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What Makes your Control Freak Wife or Girlfriend Tick

August 3, 2009 145 comments

control a man remoteDoes your wife or girlfriend tell you what to do most or all of the time? Does she become enraged or sullen and withdrawn if she doesn’t get her way? Does she needle you endlessly until you capitulate? Controlling behaviors and attitudes are just another aspect of emotionally abusive women with Borderline and/or Narcissistic personality traits.

It’s natural to want to have control over your own life. However, most of us realize you can’t control everything, especially other people. You can make requests or try to influence others, but you can’t control them. Psychologist Dr Thomas Schumacher writes, “When you have to be in control of the people around you…when you literally can’t rest until you get your own way . . . you have a personality disorder.”

Here’s the rub: You can’t control others. Not really. When you spend your every waking moment worrying about what others are doing, compulsively trying to control them, you’re the one who ultimately becomes controlled by your desire to control. It’s a paradoxical effect. For those of you who are involved with an emotionally abusive, controlling woman, you probably recognize that maniacal, “out of control” look in her eyes when she’s trying to bend you to her will and you’re trying to resist.

Are control freaks and Narcissistic and/or Borderline women one and the same?

There’s a lot of overlap between the characteristics of “control freaks” and emotionally abusive NPD/BPD women. This isn’t a great leap since many men who are involved with these women describe them as “controlling.” If you think of this woman as a cubic zirconia, “control freak” is just another facet that flashes in the light like “bully,” “professional victim,” “pathological jealousy,” “hypercritical,” etc. Or, put another way, it’s another piece of the fragmented BPD/NPD woman jigsaw puzzle.

Control freaks and abusive, high-conflict women:

  • Have difficulty trusting others.
  • Have a profound fear of having their flaws exposed.
  • Cannot tolerate feeling vulnerable (and, therefore, can’t handle intimacy).
  • Are riddled with anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.

What’s really going on?

Why does she invest so much in trying to control you and your reality? Because she tries to manage her anxiety by trying to control you. Control is her anxiety management technique of choice. She doesn’t experience anxiety like a relatively healthy person does — an unpleasant sensation that will eventually pass. To this woman, anxiety is a painful reminder that something is wrong with her. To acknowledge this is akin to being lowered into a dark, bottomless pit with no way out. There is a way out, of course; facing her issues and feeling her feelings, but she’s not going to do that!

Facing her fears and working through her issues would mean admitting she actually has issues, which would mean holding herself accountable and not blaming others. It makes much more sense (to her and remember, she’s the only one who matters) to deny and ignore her problems and push and poke at you because you’re the one with the problem, not her.

Her strategy is unconscious for the most part and goes something like this: If you’re both totally focused on and consumed by what a useless, screw-up jerk you are, no one will notice her glaring flaws, especially her. Get it? I feel dizzy from typing that last piece of emotional reasoning, but that’s what goes on in the dark recesses of her brain.

She tries to stave off her deep-seated fear of having her true self exposed by controlling every aspect of her life and her relationship with you, including imposing her distorted version of reality upon you. She views her ability to control you as a matter of survival—her psychological survival, that is. “Being in control gives her the temporary illusion of a sense of calmness. When she feels she is prevailing, you can just about sense the tension oozing out of her” (Schumacher).

Think about it. When does she come close to being in a good mood or smile with pure pleasure? When she feels like she’s in the catbird seat because she’s gotten her way, pulled one over on you or pulled the rug out from underneath you. The size of her smile is in direct proportion to the number of times she twisted the proverbial knife.

More defensive mechanisms: Projection and projective identification.

Projection and projective identification play a part in her controlling behaviors. She maps her feelings onto you and controls you by inducing these feelings within you. Her controlling facade masks her true internal experience. Deep down she feels frightened, out of control, incompetent and helpless.

Les Parrot (The Control Freak) writes:

“People who want to exert control over everything can make those around them feel inadequate, insecure, nervous, angry, anxious and physically sick. Their message is: I don’t trust you to be able to do it right; I don’t respect your judgment; I don’t think you are competent; I don’t value your insight.”

Whether or not this woman is aware of it, this is how she feels about herself. Once you recognize the defense mechanisms at play, it becomes a little easier to take her hurtful behaviors less personally. She’d be like this with anyone.

In order for her to win, you must lose.

Because this is a matter of psychological survival to her, she has to steamroll you in order to avoid feeling helpless. “To relinquish control is tantamount to being victimized and overwhelmed” (Schumacher). Unfortunately, her fears also fuel her lack of empathy toward you and create the mindset: “Victimize or be victimized; dominate or be dominated.”

To the abusive woman, it’s not enough to merely control you. She only feels in control and good about herself if she makes you feel less than. Her mood becomes buoyant as she cuts you down. She has to make you feel useless, disoriented and helpless, so that she doesn’t feel this way.

This is evidence of a faulty belief system. She has a one-up/one-down mentality. She believes that in every interpersonal interaction there’s a winner and a loser and she will fight tooth and nail against being the “loser.” This is why it’s virtually impossible for this woman to compromise or make concessions. To her, compromise and concession are humiliating defeats. She’d rather blow the house up and everything in it than compromise or take personal responsibility. Anyone who’s gone through a high-conflict divorce with a BPD/NPD/Sociopath knows this only too well.

Her need to control, however, will come back to bite her on the backside. Instead of feeling and appearing in control, this woman comes across as out of control when trying to exert control. Oftentimes, those living under her tyranny eventually stage a revolt and/or bolt from the relationship ultimately causing her to lose control.

Losing control

Schumacher cites the rapid phases this kind of woman goes through when she’s not getting her way or feels she’s losing control. For example, when you challenge her or threaten to end the relationship, she probably exhibits the following emotional states in quick succession:

  1. Angry and agitated. (You’re treated to a rage episode and/or nasty commentary, blame and accusations.)
  2. Panicky and apprehensive. (She exposes fleeting vulnerability as she tries to “feel you out” in order to see how and if she can regain control. She may worry that she’s gone too far and is testing the waters before gearing up for another control maneuver.)
  3. Agitated and threatening. (Because anxiety is ego dystonic—i.e., painfully uncomfortable—she quickly reverts to form and begins to bully you and issue ultimatums and threats of punishment.)
  4. Depression and despair. (When all else fails, she becomes sullen and withdrawn and suffers a temporary identity crisis.)

Her unhealthy coping mechanism (control) becomes an unhealthy and rigid pattern. Because it’s impossible to control others, she’s locked in the endless loop of fighting off real and imagined threats to her control. Since she won’t look at her own issues and focuses solely on controlling you and her environment, she never gains mastery over the fears that plague her. Her attempts at mastery (control) over her emotions and fears instead become a replay of misery for herself and others. But remember, she’ll probably never be able to see herself as part of the problem, which means it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever change.

Psychologist, Dr Patricia A. Farrell, states: “They’re highly resistant to any therapy, and there is no medication for the personality disorder.” To seek help themselves, she says, “the control freak has to be convinced the price is too great not to, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

Yes, this woman is deeply troubled, but it is NOT your responsibility to tolerate, accept or change her. The only way to gain mastery over a relationship with this kind of woman is to end it. Otherwise, you’ll begin an endless replay loop of your own misery.

Next week I’ll post ways to manage an emotionally abusive “control freak,” so please check back.

by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD

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