It might not be that hard for you to recognize the overt ways in which a partner pushes you around or bullies you. For example, if your partner is hypercritical, or consistently lets you know that things you do are never good enough; if he or she calls you names or insults you in public or in front of your friends and family; if the partner talks or yells over you in an attempt to block you from expressing your point of view; and of course, if he or she uses physical domination or abuse.
But you may be with someone who employs subtle, more manipulative ways of trying to control you—ways that confuse you or leave you feeling guilty or ashamed for challenging them.
The purpose of this post is to make you aware of some of the more insidious tactics a partner may use so that you can attempt to address them in your relationship. I’m not talking about an acute maneuver to control you; I’m referring to a mate who consistently—consciously or unconsciously—maneuvers you to benefit themselves. This is not about “blaming the victim.” And I’m not suggesting that you’re always right and your partner is always wrong. A relationship is a system made up of two interacting human parts, each of whom must take individual responsibility for their contributions to any relational strife. I’m addressing the partner who always seems to “turn the tables” on you no matter how right you might be, or how gentle you present your perspective. I’m speaking to those of you who have mates who never consider themselves wrong or at fault. These individuals may be too sensitive to admit any wrongdoing, or too anxious to give up any semblance of control in a relationship. No matter; the outcome is the same: A person who is difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate with.
Does your partner always cry when challenged? Most of us prefer not to see a partner cry. It can make can make you feel like a heel. But sometimes their crying may represent tears of rage. Crying may also be an effective tool to disarm you so that you’ll back off, or give in to their demands. This dynamic isn’t good for either partner. For example, John was upset because he could never seem to get his way in his relationship. “Every time I try to confront her about something that bothers me,” he said, “she’d start crying. I’d then feel guilty and back off. However, I would store my anger and eventually blow up. At first I blamed myself. I thought maybe I’m a terrible communicator. I also felt like a jerk, as if I was picking on her. But I soon realized that no matter what I said or how I said it, she would cry.” If you can tolerate your partner’s crying long enough to render it ineffective, perhaps they will learn to deal with you in a more authentic manner. Just make sure you’re not being too harsh.
The Blocker (“What About My Needs?”)
If your partner pulls this card on a regular basis, it can act as a roadblock to prevent you from getting what you want in the relationship, or in life. Relationships are about compromise, and if your mate uses this strategy against you it could render you frustrated and powerless. Before you jump, make sure you are meeting your partner’s desires when appropriate. Balance in meeting one another’s needs is vital to a healthy relationship. If you’re not invested in making your partner happy, trouble will eventually ensue. If you feel that you have done your best to please your mate, communicate this and evaluate your value differences.
It may seem helpful at first, but if your partner takes too much control in your relationship it may cripple your self-worth and self-esteem. The more dependent you become, the more controlled you’ll be. It may be less work for you in the beginning of the relationship, but in the end you may find you have very little power. A recently divorced female client told me that throughout her marriage her husband had convinced her to let him make all the important financial decisions. “It was only after my divorce that I finally realized how good my financial judgment was,” she said.
If your partner has a tendency to challenge just about every word that comes out of your mouth, from quoting a literary figure properly to ordering the right glass of wine to go with your fish, then you can consider yourself intellectually bullied. The message is: “You’re an idiot, but I can straighten you out.”
If your partner seems to hold you accountable for everything from Lincoln’s assassination to the house being out of milk, consider yourself bullied into being the “bad guy.” Often such mates project whatever it is they think or feel onto you as a way of absolving themselves of responsibility.
If your partner always wants to change something about you in the name of making you a better person, perhaps you are being bullied. Some examples: Get a nose job, dress differently, get rid of those glasses, dress sexier, dress less sexy, and so on.
Not all control is bad. There are times when your partner’s need for it will benefit both of you. Perhaps your mate has greater interpersonal finesse, or is better at finance than you are. Maybe he or she partner is more accurate when quoting Shakespeare. A little constructive criticism can help you, but if you find yourself in a chronic state of powerlessness, you’re probably being pushed around too much.