A while ago we wrote about being in a relationship with a narcissist. We were shocked and humbled by the response. It seems there are many people in our fair city who are suffering abuse at the hands of partners – male and female – and many were unaware that the behaviour they were experiencing constituted abuse. We tend to think of ‘domestic abuse’ as synonymous with ‘domestic violence’; but people suffer many forms of emotional abuse without ever having a hand raised against them in anger.
In the UK a new law has recently been introduced specifically making ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships’ a criminal offence. The law is designed to close gaps and remove ambiguities from existing legislation. Here in South Africa this behaviour is covered by the definition of domestic abuse. Very often controlling behaviour is carried out by individuals with narcissistic personality syndrome, and these can be male or female. We tend to hear more about women survivors of abuse, partly because gender-based violence and rape are problems of epidemic proportion in South Africa, but women can also behave narcissistically and men can be victims too.
The narcissist and controlling behaviour
So often a controlling or narcissistic relationship starts out as a loving one. In fact there is often ecstatic infatuation in the initial, ‘honeymoon’ phase. Gradually, however, the ecstasy turns to agony, but the process is so insidious that the abused partner doesn’t realise what is happening and instead begins to doubt their own abilities and lose self-esteem. As one survivor put it, “You become compliant to such a nauseating degree, you sicken yourself. You apologise constantly for getting it wrong, although logic tells you that you can never get it right. By the time I escaped (there’s no other word for it) I felt as though I had the physical substance of smoke and yet perversely, I was heartbroken.”
So what does controlling behaviour look like? Read this list carefully and ask yourself some hard questions, because in our experience it is very hard to recognise; by the time someone is controlled to this extent they are convinced everything that’s wrong in the relationship is their fault. Controlling behaviours may include, among others:
- Isolating someone from friends and family
- Depriving them of their basic needs
- Monitoring their time
- Monitoring someone via online communication tools or using spyware
- Controlling aspects of everyday life, such as where someone can go, who they can see, what they can wear and when they can sleep
- Depriving someone of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
- Constantly insulting or undermining someone
- Insisting on rules and activities which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise someone
- Preventing someone from having access to transport or from working
If any of this sounds familiar, you may be in a controlling relationship.
Coercive behaviour is on a continuum with controlling behaviour but may happen later in the relationship, as the abuser tightens the grip on the victim and seeks more extreme forms of control. At this stage the controlling conduct is arguably pathological and there is a risk of crimes or worse being committed. Examples of coercive behaviour include:
- Forcing someone to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children
- Financial abuse, which can include control of finances, withholding information about household finances, or insisting someone manage on an inadequate allocation of funds
- Threats to hurt or kill
- Threats to a child
- Threats to disclose personal or private information to family or to the general public (e.g. online)
- Criminal damage (such as destruction of personal property)
It’s important to note that while we firmly believe that narcissism is gender-neutral and men may just as easily enter into a relationship with a narcissist as women, controlling or coercive behaviour itself is ultimately a form of violence against women and girls and is underpinned and reinforced in South African culture by wider gender inequality issues in society. If you have experienced controlling or coercive behaviour in your relationship, please contact Simon on 086 099 5146 because we can help you put a stop to it.
What about the children?
We can’t leave this topic without talking about the children of narcissistic and controlling relationships. It’s unrealistic to assume that everyone in an abusive relationship sees the light within a few years and finds a way out. Many abusive, controlling relationships go on for years and it is inevitable that there will be children involved. So what happens to youngsters in these circumstances?
There are so many risks and issues involved with children in abusive parental relationships that it would be impossible for us to cover them all. We have confined our scope to children of narcissistic parents – male or female – because we believe that controlling relationships and narcissists go hand in hand. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject by experts in the field. But the saddest impact on children of a narcissist parent is very basically that they don’t feel loved. The foundation for a well-adjusted adult is a secure, loving childhood, but the children of narcissists are denied this. According to Seth Myers, Psy.D., “Young children of narcissists learn early in life that everything they do is a reflection on the parent to the point that the child must fit into the personality and behavioural mould intended for them. These children bear tremendous anxiety from a young age as they must continually push aside their own personality in order to please the parent…If these children fail to comply with the narcissist’s wishes or try to set their own goals for their life (they) will be overtly punished, frozen out or avoided for a period of time…”
The internet is awash with chat rooms and forums for adult children of narcissists. Almost unbelievably, there is a website called daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com. It is not always possible to remove the child from the unhealthy environment caused by the narcissistic or controlling relationship; and then the best any supporting family member or social worker can do is support the child or children with affirmation of their self-worth and build their self-confidence to enable them to deal with the negative influences around them.
But if you are a parent raising a child in a relationship that is damaging you and proving harmful to your child or children, and you need help to find a way out, we can help. For the sake of your children, and your own happiness, there is an alternative.
Contact us now
Simon Dippenaar & Associates Inc. are experts in divorce and family law. Contact us on 086 099 5146 or 076 116 0623. Or email email@example.com. We will handle your query with discretion and compassion and give you the support you need to make a fresh start.
- For more about how to co-parent with a narcissist click here.
- For more about the rights of an unmarried father click here.
- Parental Alienation Syndrome
- Divorcing a narcissist
- Abusive behaviour – How to Recognise Abusive Relationships
- Parental Alienation may be a sign of other Personality Disorders