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Video: Toxic relationships

TODAY
updated 3/10/2005 5:14:52 PM ET 2005-03-10T22:14:52

If there's someone in your life who drains, criticizes or judges you to excess, chances are you're involved in a "toxic" relationship. In this part of a three-day series, we examine how to identify these harmful relationships and free yourself from them. Here, “Today” relationship contributor Gail Saltz shares her advice for women dealing with a partner who is controlling and emotionally abusive.

Unfortunately, many women find themselves in an emotionally abusive or controlling relationship for quite some time before they are able to figure out what is happening. This is because the signs are very difficult for the person being controlled to spot. The manipulator will often choose someone who is susceptible to being controlled and undermined due to their own lack of confidence, dependent needs and desire for someone who will appear to protect them, care for them, give approval and make them feel needed.

Why and how do they do it?
The controller’s purpose is to gain power and get what they want by undermining their partner’s sense of who they are, thereby getting them to constantly submit.

They use tactics such as:

  • Intimidation — Using implied or veiled threats about withholding their love or leaving.
  • Guilt-tripping — Implying the partner is not caring enough or is too self-centered. This works especially well with more conscientious people.
  • Shaming — Putting down, insulting and using sarcasm to make the other person feel inadequate. This way they stay in power as the other person weakens.
  • Charm — A good controller is always seductive and knows how to be flattering at times in order to reel in their partner and bind her more tightly to him.
  • Turning the tables — They will claim that they in fact are the victim and are being put upon, to deflect any blame or confrontation and further induce guilt in their partner.

As you can see, these covert methods of undermining a person’s confidence and ability to see what is really going on can be very effective. So effective that signs you might see in yourself (if you are the one being controlled) are:

  • Who am I? — A feeling that you don't really know who you are anymore. You start to believe you are all these shameful, terrible things or are becoming someone you don't even recognize.
  • Chronic fear — For reasons you can't quite name, you feel afraid all the time. It is the fear that you are losing yourself and that you are powerless.
  • Fantasies of escape — Whether they are thoughts of fleeing the relationship or even thoughts that you or your partner will die so you will be free, these kinds of frightening thoughts will come to you.
  • Questioning reality — The controller is so busy changing the reality of what he is doing by denying, lying, rationalizing and beating up on you that you really no longer trust your sense of what's really happening anywhere and with everyone.
  • Isolation — Controllers work to isolate you from anyone else in your life who may support you and make their work more difficult. They may be intensely jealous and keep you from both friends and family. Eventually you find yourself isolated from everyone but him.
  • Lying — You will start lying to others in order to collude with him that nothing is going on. You will defend him despite your own panic and this will require distorting the truth to anyone that asks.

This controller convinces you that you cannot live without him, and because he has undermined your confidence and feelings of self-worth, you believe it. This is why many women can't seem to break free, or leave but end up back in the relationship. When a person first leaves the controller they have these horrible feelings of not knowing who they are at all, and this terror will make them return to being the abused and submissive person who thinks they will at least be taken care of and have some identity. The role of victim and martyr can be a draw for some women, particularly those who have carried around guilt of their own for some past issue. Women who grew up in a home where their father was controlling and abusive to their mother will often repeat the same thing with a partner and feel that, like their mother, somehow they deserve it.

Is change possible?
Some women think they can get their partner to change, but in fact no one changes who doesn't want to themselves. Unless he can see that his behavior is destructive and he wants to get help for his problem, he will not change. He would need to address why he feels so angrily powerless inside that he needs to push you into submission to feel validated. Frankly, this is a long shot at best.

The effects of such a relationship can undermine a woman's self-esteem and her ability to be intimate and trust. Lasting fears of being taken advantage of, being hurt and being unable to give and take in a relationship can take time to overcome. Similarly, there are lasting effects on the children of such a couple. A child may suffer lots of guilt, feeling that they should be able to protect Mom yet also being very angry with and even wanting to hurt Dad. They have trouble trusting a relationship and fear losing control or being controlled. They may be doomed to repeat either being a victim or a perpetrator in the future.

In order to get out of such a relationship, the person being controlled needs to gather supporters who will help her feel safe and secure, and who will reinforce her ability to take care of herself and know who she is and what she wants. She will need a safe haven, because when she leaves he may try very hard to get her back by notching up the threats. Some people do become truly violent in this circumstance, and the woman should take seriously any threat made to her or her loved ones. If such a threat is made she should go to the police and seek a place to stay that the partner will not find. Once a woman has decided to end a controlling relationship, it is better to have a clean break. Trying to go bit by bit will only result in coercion from her partner and her inability to leave.

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