Thursday, September 7, 2017


Recent legislation in the UK has brought controlling behaviour more firmly into the spotlight.  It is now more clearly against the law to conduct yourself towards another person in a way that, over time, takes away their freedom and self-esteem.

However, many such situations will still happen, and go unpunished by the law.  In particular, the exercise of controlling behaviour within a family remains difficult to deal with - not least because the victim may want to protect the perpetrator.  Or the victim may feel so low in self-esteem, that taking appropriate action can feel too difficult.  How can you take action against the very person who is designing their behaviour around stopping you taking action to protect yourself?

Emotional bullying looks so obvious to those outside the immediate perpetrator-victim circle.  When at peace, and in the comfort of our own space, we would all tend to agree that we all have a right to freedom, to our own space, to being able to move and talk freely, without the constant fear of confrontation.  But inside the circle of abuse, things get trickier.  The victim often becomes an apologist for the perpetrator, giving excuses for their behaviour.

Typical comments are: 'I don't want to make matters worse,' or 'let's just see how things go.  If they do it again...'  Often the victim is acutely embarrassed, and almost doesn't want to believe it's happening.  That's partly because we all take pride in our close relationships, and so we hate to divulge that all is not well.  But it's also because we fear what will happen if we finally stand up to the behaviour, and are clear that it is not acceptable.


Bullies often apply a certain amount of intelligence to their actions.  They know that there is a danger of their actions getting out, being reported to others.  So they become very adept at PR.  They are constantly dressing up their actions with a running commentary that basically says 'In case anyone thinks to call me out on my behaviour, I would like to make it clear that I am the victim here.'  They will often be full of the wrongs others have done them, and will hardly ever talk about the wrongs they have done others.

This is what makes it so difficult to meet a bully on equal terms.  They are so used to turning everything to their advantage in their own mind, that they fail to be able to see things from another's perspective.  You will often hear such a person say: 'Oh, you're making it all about you,' but not often 'So, how are you feeling about this?'

This brings us to the key of such behaviour: it is designed so as to minimise criticism to the bully themselves. Criticism is like poison to a bully: it's alien to their system, and they don't know how to deal with it.  So they spit it out as far as possible, without a second glance at whether there is truth in it or not.


1. A bully tends to turn all conversation around to themselves.  Test them out: try talking about a third party you both know, and see how quickly they turn a story about someone else, into a story about them.  They may start criticising the other person, calling them 'an idiot' or something similar... anything to make sure they remain on top of the podium in the Olympics of being.

2. A bully tends to use hyperbole - in other words, they will use extreme language.  A situation is not just 'difficult'- it will be 'disgraceful'.  They can't help getting the PR team to spin an extreme story about everything they see.  The key here is an inability to be neutral.  You will feel pulled into a tabloid-like story in which you have to take sides.  You are for the bully or against them.  No half measures.

3. A bully will be unable to 'let it lie'.  Like a dog with a bone (which is unfair to dogs actually), the bully will push and push, when they have something to fight about.  Resentments seethe; revenge is demanded; enemies must be confronted.


Underlying these three behaviours, are three motivations.

1. DOMINATION - They must make sure, at all times, that they are at the top of the tree.

2. AGGRESSION - They must turn everything into a fight between their interests, and the rest of the world.

3. ACTION - They must act on every perceived slight, every infringement on their liberty.

Notice that these are precisely the opposite qualities to those of a peaceful person.  A peaceful person will not seek to dominate; they will not be aggressive; they will be able to sit peacefully and let others get on with things.

Some psychologists would call bullies egocentric, and the opposite allocentric ('allo' meaning 'others'; in other words, focused on others).


Now we can see how joining a bully with a peaceful person can be so toxic.  An aggressive dominator, if they can strike up a relationship with a peaceful appeaser, can have their needs supplied, on tap, day after day.  They have a partner in life who will protect them from criticism, never attack them, always support them.

But at what cost?  This is where the recent changes in the law come in.  There comes a time when a pattern of behaviour is so toxic that it leads to suffering in the victim.  In this case, something that started out as a complementary match of opposites, becomes a match made in hell.  The bully becomes so set in their ways that they don't even notice how they are infringing the other's liberties.  Others outside the relationship see it clearly.  The peaceful partner always has to ask the bully's permission; will never assert their own wishes clearly.  Conversely, the bully always has to have their permission asked for.


This leads us to the central issue in the whole thing: control.  What we have, is a partnership between someone who has to have control at all costs, and someone who has learned to give away control.  And both people have learned to disguise their behaviour behind phrases that sound innocent.  So the victim will learn to say 'I'd better ask my partner', when what they mean is 'I am afraid of deciding anything without asking permission'.  And the perpetrator will learn not to say anything that betrays the control being exercised.  A bully doesn't walk around with a label saying 'I am about to control others'.  A bully simply punishes anyone close to them who doesn't play ball, ideally behind closed doors and in secret.

Often, the public life of such a partnership looks so easy and companionable.  But behind the scenes, one is dominating the other.  It's just that both have learned to hide it.


OK, here's a home truth.  Ready?

Just leave.


You need to make an unequivocal, definite statement that their behaviour is unacceptable.  Negotiating won't work.  They will turn it to their advantage, accuse you of bullying them.  They have the PR sewn up.

So I'm afraid there is nothing for it but to separate.

Oh yes, when you are apart, they will turn the charm on, and make you feel as though the same thing is so unlikely to happen again.  But if you give in, then, hey presto, you will find the same thing happening, the same unhappiness, the same suffering.

So leave.

Do not negotiate.


No it's not.  Actually, it's not.  I have been there.

Let me tell you why I say leave.

If you think about it, we are all separated from each other anyway.  Think of how your kindest friend behaves.  They let you be a separate person.  That's the point.  That's why they are so easy to be with.

So in leaving the bully, you are only doing what you should be doing with everyone you know: retreating to a safe distance.  With your kindest friend, that distance is not very far... because you trust them not to interfere with your existence as a separate person.

The greatest paradox on this earth is that to find something you must lose it.  It's the same with people.  To find a person you must lose them: understand that they are their own person, and nothing you can do changes that.


Emotional bullies can be recognised by 1. their need to dominate others (you will feel deprived of freedom); 2. their aggression (you will feel afraid); 3. their willingness to fight (you will feel, frankly, tired out!).

Coping with an emotional bully involves leaving.  No ifs, no buts.  It involves separating yourself from them, not being in their presence.

How do you know you are in the presence of kindness?  You feel free, fearless, and able to be yourself.

Anything else, leave it.

Leave it.