2 Early Warning Signs of a Controlling Relationship

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There are two extremes to the dominance-submission spectrum. Dominant people are intent on controlling others. Submissive people struggle to stand up for themselves. Whether we tend to be more dominant, or more submissive, none of us want to be overly controlled by others. We all need a certain amount of freedom in order to feel happy. However, it is hard to stand up to dominant people. They are masters of the art of control and manipulation. Our motto at Live Life Satisfied is ‘Know yourself better ...Be your better self!’ We believe that if you understand a problem, then you are in a good position to start addressing it. A similar principle can also be applied to the case of managing bullying and controlling people. If we clearly recognise the manner in which bullies operate, then we are in a better position to handle them.

Our closest relatives

In this article I am going to outline 2 early warning signs of a controlling relationship. In order to better understand controlling behaviour in relationships, I am going to begin by discussing dominance in one of our closest mammalian relatives: the chimpanzee. This will set the stage for understanding the '2 Early Warning Signs' reffered to in the title. You may think that chimpanzee dominance behaviour is unrelated to human behaviour. However,
Start Quote I believe we can learn a huge amount by observing how dominance operates in other species. After all, we ourselves are simply highly evolved animals. As humans, we inherited our emotional behaviours as the result of millions of years of evolution. We share common ancestors with many other animals. End Quote
  • We share around 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. To put this into context, dogs and wolves share around 98.8% of their DNA with one another. Wolves and coyote’s share around 96% of their DNA. Humans and chimpanzees are therefore more closely to related to one another than wolves and coyotes.
Chimpanzees (and bonobos) are also more closely related to humans than they are to any other ape. Think about that. The chimpanzee is more closely related to us than it is to the gorilla. And in physical terms, we are remarkably similar to the chimpanzee.

Chimpanzee tribes have one dominant male

Frans De Waal is one of the world's foremost chimpanzee experts. Frans spent a number of years working with a chimpanzee colony at Arnham Zoo in the Netherlands. He explains that chimpanzee tribes exhibit a hierarchical structure. And one chimpanzee is dominant over the whole group. During his time working with the Arnham chimpanzee colony, Frans witnessed five power takeovers. This occurs when a chimpanzee successfully takes over as the new dominant male. A typical takeover takes several months. It usually involves many intimidation displays, aggressive encounters and a few physical fights. After a fight has occurred between two males, the opponents do not settle until they have reconciled. Frans comments,
Start Quote Animals seek not only psychological stability but also social stability. End Quote

Conditional reassurance: ‘You only receive my blessing if you bow to me’

Towards the end of the power exchange, the frequency of reconciliations (between the dominant and challenging males) begins to dwindle. At this time, the emerging dominant begins to refuse to make peace with the soon to be overthrown leader. The existing dominant (or not so dominant by this stage), will typically approach his rival, and beg for contact with outstretched open hand. During this period the challenging male simply walks away from his rival. He continues to do this every day. Eventually, the old leader begins to demonstrate submission to the new leader. Chimpanzees show their submission to others by emitting pant grunts and engaging in deep bowing movements. This is their ‘submissive greeting’. The old leader will have to regularly demonstrate submission to his rival before the new leader will be willing to make contact once again. The visible submission of the old leader is a key mark of the authority of the new one.

“No submission: No Peace!”

De Waal explains, ‘This mechanism of “no submission, no peace” is a form of conditional reassurance; that is, the dominant’s reassurance of the subordinate by means of friendly gestures, [depends] on the subordinate’s …acknowledgement of the inequality in status.’ ‘ …Every hierarchy-oriented species has evolved special signals for this purpose. These signals are comparable to the military salute of soldiers to their commanders. The soldier who forgets to perform this ritual will soon find out that the mechanism of conditional reassurance is the backbone of every rank system.’
  • Conditional Reassurance. A dominant animal withdraws friendly behaviour until the subordinate acknowledges the dominant’s superiority of status.

Withholding affection is an effective way to control someone

Frans says that when a chimpanzee is rejected by his dominant rival, he often acts like a child that has been told off. He throws himself down, and rolls around screaming and beating the ground. I have seen this occur at Monkey World in Dorset. It is a remarkable sight. Herbert Terrace investigated whether or not chimpanzees could be taught to use sign language. Whilst training a young chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, Herbert would often find he lost the Nim’s attention. In such instances, Terrace initially found an effective way to regain Nim’s attention. Terrace would walk away from Nim, and sign, “You bad”, or “I not love you”. Nim would then respond with a ‘sorry-hug’ routine. However, over time this procedure began to be less effective. So Nim’s teachers began to refuse Nim a hug for a little while in order to increase the intensity of the punishment. This would sometimes result in Nim throwing a tantrum. But Terrace noticed that Nim’s behaviour would significantly improve after these episodes. However, if the teacher reassured Nim too quickly, Nim's behaviour would not improve. Fans summarises,
Start Quote It seems, then, that chimpnzees are extremely sensitive to the potential disturbance of their relationships; they may fear it even more than the unpleasant physical effects of aggression. This makes it possible for humans as well as conspecifics to demand changes in behaviour before normalizing the relationship. If aggression is a stick, reconciliation is often the carrot. End Quote
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Humans are also desperate for the approval of others

I believe that humans are identical to our primate chimpanzee cousins in this regard. It is easy to see the aforementioned response in children. If approval is withdrawn from a naughty child (i.e. she is told off), she may well throw an huge tantrum. However, humans have evolved the capacity (albeit sometimes a weak capacity) to regulate aggressive and impulsive behaviour in social situations. We do this in order to demonstrate to the group that we are good citizens. We wish to demonstrate that we will not undermine the stability and rights of other group members. As the human adult emerges from childhood, her brain develops in its capacity to regulate impulsive behaviour. And so her tantrums and overtly uncontrolled emotional displays are reigned in. But I believe that this ‘reigning-in’ is somewhat of a show. It is a public display of self-control for the purposes of maintaining a good reputation.
  • We each possess an inner emotional world that we hide from public display. Within this hidden arena, we often experience great turmoil in response to social rejection.

Our emotional well-being depends on approval from others

It is with all of this in mind, that I propose that our emotional well-being is hugely affected by the approval of others.
Start Quote Those who wish to control us can use this to their advantage. In order to manipulate us, controlling people simply need to withdraw their approval and be unkind. And they are typically fully aware of this. End Quote
But withdrawing approval is not always a manipulative strategy. Frans says that in relationships, it is important that we are able to stand up for ourselves when we are unhappy with others. Withdrawing our approval, and showing anger towards others is sometimes important. It enables others to realise that they have upset us. When someone displays anger towards us, it enables us to recognise that we may have overstepped the mark. In a relationship this situation provides an opportunity for two people to begin discussing boundaries, differences and annoyances. In an ideal scenario, this is an opportunity for both parties to show empathy towards one another. It is an opportunity for both parties to recognise that their behaviour may be having a negative effect on the another. However, if our friends, or partner, persistently withdraw their approval, it is likely to have a significant effect on our emotional wellbeing. And herein lies the problem.
  • Overly dominant and controlling people persistently demonstrate disapproval in order to control us. And this will eat away at our self-esteem.

The 2 Early Warning Signs of a Controlling Relationship

It is important that people are able to express annoyance within a relationship. When someone becomes angry with us, it is an opportunity for us to recognise that we have annoyed them. And it’s an opportunity for us to consider altering our behaviour in order to help improve the relationship.
  • But here’s the key question: does the other person do the same for you? When you have needs that are not being met, and you express annoyance, does your relationship partner respond by altering their behaviour.
The key thing in relationships is that it has to be two-way. We both need to be attentive to one another’s needs. This means being ready to discuss problems and make compromises when we are upsetting the other person. My definition of a ‘controlling’ person is,
  1. Someone who expects you to change, but is not willing to do the same for you.
  2. Someone who is not willing to address or acknowledge your needs when you express them.
So consider your relationship with a close friend or relative (let’s call this person them Jo). And ask yourself:
  1. Does Jo persistently demonstrate disapproval towards my behaviour.
  2. Is Jo willing to listen to my needs when I express them. Is Jo willing to alter her behaviour in order to try to meet my needs.
If the answers are 1) Yes and, 2) No, then I’m afraid to say that things are looking a little one-sided. Jo wishes to control you. And Jo is not willing to respond to your needs. Find Out How Confrontational You Are: Try our Confrontation quiz: CLICK HERE

Move away from controlling people

This presents a catch-22 situation.
Start Quote Controlling people reduce our self esteem by withdrawing their approval whenever we are not doing what they want. Once our self-esteem is reduced, we then try to win their approval back. End Quote
And so we end up becoming increasingly needy, and increasingly desperate for the controlling person’s approval. With reduced self-esteem, we end up trying even harder to obtain their affection.
  • The truth is that controlling people drain our self-esteem. If we want to increase our self-esteem, then we need to get out of controlling relationships. As long as we continue to invest into these kinds of relationships, then our emotional well-being will suffer and our self-esteem will remain low.
Occasionally it is very difficult to walk away from a controlling relationship. Perhaps she is our boss at work. Or perhaps we are living with someone who is controlling and we cannot easily move out of the house. Perhaps this person is a parent or a sibling. In such an event, perhaps it is best to minimise contact and dialogue with the controlling person. But it is also important to gain support from others who care more about our needs. If you are stuck in a controlling relationship, then I would encourage you to seek out others who are more considerate of your needs. It is important to invest our time and energy into relationships with people who are attentive and caring. Each time a controlling relationship partner ignores your needs, this will eat away at your sense of self-worth. You will regularly need to turn to your more supportive friends in order to replenish your self-esteem.

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References

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