My wife could read my mind and resented my sullenness, receiving it as an accusation, unjustified and insulting. She explained to me recently that my jealousy presented her with a choice: she could change her ways to pander to my hyper vigilance, thus becoming something other than the woman she is; or she could stay true to herself, thereby risking my ire and ensuring a continuation of these spirit-crushing palls of silence.
One time, when we were able to discuss the issue calmly, I admitted to having a bit of a problem and suggested she accommodate it by, say, calling me when she’d decided to stay out later than she’d said she would. I thought that sounded reasonable; she thought it was controlling behaviour. Even today I might debate that point. What I wouldn’t question is how upset my brooding made her or how close she came to issuing an ultimatum. In any relationship, possessiveness is corrosive. You probably don’t need telling that it’s a marker not of love but of insecurity – or something darker. If you have controlling tendencies, tackle them. Experts have a fair handle on what causes them and how to subdue them, even if they’re not always curable. The risks of doing nothing are high. In the worst cases, outcomes can be nothing short of horrific.
Sleeping with the enemy
Relatively speaking, my affliction was on the mild side. For an insight into men much further along the black road I speak with Jen Waite, who at the age of 25 was an actress-model supplementing her income by waitressing when a barman working in the same restaurant took a shine to her. This guy, whom she calls “Marco” in her 2017 memoir, A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, exhibited textbook controlling tendencies in the seduction phase, according to Waite, who was too naïve to see what was happening. Waite’s account goes like this. Marco, several years older than her, noticed this woman who’d just moved into a big city and “tractor-beamed” in on her, charming her with constant flattery and attention. Within six months they’d moved in together. After a year they were engaged, and the wedding followed soon after.
“At the time I didn’t know what ‘love bombing’ was,” says Waite. To have a man so seemingly enraptured by her: “For a woman – I hate to stereotype – but that is really seductive.” Should she have regarded his instant ardour as a red flag? In hindsight, yes. “It’s not just disingenuous if it’s that intense so early. They’re keeping tabs in a way by staying in constant communication. It seems sweet, innocuous – ‘How ya doin’?’ ‘How are you?’ – but it can actually be a way for them to know where you are and who you’re hanging out with, and to be able to track your every step.” Marco, in Waite’s opinion, was not merely controlling but an actual psychopath – cunning, manipulative, profoundly self centred and incapable of empathy. Just home from hospital after delivering their first and only child, Waite found an email that showed Marco was carrying on an affair and looking for an apartment for he and his mistress. From that moment the marriage unravelled quickly.
Too often, highly controlling men who suspect they’re about to be left can turn nasty. Driving that response isn’t so much any deep love for their partner – it’s not even clear these men can love. More typically, the crucial attachment is to the status afforded by the relationship. And for their fragile ego, the prospect of being dumped is a fundamental threat. In this instance, however, Waite – frazzled and suffering from postpartum anxiety – suspects Marco was tiring of her: “I wasn’t in any state to be ego-fuel anymore,” she says. But there was one incident that, on reflection, chills her. They were in the kitchen and Waite was telling Marco she would have to move out – that she couldn’t care for a newborn while trying to process his farrago of lies. “He’d never so much as raised his voice before, but all of a sudden his eyes were black and he was screaming and coming toward me, backing me into a corner,” Waite says. At the time she didn’t believe Marco could be violent towards her. Looking back now, she’s not quite so sure.
When women are murdered, rarely is the killer a stranger to the victim. The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that between 2012-14, just three per cent (five of 184) of femicides fell into that category. The rest, ipso facto, involved a murderous acquaintance, friend, lover, relative. And were most or all of these killers also controlling types? We can say this much with certainty: the presence of extreme controlling-possessive tendencies is a risk factor for the heinous crime of murdering an intimate partner. We know this because of the work of Jane Monckton Smith, a forensic criminologist at the University of Gloucestershire. After analysing hundreds of murders by men of women in the UK, she has identified eight steps to murder – eight stages that end in a man slaying his partner – and her findings have been published recently in the journal Violence Against Women.
What strikes you about the first four stages is that they appear, at first blush, to cover a lot of men. One – a history of stalking or abuse. (Sure, stalking sounds creepy, but does showing up at a café that is the haunt of an ex qualify as stalking?) Two – the relationship develops quickly: he’s looking for total and eternal commitment. Three – he displays controlling ways: “Who are those texts from?” “What do they say?” Four – something happens that challenges his sense of control: she threatens to leave him or he loses his job. I ask Monckton Smith whether she believes a great many men are potential killers. Her answer: No!
“For too many years I’ve heard this line that any man could be guilty of this kind of behaviour, that any man could turn into a killer,” she says. “And it’s just not true. It’s this certain type of very, very controlling man. He needs to control. And not now and again. All the time, until it’s become almost a job for him. That’s not your everyman. There are aspects to control that are in every man and every woman. But that’s not what we’re talking about.”
Natural born chiller?
So, what are we talking about? Are control freaks insane? Are they born or made? And why do some merely sulk when they don’t get their way, while others procure a rifle? Even the most controlling of men, psychologists say, are not, strictly speaking, mentally ill, although they may have some kind of personality disorder. Possessiveness is often traceable to childhood: something’s gone awry in the developmental phases of the mother-child union. Perhaps she didn’t hold the infant’s gaze often enough, for long enough, to forge in him a secure sense of self. Never sure of his needs being met, a pervasive anxiety takes root.
“And he takes that insecurity into adulthood,” says Dr Yuliya Richard, a Sydney based clinical psychologist who’s worked with scores of couples cracking under the burden of a partner’s obsession with control. “His self esteem will be low and his anxiety high, and he will have difficulty tolerating uncertainty.” In addition, his father, an uncle or older brother may have modelled manipulation as a means to an end. Waite’s experience of a Prince Charming being unmasked is a familiar plot twist wherever a controlling mind is central to the story. Everything hums along nicely, even thrillingly, until the controller hears the woman make her first attempt at erecting a boundary: “Thank you for buying concert tickets,” she tells him, “but I’m seeing my girlfriends tonight.”
If he loses his temper, some women will be strong enough to push back (“You don’t run my life!”) – and astute enough to terminate the relationship on the spot. However, a feature of the controlling type is that he screens his targets, zeroing in on the vulnerable or diffident – women whose default response to hostility is to assume it is they who must have done something wrong to warrant this discombobulating eruption from their hitherto flawless suitor. A warning: if you’re a guy who likes referring to your “psycho ex”, know that on that basis alone experts would advise your partner to run for the hills.
“It’s a massive red flag,” says Monckton Hill. Why? Because it exposes a man who can’t face up to what he is, and so projects his own twisted make-up onto someone else. And not just anyone. Someone who used to love him. As for the controlling man who turns physically violent, for him there will be something else, something pathological, mingling with those possessive instincts. It could be an impulse-control deficiency, which allows his urges to override his judgment. Or antisocial personality disorder, a marker of which is an inability to see events from another’s perspective. I ask Waite whether she thinks Marco was an everyman whose character was corrupted by some unfortunate set of circumstances, or whether he was born different.
“He came across as an everyman – absolutely,” says Waite. “I mean, that’s the thing I think people still don’t understand about psychopaths or sociopaths: they can be very charming and seemingly three dimensional. They can copy empathy and regular mannerisms. They can be really fun. But I do believe in his case it wasn’t something that developed. I think he was born that way.” Waite says Marco confided once, jovially, that he’d been expelled from multiple high schools as a teen. The story seemed funny at the time. But Waite feels now it pointed to innate antisocial tendencies, despite Marco coming from a loving family.
Under the thumb
There is, of course, another way of looking at domestic tyranny. Of flipping it. Because it’s not always the guy who’s the control freak. Perhaps you’re married to one? Sam (a pseudonym) was – for 15 long years. He ruminates on that time while we chat on a bench at dusk in a park in Sydney’s inner west. He says this was his go-to place when his wife’s vile behaviour was pushing him towards a nervous breakdown.
“Needless to say, I should never have married her,” says Sam. “I was a fool. We met at uni and there was a connection of sorts. She was smart and she was interested in me, and that kind of knocked me off balance because I’d never had much success with girls. She could turn on the charm, but I wouldn’t say she never showed her cracks. It was more that I didn’t have the self-confidence to believe that someone else better would come along.”
Life became an exercise in walking on eggshells, Sam says, of doing whatever it took to appease her and head off her trademark bursts of incandescent rage. “I don’t know where to start trying to capture her nature,” he says. “I would say her defining characteristic was a disregard for truth. She lied constantly, about everything, although there was always one goal behind it all: to make herself look good – brilliant, hardworking, tolerant, stoic, generous – while often at the same time making me feel two inches tall. Materially, she had everything you could ever want but she was never satisfied and would always play the victim. Behind their backs she would be vicious about my friends and family. She hated me having a life outside of her reach.”
One time, Sam says, he achieved something pretty momentous professionally and his family came from far and wide to help him celebrate. But his wife couldn’t bear that, so she organised a lunch for that same day with people who meant nothing to him and insisted the two of them go to that. “Something else she couldn’t stand was my having a mobile phone. Think about it: I could talk to anyone I liked when she wasn’t around! So, guess what happened? I kept ‘losing’ my phone. I mean, they kept disappearing. I thought I was going fucking insane. And she actively encouraged that idea. Then one day I found about seven of my phones hidden in one of her suitcases under the house. That’s the kind of thing that went on.”
Finally, Sam mustered the courage to leave his wife. He did so believing she would do everything she could to make the divorce as painful for him as possible – and she didn’t disappoint. But that’s the thing about breakups that feature a control freak: when the abused partner is a woman, she may fear for her safety; when the abused partner is a man, he fears something else.
“In my research, what male victims told me is that they weren’t frightened their controlling partner would kill them; they were more frightened that they would destroy them,” says Monckton Smith. “Destroy their reputation. Destroy their work. That shows the marked difference between male and female behaviours.” Which isn’t to say uber-controlling women never kill their partner. They do. It happens. But in slightly more than 80 per cent of cases of intimate-partner homicide, the perpetrator is a straight male, while gay men make up a proportion of the remainder. Fact: male control freaks are the more dangerous beast.
Learning to let go
“Of course, it’s treatable – in most cases,” says Matt Garrett, a Relationships Australia (RA) couples and family therapist in the NSW Hunter region. On that premise, RA runs a program, Taking Responsibility, for men who’ve been abusive in their relationships. It’s a group course requiring once-a-week attendance for more than four months. The work is confronting and the dropout rate is high – about 50 per cent. Garrett’s view is that even mild possessiveness, while rife, is not healthy and shouldn’t be thought of as normal. “Because that sanctions the controlling or violent behaviour and we don’t do that,” Garrett says. “We want to build relationships around trust and respect.”
In Taking Responsibility, men learn how to regulate their emotions via deep breathing, meditation and positive self-talk. They’re walked through a history of misogyny and evolving societal values around women, and they have their eyes opened to the devastating impact of spousal abuse on children. “We see men come through and we see them change,” says Garrett. They bring their possessiveness under control. They keep their fists in their pockets. But there’s a caveat: within a year, old ways of thinking too often re-emerge. “Can you improve? Yes! If you’re prepared to look at your past behaviour and take responsibility for it,” says Garrett. “Will [the controlling tendencies] ever be erased? Probably not. How can you erase aspects of your personality, particularly if they’re formative?” Step one in dealing with control issues is for the patient to accept he has them, therapists say. Again, not all men with this predisposition will recognise it in themselves.
If they’re monitoring their partner, they reason, it’s because her conduct obliges them to. Clinical psychologist Richard says she stopped treating one patient who felt justified in assaulting his wife for watching TV instead of doing his ironing.
“You change if you want to change,” she says. “That’s the starting point. Some cases are beyond my capacity as a therapist.”
In fact, many cases are in that category. There’s no cure for psychopathy, for example. No pill nor any amount of psychoanalysis can dismantle a personality disorder, so the hope with these men is that they’re not also inclined towards violence – which most of them aren’t. Forensic criminologist Monckton Smith has visited prisons to interview intimate partner killers. I ask for her impressions of these men, whether they appeared to be wired entirely differently to the rest of us.
“No. Not at all,” she says. “Personality disordered people are going to be somewhat different in the way they respond to things, but generally speaking they have the same moral code, just different methods of justifying what they do. “[Normal people] would think nothing besides self-defence would justify murder, but they [killers] use neutralising techniques that make it okay: ‘Society tells me I’m entitled to this, so how can she take it away?’ A lot of these men commit suicide after killing their partner, which shows you how important this winning, this status is to them.”
Five years after leaving Marco, Jen Waite is doing well. She’s emerged stronger from her ordeal, she says, harbours no blanket distrust of men, is dating again (tentatively; baby steps) and working on her second book, Survival Instincts – a work of fiction this time, though featuring an ultra-possessive psychopath. Write what you know, they say. As for Sam, two years after escaping his own domestic prison, he’s seeing someone new who hasn’t “a single controlling atom in her body”.
“The only person you want controlling your life is you,” Sam says. To which we’d add the corollary: the only life you have a right to control is your own.