If you’re in a controlling and abusive relationship, you may recognize several of the characteristics described in this article by Consulting Clinical Psychologist Dr Joseph M. Carver, PhD. Beginning with a description of how bonds form between victim and abuser, the article continues with observations about cognitive dissonance and offers suggestions for friends and family of victims.
Family and Friends of the Victim
When a family is confronted with a loved one involved with a ‘Loser’ or controlling/abusive individual, the situation becomes emotionally painful and socially difficult for the family. (See “Are You Dating a Loser? Identifying Losers, Controllers and Abusers”.) While each situation is different, some general guidelines to consider are:
- Your loved one, the “victim” of the Loser/Abuser, has probably been given a choice — the relationship or the family. This choice is made more difficult by the control and intimidation often present in abusive/controlling relationships. Knowing that choosing the family will result in severe personal and social consequences, the family always comes in second. Keep in mind that the victim knows in their heart the family will always love them and accept their return — whenever the return happens.
- Remember, the more you pressure the “victim” of the Loser/Abuser, the more you prove their point. Your loved one is being told the family is trying to ruin their wonderful relationship. Pressure in the form of contacts, comments, and communications will be used as evidence against you. An invitation to a Tupperware party is met with “You see! They just want to get you by yourself so they can tell you bad things about me!” Increasing your contacts is viewed as “putting pressure” on their relationship — not being lovingly concerned.
- Your contacts with your loved one, no matter how routine and loving, may be met with anger and resentment. This is because each contact may prompt the Loser/Abuser to attack them verbally or emotionally. Imagine getting a four-hour lecture every time your Aunt Gladys calls. In a short time, you become angry each time she calls, knowing what the contact will produce in your home. The longer Aunt Gladys talks — the longer your lecture becomes! Thus, when Aunt Gladys calls, you want to get her off the phone as quickly as possible.
- The 1980’s song, “Hold on Loosely”, may be the key to a good family and friend approach. Holding on too tightly produces more pressure. When the victim is out of the home, it’s often best to establish predictable, scheduled contacts. Calling every Wednesday evening, just for a status report or to go over current events, is less threatening than random calls during the week. Random calls are always viewed as “checking up on us” calls. While you may encounter an answering machine, leave a polite and loving message. Importantly, don’t discuss the relationship (the controller may be listening!) unless the victim brings it up. The goal of these scheduled calls is to maintain contact, remind your loved one that you are always there to help, and to quietly remind the controller that family and loved ones are nearby and haven’t disappeared.
- Try to maintain traditional and special contacts with your loved one — holidays, special occasions, etc. Keep your contacts short and brief, with no comments that can be used as evidence. Contacts made at “traditional” times — holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. — are not as threatening to a controller/abuser. Contacts that provide information, but not questions, are also not as threatening. An example might be a simple card reading “Just a note to let you know that your brother landed a new job this week. You might see him on a Wal-Mart commercial any day now. Love, Mom and Dad”. This approach allows the victim to recognize that the family is there — waiting in the wings if needed. It also lessens the lectures/tantrums provided by the Loser as the contacts are on a traditional and expected basis. It’s also hard to be angry about brother’s new job without looking ridiculous. Also, don’t invent holidays or send a reminder that it’s Sigmund Freud’s birthday. That’s suspicious…even in my family.
- Remember that there are many channels of communication. It’s important that we keep a channel open if at all possible. Communication channels might include phone calls, letters, cards, and e-mail. Scheduled monthly shopping trips or outings are helpful if possible. The goal is to maintain contact while your loved one is involved in the controlling/abusive relationship. Remember, the goal is contact, not pressure.
- Don’t feel the victim’s behavior is against the family or friends. It may be a form of survival or a way of lowering stress. Victims may be very resistive, angry, and even hostile due to the complexity of their relationship with the controller/abuser. They may even curse, threaten, and accuse loved ones and friends. This hostile defensiveness is actually self-protection in the relationship — an attempt to avoid “trouble”.
- The victim needs to know and feel they are not rejected because of their behavior. Keep in mind, they are painfully aware of their situation. They know they are being treated badly and/or controlled by their partner. Frequent reminders of this will only make them want less contact. We naturally avoid people who remind us of things or situations that are emotionally painful.
- Victims may slightly open the door and provide information about their relationship or hint they may be considering leaving. When the door opens, don’t jump through with the Marines behind you! Listen and simply offer support such as “You know your family is behind any decision you need to make and at any time you make it.” They may be exploring what support is available but may not be ready to call in the troops just yet. Many victims use an “exit plan” that may take months or even years to complete. They may be gathering information at this point, not yet ready for an exit.
- We can get messages to people in two ways — the pipeline and the grapevine. The pipeline is face-to-face, telling the person directly. This seldom happens in Loser situations as controllers and abusers monitor and control contacts with others. However, the grapevine is still open. When we use the grapevine, we send a message to our loved one through another person. Victims of controlling and abusive individuals are often allowed to maintain a relationship with a few people, perhaps a sibling or best friend. We can send our loved one a message through that contact person, a message that voices our understanding and support. We don’t send insults (“Bill is such a jerk!) or put-downs (“If he doesn’t get out of this relationship he’ll end up crazy!) — we send messages of love and support. We send “I hope she/he (victim) knows the family is concerned and that we love and support them.” Comments sent on the grapevine are phrased with the understanding that our loved one will hear them in that manner. Don’t talk with a grapevine contact to express anger and threaten to hire a hit man, and then try to send a message of loving support. Be careful what and how the message is provided. The grapevine contact can often get messages to the victim when we can’t. It’s another way of letting them know we’re supporting them, just waiting to help if and when needed.
- Each situation is different. The family may need to seek counseling support in the community. A family consultation with a mental health professional or attorney may be helpful if the situation becomes legally complex or there is a significant danger of harm.
- As relatives or friends of a victim involved with a controller or abuser, our normal reaction is to consider dramatic action. We become angry, resentful, and aggressive at times. Our mind fills with a variety of plans that often range from rescue and kidnapping to ambushing the controller/abuser with a ball bat. A rule of thumb is that any aggression toward the controller/abuser will result in additional difficulties for your loved one. Try to remain calm and await an opportunity to show your love and support when your loved one needs it.
- In some cases, as in teenagers and young adults, the family may still provide some financial, insurance, or other support. When we receive angry responses to our phone calls, our anger and resentment tells us to cut off their support. I’ve heard “If she’s going to date that jerk, it’s not going to be in a car I’m paying for!” and “If he’s choosing that woman over his family, he can drop out of college and flip hamburgers!” Withdrawing financial support only makes your loved one more dependent upon the controller/abuser. Remember, if we’re aggressive by threatening, withdrawing support, or pressuring — we become the threatening force, not the controller/abuser. It actually moves the victim into the support of the controller. Sadly, the more of an “ordeal” they experience, the more bonding takes place, as noted with both Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance.
- As you might imagine, the combination of Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance may also be active when our loved one is involved in cults, unusual religions, and other groups. In some situations, the abuser and controller is actually a group or organization. Victims are punished if they are viewed as disloyal to the group. While this article deals with individual relationships, the family guidelines may also be helpful in controlling-group situations.
You may be the victim of a controlling and abusive partner, seeking an understanding of your feelings and attitudes. You may have a son, daughter, or friend currently involved with a controlling and abusive partner, looking for ways to understand and help.
If a loved one is involved with a Loser, a controlling and abusing partner, the long-term outcome is difficult to determine due to the many factors involved. If their relationship is in the “dating” phase, they may end the relationship on their own. If the relationship has continued for over a year, they may require support and an exit plan before ending the relationship. Marriage and children further complicate their ability to leave the situation. When the victim decides to end the unhappy relationship, it’s important that they view loved ones as supportive, loving, and understanding — not as a source of pressure, guilt, or aggression.
This article is an attempt to understand the complex feelings and attitudes that are as puzzling to the victim as they are to family and friends. Separately, I’ve outlined recommendations for detaching from a Loser or controlling/abusive individual, but clearly, there are more victims in this situation. (See “Are You Dating a Loser? Identifying Losers, Controllers and Abusers”.) It is hoped this article is helpful to family and friends who worry, cry, and have difficulty understanding the situation of their loved one. It has been said that knowledge is power. Hopefully this knowledge will prove helpful and powerful to victims and their loved ones.
Please consider this article as a general guideline. Some recommendations may be appropriate and helpful while some may not apply to a specific situation. In many cases, we may need additional professional help of a mental health or legal nature.
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