Controlling, unhealthy, abusive relationships share the characteristics of destructive cults. They are sometimes called one-on-one cults, micro-cults, or cults of personality. Abusive people use tactics listed in the BITE Model to control and exploit others. Isolation from family and friends, secrecy, and estrangement are tell-tale signs. For this reason, it often takes the family of a victim a long time to realize that they are in a controlling relationship.
While an abuser can be anyone, often there is a power differential between the abuser and the abused. For example, the abuser may be a parent, teacher, therapist, boss, coach, or religious leader. Because of this, it can be difficult to extricate oneself from the controlling relationship. Abusers are also commonly older than their victims. However, controlling relationships can take many forms. Abusers and victims can be any sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, or age.
Learning about undue influence will help you better protect yourself against controlling relationships. The tactics that cults use to recruit and indoctrinate people are similar to the tactics that abusive individuals use to make someone “fall in love” or become dependent and obedient. Controlling and abusive individuals usually try to isolate their victims from their families and friends. They may encourage physical, emotional, or financial dependence.
In addition to learning about undue influence, study common traits and behaviors of those with narcissism and psychopathy. Read stories about healthy and unhealthy relationships so you can get a sense of what to watch out for. If you are feeling uncomfortable or overly pressured by someone, take a step back to evaluate. Don’t let anyone rush you into major decisions or commitments, just as you wouldn’t let anyone rush you into buying a car or joining an organization.
Remember that just as nobody “joins” a cult (they are deceptively recruited into one), nobody “joins” a controlling relationship (they are deceptively seduced into one). If you have been in a controlling relationship, it is not your fault! Furthermore, it is possible to have a happy and healthy future after leaving a controlling relationship.
Available Webinar: How to help a family member who is being mind-controlled
Help a Loved One
It can often take a long time to realize that your loved one might be in a controlling relationship. The warning signs are similar to those seen in people who have joined a cult. They will often reduce or cut off contact, change their personality or preferences suddenly, change career or academic plans seemingly out of the blue, and start acting in secrecy.
It is important to listen to your loved one. Don’t make them feel stupid or belittle them for being in a controlling relationship. Help them be empowered to think for themselves. Act curious, but concerned, and ask thoughtful questions. Don’t threaten or use ultimatums. Build trust and rapport. You may want to think about who can participate in an ethical influence campaign to help your loved one resist undue influence. Are there any friends or family members who are also concerned?