Breaking Free from a Manipulative Controller

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Breaking free from relationship abuse is a matter of self-love, of knowing and believing where one’s true worth lies and recognizing that it does not depend on satisfying the demands of the abuser or anyone else.

There are many types of relational abuse, and the abuse that can occur in relationships varies in its severity. But all abuse takes a toll, whether it’s physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional, and whether it’s comparatively mild or severe. The effects of abuse on its victims can be profound and long-lasting.

Some ask why any adult in an abusive relationship would ever “tolerate” the treatment they receive. They wonder why the victim doesn’t simply leave. But wresting free of an abuser is quite often a very difficult ordeal in itself and for a wide variety of reasons. Not only can a victim succumb to what has come to be known as the Stockholm Syndrome, overly identifying with their abuser, but they can also find themselves so unable to think clearly about things because of the cognitive dissonance they have so chronically experienced that they can no longer think straight about things. This makes it tough for them to find a rational way out of their dilemma. The dissonance they experience is usually the greatest in situations where the abuser is a skilled manipulator.

Abuse victims can find themselves in a virtual prison of sorts, not knowing where to find the key to their release and sometimes not even knowing or believing that such a key exists. Sometimes, that’s because they’ve become somewhat deluded — thinking they could predict or possibly even control to an extent their abuser’s behavior. They come to believe that if they appease when necessary, stay clear when necessary, defer when necessary, etc., they can avoid getting hurt. Finding that their abuser can indeed be “nice” at times, they succumb to the false belief that if they just stay on their toes and keep from doing anything that might “set off” their abuser then everything will be fine. Sometimes victims stay purely out of fear. In the deepest recesses of their unconscious many victims probably know their abusers’ main agendas are dominance and control. So, they sense their greatest risk is in terminating the relationship and taking back control of their own life. The statistics attest to the fact that in the more serious cases of abuse victims have every good reason to feel that way.

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Many times victims stay in abusive relationships because they had invested themselves in the relationship for years before it became clear how toxic the relationship was and how unlikely it was to get better (in many cases, only getting worse). And manipulative abusers often have great charm ability, so they can effectively seduce at the front end of a relationship. Their true nature doesn’t become evident for a while. By that time, the victim has likely already invested a lot of time, energy, and sometimes money in the relationship. Walking away would mean leaving both empty handed and alone, and that’s a pretty hard thing to do.

Persons in relationships with abusers with good manipulative skill can find themselves in a special kind of bind. As I point out in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and How Did We End Up Here?, covert-aggressors are often the best of impression managers. They know how to look good on the outside while being quite heartless and ruthless underneath their charming facade. This leaves the victim feeling particularly alone and even prompts them to question their own sanity. Many manipulative behavior experts call this the “gaslighting” effect:

Some manipulative abusers are skilled at the tactic of gaslighting by proxy. That is, they so charm and sway the opinions of family, friends, and acquaintances, that the victim feels there’s simply nowhere to turn. In these situations, the abuser maintains all control and the victim sees no way out.

Ultimately, breaking free from any kind of relationship abuse is a matter of self-love. And to love oneself deeply enough, one has to know oneself well enough. The victim has to know and believe in the very core of their being where their true worth lies. They have to come to know that their worth does not depend on satisfying the demands of the abuser or anyone else. Moreover, they have to decide that a life without proper self regard and self care is simply not the kind of life they want to live anymore. Some victims come to an appreciation for these things without their situation coming down to a matter of life or death (including spiritual life or death). But whenever and however they come to this point they will need all the support they can get. There’s so much dissonance to overcome, and there’s so much work to be done to rediscover what “normal” is. Then there’s the challenge of learning to trust again — both in themselves and in others, and that can be the task of a lifetime. That’s why love is indeed the key — the key both to reclaiming oneself and to reclaiming one’s life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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