Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Balance-Checking Your Relationship

by Tiffany Kingsfield, M.A., LAPC

What does a healthy relationship look like? Healthy relationships are havens of safety, with each partner being intentional about hearing the other’s viewpoint. Decisions are made together, and feelings are expressed without fear of reprisal. You can be a couple without losing a sense of who you are and what God called you to be. Personal growth, change, and exploration are encouraged, and one can say "no" without feeling guilty. Healthy relationships depend on each partner’s willingness to sacrificially serve one another in love and mutual respect.

Sometimes, for a myriad of reasons, relationships get “out of balance.” Depression or illness strikes, and one partner will bear more of the burden for the sick partner. Addiction can rob a partner of his/her helpmate because all attention goes to managing the addiction. Another little discussed dynamic that causes imbalance in a relationship is the presence of “control” when one partner intimidates and/or dominates the other partner.

Control occurs across all socioeconomic, religious, cultural and age ranges. Recent statistics show that one in four high school girls and one in five college women have experienced control/abuse in dating relationships. (The vast majority of victims of control and abuse are women, but there are men who are victims as well.) Controlling relationships usually start as “fairy tale” romances, with an excessive amount of attention and admiration that feels exhilarating.  Early on, there is often pressure to become serious quickly.  Statements like “You’re the only one for me,” or “No one has ever made me feel this way” are common at the beginning of controlling relationships.

Then, little amounts of jealousy and control begin to creep in subtly, as the controlling partner becomes a little more jealous, dominating and intimidating. Cellphones and emails may start being monitored, and accusations are made about whether one looked at or talked to other men/women. Financial control is another aspect in controlling relationships. Controllers may allow their partners to carry only small amounts of money, and meticulously monitor how the money is spent.

In these situations, the recipient’s response is often to agree to restrict spending, activities and friendships to reassure the controller that he/she needn’t worry and restore calm to the household.  This works for a short while, but then accusations increase, and more and more tension and isolation often occur. A cycle begins where there is a season of mounting tension often described as “walking on eggshells.” This becomes very familiar to the victims, who have a sense of fear and dread waiting for the coming explosion of anger. The second phase in the cycle is the “explosion,” where the controller rages, and sometimes damages property. Passive aggression - or withholding of love and attention - is common as well. After the explosion, a powerfully addictive “honeymoon phase” occurs, where the abuser gives profuse apologies, excuses and promises to change.  Unfortunately, without the abuser seeking professional help, change is unlikely, and in many cases emotional abuse progresses to physical abuse.

The church is sadly not immune to the control/abuse relationship dynamic. God commands husbands to sacrificially love their wives, and control is a distortion of leadership.  God does not support hiding sinful or criminal behavior. God says sin needs to be exposed, and He “Upholds the cause of the oppressed“ (Ps. 146:7). Exposing the secret by seeking help is ultimately for the highest good of both partners, and is a loving response to oppression.

In his excellent book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft exposes truths about the mindset of controllers, which he states is a mindset of entitlement. (Note: Bancroft’s book refers to the controller as “he” and the victim “she” in his writing.) Bancroft has worked with many controllers and their partners, and he states that feeling sorry for the controller is a trap. When a controller feels bad, “he thinks that life should stop for everyone in the family until someone fixes his discomfort” (31). Bancroft states that it is important to remember that abusers give themselves permission to abuse. It is a conscious decision based on a distorted mindset that they are “owed something” by you that they are not getting. Boosting an abuser’s self esteem actually makes the problem worse, because the more catering he receives, the more he demands. 

If you find yourself having to hide your feelings due to fear of triggering your partner, or feeling that you can never do anything “right” in your relationship, you may be in a relationship with a controller. In addition, if you are being blamed or criticized frequently, that is a warning sign. If you begin to feel a loss of independence, numbness, or a loss of the “self” that you used to be, it may be time to seek professional help. One of the side effects of being in a controlling relationship is the intense disappointment of the heart – wanting loving involvement from your partner, and hoping desperately that things will improve. Proverbs 31:12 says,” Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

If you or someone you care about is in a relationship that is controlling, there are many resources available to help you. The Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence website,  http://www.gcadv.org is a good place to start to research your options.  Georgia’s 24-Hour Domestic Violence Hotline is 1.800.33.HAVEN (1.800.334.2836).  The YWCA is also an excellent resource, and the website is http://www.ywca.org.  Fountain Gate offers counseling offers counseling on a sliding-fee scale.  For more information go to www.fountaingate.com or call 770-218-9005.