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Staying in control

Recently I’ve found myself talking a lot about abusive relationships, mainly to people who don’t realise they’re in one. When I suggest it they often say ‘Oh no, he never hits me’. (Abusive relationships are more usually, but not exclusively, men abusing women; although I do know of some that are the other way around).

The thing is that everyone recognises violence as abuse, but not necessarily anything else. It comes as a surprise to many that abuse can fall into eight categories, and I often show this diagram to people to explain that.

Now some of these behaviours can happen in perfectly healthy relationships where there’s no hint of abuse of any kind. For example if one partner is happy to allow the other to make general decisions about where the shopping is done, how much is spent on it etc then that’s not abuse. But if one partner is dictating to the other that they can only spend £20 a week on groceries and there are repercussions if they spend that in Tescos instead of Aldi, that is controlling and therefore abusive. Telling you that arguments are always your fault or that you’re to blame if your partner drinks, takes drugs, loses their job or spends every night in the pub with their mates is controlling and therefore abusive.

An abusive relationship may display all of these categories or only some of them, but the more abusive they are, the more categories will generally feature. The overriding feature is that one partner is continually trying to control what the other does, and the controlled partner feels increasingly helpless and/or worthless. Often the controlling partner will have convinced the other that they can’t possibly manage without them, usually because of some fundamental failure in them as a human.

This is a horrible thing to do to someone and it’s normal to try to rationalise controlling and abusive behaviour as something else. A lot of abused people genuinely believe it’s their fault, not only because they’re continually told so, but also because they can’t understand why else it would happen. No kind, loving person would behave like that to someone unless they deserved it, would they?

No they wouldn’t, but the key point is that abusers are not kind, loving people. Maybe they were once, but they’re not now. The reason for their controlling behaviour is a desire to control, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Many are extremely good at it. If you stand up to shouting, they’ll try crying instead. If you dismiss crying, they’ll try emotional blackmail. It’s all about what they want and nothing to do with what you want.

Recently I was talking to someone who had been in a controlling relationship for decades. Their reason for staying was the children. They didn’t want the children to come from a broken home, so they stayed and protected them as best they could. Fortunately the controlling partner wasn’t interested in controlling the children as well, but that was just luck really. If you’re thinking you can’t leave because of the children, you’re wrong. Not only that, but you’re setting them up for problems with relationships in later life. They may turn out mistrustful, or feeling unworthy, or even become controlling themselves. You don’t stay because of the children; you leave because of them.

Being in a relationship like this is not your fault. Your partner may have tried controlling a dozen people before you, but you were the one their techniques worked on. Maybe you were vulnerable or lacking confidence or felt unloved and responded to their initial charm. Abusers are very charming, otherwise nobody would have anything to do with them. Since then you’ve been systematically and effectively trained to believe that the only place you can be is in that relationship. But it’s not true. However long you’ve been in abusive relationships, you can survive outside them.

If you recognise your own partner in this description, you have two options. Stay and continue being controlled, or leave. You can’t fix them. You can’t change your behaviour to be what they want you to be, unless of course you completely subject yourself to their control in every aspect of your life and character. You can’t rekindle their love for you by being nice. They probably won’t change, even if you threaten to leave them. They might amend their behaviour for a while, but it will only be another form of control – another way to get what they want, which is for you to stay in the relationship. They’ll fight back, perhaps using your children as leverage. They’ll tell you that it will ruin their life or they’ll kill themselves if you leave. They won’t. They’re doing whatever they think it will take to get you to abandon any thought of leaving them.

If on the other hand you recognise yourself in the wheel and actually do want to change, that’s possible. If you can work out why you’re controlling and what you get out of it, you can find other ways to get those things. It’s hard on your own, but not impossible. And a good counsellor like me is just as able to help an abuser as to help the objects of their abuse.

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Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at or via her website at

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