When Martin met Marie, he thought he’d died and gone to Heaven.
Out of the dating scene a while, he was surprised to find this sultry brunette catching his eye at the grocery store. She accepted his invitation for lunch, laughed at his jokes and seemed to reciprocate the mutual attraction.
He fell hard and fast but a few weeks into the relationship, Martin began to notice a gradual change in Marie’s behavior. She began making little suggestions — things they should do, restaurants they should visit, meals they should try, that special shirt or belt that he should wear on their dates. And Martin, wanting to please, willingly accommodated her numerous requests.
Changes in behavior
“She’d be sweet as pie about it,” Martin recalls. “Even if I disagreed with her, it’d be difficult to broach the topic because she’d do it with a smile.”
But even Martin was flabbergasted at Marie’s reaction when he told her, after a month of exclusively spending consecutive weekends together, he was going to take the coming Friday night and kick back a few beers with the boys.
Marie sulked and threw a tantrum, and Martin saw the first signs of what would become a living hell: Life with the Controller.
“She expressed shock and disappointment when I had anything on my social calendar that didn’t include her,” he remembers. “And she’d never let me forget it.”
Kindness quickly turned to criticism and within a few weeks, “The Lecture” replaced love. Martin felt his self-worth quickly turn to mush.
“I felt horrible, because not only was I apparently not meeting her needs, but since no one had treated me like that before, I blamed myself,” he concedes. “I believed that I deserved it, otherwise she wouldn’t have been saying those things. The lectures were frequent and endless.”
Martin says the key phrase Marie would often repeat was ‘You need to change.’
“It was never about bad habits,” he realizes. “It was an assault on my character. Many things were insidious, particularly her ability to extract me from my friends and family over a relatively short period of time without me realizing what was happening.”
Seeing it can be tricky
Dr. Dorothy McCoy, a South Carolina psychotherapist, says controlling personalities come from all walks of life and can be tricky to spot.
“It can be quite difficult,” she admits. “It depends on how good the person is at manipulating and how long they’ve been doing it. Some people are extremely good at it.”
In her book The Manipulative Man, Dr. McCoy identifies some of the typical offenders as Mama’s Boys, narcissists, psychopaths, passive-aggressives and philanderers and says the terms can be applied to both sexes.
“Their actions could stem from insecurity,” says Dr. McCoy. “Huge egos, narcissism could also come into play. Some people are typically not interested in other people’s emotions. They feel it’s their right to control — do what I say because that’s the right way to do it.”
Controllers look for vulnerability
Dr. McCoy says these predators usually pounce when people are vulnerable.
“People who are lonely or who have just recently left a hurtful relationship and those that do not think well of themselves are easier to manipulate because they will blind themselves,” she explains. “It’s not that it’s not out there or that we don’t see it. But sometimes it’s just something that at that moment in our lives, we can’t afford to see.”
Rhonda knows the drill. Bill caught her on the rebound and initially seemed to be the answer to all her dreams.
“He was funny as hell,” Rhonda remembers. “That was the biggest attraction. Plus he reached out to rescue me at a time where I was in a dead-end relationship and I needed to escape. He was so helpful, in fact, that I felt a sense of obligation to him.
“But now I realize it was a certain dependency that he created.”
Unbeknownst to Rhonda, Bill had actually become infatuated and stalked her before they met. He later admitted that he had carefully engineered several meetings between them she’d initially thought had been spontaneous.
Once he had ingrained himself in her life, the demands started and the dependency grew substantially — all within a few months of their initial encounter. Anytime she made plans to go somewhere without him, he caused a stir.
“I remember feeling very suffocated very early in my relationship with Bill, and I went away to Montreal alone for a weekend with a girlfriend and her husband. We were still living in separate apartments, and although I didn’t tell Bill when I’d be back, he was waiting on my doorstep when I got home.
“It got to the point where he really didn’t want me doing anything without him,” Rhonda continued. “Something as innocuous as a girls’ night out exploded into a full-blown argument.
“No matter where I went, if it was without him, I got the third degree.”
When it turns public
Rhonda says the harassment was embarrassing enough in private, but when the couple moved in together, Bill had no problem making his outrage public.
“During a planned evening out with my girlfriends, even though I was dressed conservatively, he made demeaning comments and refused to drive me to the restaurant where I was meeting my friends,” she recollects.
“As I left home to take the bus, he literally stuck his head outside the door and yelled at the top of his lungs, ‘Have a great time, you whore!’”
Why didn’t Rhonda and Martin leave at the first signs of trouble?
“Bill knew what buttons to push,” Rhonda explains. “He made me doubt myself and believe that he knew what he was talking about, that maybe I was behaving wrong. It’s an insidious control, because, through time, you hand it over and then you resent yourself for doing it.”
“A person that’s manipulative will lack consistency,” says Dr. McCoy. “A person who is telling the truth will always be consistent.
“Continue to question them in different areas — what is your opinion of this, what do you think of that… If things are not consistent, every once in awhile these manipulative people will show their hand.
“You also need to ask yourself — how polite is this person? How willing is he or she to listen to my opinions? Does he or she try to change my opinion?”
Dr. McCoy says we should be more trusting of our own defense mechanisms.
“I think at a sub-conscious level, we pick it up. We tend to let our instincts work for us. Listen. Pay attention. And don’t try to turn it off — it works!”
Even though there’s a lot of pain and suffering to be endured in these circumstances, Dr. McCoy says people come out of these relationships a lot wiser.
“Once people realize, ‘OK, the signs were there. I missed them because I didn’t want to see them,’ then they can say, ‘All right — I’ve learned a very important lesson. Next time I’ll be prepared. I’ll have my eyes wide open, and this has been very hurtful, a learning experience.’
“We come away stronger, not weaker,” states Dr. McCoy.