Sense of self destroyed by control freaks


THAT'S MEN:Leaving a partner is never an easy decision

BROKEN SPIRITS, shame and fear – that seems to be the answer to the question I asked last week. I was writing about men who control every aspect of their partners’ lives, isolating them from friends and family, dictating what they wear, sometimes denying them even the simplest freedom such as going for a walk on their own.

Why, I asked, do women stay with these guys for any length of time? The answers came in e-mails from four women. I have edited their stories to protect their identities but common themes emerge.

First there is the insidious nature of this process. At the start, all is well. “He could not have been more charming, engaging, thoughtful, witty and fun,” wrote one woman. Then there is the process of separating her from her friends. Jealousy of friends, disapproval of them, competing with them for her time all combine to make it easier to let the friends go than to hold onto them.

In my counselling experience this is the surest sign that a woman has fallen into the hands of a control freak. The minute he starts complaining about the friends it’s time to run fast in the opposite direction. Sometimes, though, he doesn’t even have to try. As one woman said, “the all-consuming passion that came first isolated me from friends and family”.

Worst of all, though, is the constant chipping away at the woman’s self-confidence. She’s no good, she’s ugly, she’s a slut, she’s a prude, nobody would want her, every man wants her, she’s stupid, she has no taste, she’s a lousy mother, her family are no good, she can’t keep a house clean, she can’t cook, she has no dress sense, she dresses like a whore and so on and on.

“I was in that hellish place of self-doubt destined for self-loathing before I knew it,” wrote one woman. And this chipping away destroys the spirit.

Their spirit “has been broken, they stop feeling worthy, they are often very afraid”, one woman wrote. “Change takes courage and energy, the very things drained from you in a toxic relationship.”

Said another: “If you have been shamed however, it’s not that you think that you are in some way ‘worthless’ or ‘less worthy’ than other people. Your deepest negative belief is that you don’t exist – you don’t believe that you have a self or a being and in the process you give away all your power to the person carrying out the shaming behaviour.”

Another explained that “by the time you figure out that all is not well, you feel trapped and unprepared for anything other than staying and just ‘putting up with it’”. This woman added: “I feel like I have shrivelled up till I am almost nothing.”

Leaving a partner is never easy. When your spirit is broken it can seem impossible. Even the financial demands of separation can seem like a mountain too high to climb, especially “when you are barely scraping by, and have little or no chance of selling up and moving on”.

This woman added: “I wonder how many women leave women’s aid shelters and go back to the family home because they can’t manage in the outside world, especially when they have children.”

And spare a thought for those women who, not so long ago, had to stay because they would lose their homes and could lose their children. “I had nowhere to go and nothing to go anywhere with,” one correspondent quotes one of these women as saying.

I suspect the beginning of freedom is for the woman to begin to develop a sense of herself as a separate person, no longer dependent on him for what to feel or what to think. The start of that process can be a call to Women’s Aid, a visit to a trusted GP or a call to a counsellor.

It’s hard work which takes perseverance, courage and the slow re-building of self-confidence. But that’s the price of freedom.

Padraig O’Morain ( is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by e-mail