the expertise they developed during this difficult time can actually help them take better care of themselves now and can be helpful in their following relationships. These qualities may have come from existing in a crisis mode, but now they can offer themselves an opportunity to transform these qualities into highly functioning skills.

For example, your patients probably have a tendency to take things personally. They learned to put out their antennae and “tune in” to the mood and level of their controlling partner’s behaviors. Observing, noticing, paying attention - these were their strengths within the relationship. Why not help them to capitalize on this sensitivity after the controlling partner is no longer around? By being attentive and trusting the intuition they developed in the controlling relationship, they are able to become exquisitely sensitive to people and situations around them.

Have them think back to the energy they put into noticing the cues around them. One patient recalled, “I felt like I had highly developed eyes and ears. Even the pores of my skin felt like they were ultrasensitive to incoming signals.” Reading their partner’s moods - the way they sighed at dinner or walked through the door after work - was one way they learned to get through the day.

Your patient may have discovered different ways to maneuver through some difficult times in their relationship. They may have learned to play a caregiving role, such as the mediator, the placater, the scapegoat, the go-between, or the joker. These roles were important to the functioning of the relationship, and they had a job to do - fill that role. This provided them with an identity - they were needed. In fact, they may continue to see themselves that way, repeating the same function in their new, healthy relationships. For example, one woman identified her role as “the garbage bag for the relationship. Being a scapegoat has been my job description for ten years now. I don’t want this job anymore.”

In addition to their assigned role, perhaps along the way they developed certain adaptation strategies to protect themselves from their controlling relationship. When something threatened their well-being or peace of mind, or if something felt like a life-or-death situation, they did whatever they had to do to survive the best they could. The trouble is, sometimes they did not just adapt to the situation, they may have overadapted. By the time they reach another relationship, these overadjustments are not always serving them so well.

They may have put up barriers or built walls around themselves. One patient described her wall as “Brick, with turrets on top; no light got through. In my next relationship, as I learned to feel safer, sunlight began filtering through, and the wall began to come down, brick by brick.”

They may have learned to space out - to emotionally “leave.” It’s as if in the difficult moments of their relationship, they were not a part of time. In Unchained Memories, Lenore Terr describes this altered state of consciousness as “unlocking the gears and coasting a while on neutral.” When the emotional pain became too great to bear, they did not think they had they had the option to leave the room, so they did the next best thing: they found a way to emotionally disconnect from the pain, to dissociate. They could watch from a safe place and protect themselves.

Unfortunately, people who have not been through controlling relationships do not seem to appreciate the usefulness of these skills. They don’t understand why someone in a controlling relationship would joke around to deflect arguments or space out when the emotions got too much to handle. Because these protective devices are seen by others as weaknesses rather than strengths, they take on negative connotations.Your patients who are out of the controlling relationship have a treasure chest of useful attributes, but they are unable to gain access to them. In fact, they most likely see them they same way that other people have taught them to see them - as quirks, shortcomings, defects, weaknesses. How can they turn these stumbling blocks into building blocks? How can they repackage these undervalued traits into valuable assets?

Adapted from:Savage, E., Ph.D. Don’t Take it Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection. iUniverse BackInPrint.com.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Liebers, N. (2021). Unfulfilled romantic needs: Effects of relationship status, presence of romantic partners, and relationship satisfaction on romantic parasocial phenomena. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication.

Stewart, V. T., & Clayton, R. B. (2021). Achieving the ideal-self while harming my relationship: Examining associations between self-discrepancy, instagram photo manipulation, and romantic relationship outcomes. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication.

Willie, T. C., Powell, A., Callands, T., Sipsma, H., Peasant, C., Magriples, U., Alexander, K., & Kershaw, T. (2019). Investigating intimate partner violence victimization and reproductive coercion victimization among young pregnant and parenting couples: A longitudinal study. Psychology of Violence, 9(3), 278–287.

Clients who are out of the controlling relationship have a useful attributes, but they are unable to gain access to them. Why? To select and enter your answer go to

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