When we say we were abused while in a controlling relationship, we sure had that right. What we might have missed is that we were doing our own share of controlling.

What? Did I read that right?

Yes, I’ve learned that I can be a controlling person, even though I was brutally abused by a controlling man. I am a controlling person because I’m human, not evil.

We all cope with the human experience differently, but doesn’t it feel better to imagine we control some of it? My favorite control method is to be so nice that others will respond to my needs. Surely, everyone will go along if I ask nicely. My high school yearbook was filled with reassuring statements from classmates who gushed, “You’re so nice.” “I wish I was as nice as you.”   That was 40 years ago, so I’ve been using the nice method for a long time.

People like me get a wakeup call when we encounter someone unimpressed with niceness. We’re disoriented because our only weapon is impotent. Abusers see our repetitive pattern as weakness – an easily manipulated target.

So, you can imagine the dynamic between the abuser and me. He would provoke my guilt claiming I’d done something that a nice person would never do. I’d try to regain control by apologizing and being even nicer. Our horns would be locked, but he’d usually prevail because he’d pull out a variety of control tactics: spewing threats, imposing the silent treatment, gas-lighting, projecting his faults on me, weakening my resistance through sleep depravation, or delegating impossible tasks. Like a one-trick pony, I responded with being nice.

When I left the relationship for the final time, I went into hiding to protect myself from possible retaliation. When he received in the mail my intention to divorce, he must have known I was no longer stuck on being nice and no longer under his control. Without my compliance, his brutal history of mental and physical abuse might surface, and he chose to end his life.

My painful lesson is that being nice controls some people, but not everyone. Most of all being nice doesn’t foster genuine connection. When I now dare to be forthright instead of nice, I am surprised that many people relax instead of retreat. They might be noticing that I’ve stopped trying to control them.

If you’re angry that I claim someone being abused can also be controlling, than I’m not surprised, because I’m being forthright. If we frame abuse as skilled controllers in a contest with unskilled targets, we are empowered to avoid abuse in the future. If we frame abuse as an evil perpetrator over a hapless target, we simply are victims of circumstance.

I don’t want to fear that the next person I bump into might be an evil threat over which I am powerless. My choice is to look at abuse as a contest for control, a contest for which I was previously unequipped. Now I refuse to engage with the skilled controllers and chose to spend time with people who are looking for connection instead of control. If I need more control in my life, I can always clean my closet.

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