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The actor in the relationship can fool the best of us. When you can’t tell what’s an act and what’s real, you soon start to question your own sanity.

The actor doesn’t love, they control. A real partner shows empathy and wants to see you happy. It’s easy to tell the difference looking at it from the outside in, but sometimes impossible to see it while you’re in it.

Transcript follows.

There is a mentality that can develop, especially in a younger person, where they don’t see what’s going on in a relationship and they can’t tell what’s unfolding before them because they haven’t had enough relationship experience. Some of us didn’t have the opportunity to see firsthand how relationships work which unfortunately can leave you open to falling into a toxic relationship.

Of course, this isn’t always the case as there are people that meet their soul mates and have strong, loving partnerships. You can find someone, and have an amazing relationship and not know what it’s like to deal with unhealthy and toxic people.

But what about for the rest of us that don’t have enough experience, or have only had a few long term relationships?  How do you handle meeting someone that doesn’t have your best interest in mind?  How do you know that you’re in a bad relationship and what are the signs?

I received a letter from a listener that covers what we are discussing, and I’ll read it below, but first I want to say a few things:

  • Commitments will not change what is happening, they will just amplify the type of relationship you have

    If your partner lies to you, is controlling, emotionally abusive, or manipulative their behaviors will amplify and get more intense once you move in together, get married, and have kids. On the other hand, if you’re in a great relationship with no major issues and you’re seeing things prosper, grow and move in a positive direction any commitments will usually amplify that as well.

  • Hoping and having faith that things will change puts us into the danger zone where our thinking causes us to stay in situations that aren’t healthy

    Telling yourself that your partner shows up for you in other ways so maybe things will work out, or that they can see how badly they make you feel and they’ll eventually stop is not going to happen.

  • You must develop a belief system that empowers you to take responsibility for doing things that are healthy for you

    If you wait around for your partner to “do the right thing” you may end up suffering and waiting around forever. You have to take the word “hope” out of your situation and stop saying “I hope they’ll change.” Hope is an action and it’s based on the future.

  • Sometimes people can change

    I was emotionally abusive in my marriage and it took my wife divorcing me to finally realize I caused her a lot of pain.

I wouldn’t have had those realizations without access to empathy. You have to have an empathetic partner. If your partner hurts you or makes you feel bad the response you don’t want to see is them feeling smug and proud that they’re right and you’re crying. You want someone that genuinely cares about you and apologizes and works to correct their behavior.

If your partner gives you a good feeling because they’ve apologized and then a bad feeling later on because they continue to behave just like they did before, that is love and abuse. The back and forth of this traumatic bonding is like being on a roller coaster and you start to go crazy!

You are being gaslighted and lead to believe that everything is great just to have the rug pulled out from under you again. It hurts so much that you end up looking for a sign of hope from the other person and when it comes through you reconnect but you still have this underlying trigger state, this sensitivity that things are going to go bad again. This is why you need to be very aware and almost step out of yourself to look at the situation and see what’s going on.

Look at the trendline in your relationship. Has that trendline been improving week after week after month after year? Is it going up and to the right? Is it always progressing or at least a steady line that says “hey things are pretty good now, so let’s keep going that way?” Or, is it a roller coaster? Think of the events in your relationship, draw your trendline and ask yourself:

  • How was yesterday?  Was it up or down? 
  • How was today?  Was it up or down? 
  • How was last week? 

A good, healthy relationship is going to have a couple of big ups and downs here and there but it’s going to be mostly steady and probably going up and to the right. If you’ve been married for 50 years that might be different. The longer you’re married the more there might be a lot of more ups and downs but the trendline should not be a daily or weekly big up and big down.

This shouldn’t be your only guide but creating this visual will help you understand where you are, what the status of the relationship is, what you might be going through and what there is to look forward to. Knowing what might be ahead can help you better prepare for what’s ahead for you and your kids (if you have children).

Now, on to the letter!  “Janet” wrote –

I hope you can answer a question regarding navigating my relationship path. I’m in turmoil and it has a correlation to affecting my current career path. I’ve been with my boyfriend for many years and he just closed on a house in another city. We’ve had a long-distance relationship for the past few years. I’m in my early 20’s and he’s older than me. He’s in a different stage in life than I am as far as financial stability and things that come up with being older than I am and dating someone who has achieved so much while I’m trying to get my life together and get a full-time job.

Last year I found some hurtful and disturbing information in his phone and computer, which was him dealing with other women. That lead to a big fallout in which I flew back home. For the first time in all of our fallouts he actually fought for me. This wasn’t like him at all. I felt powerful, I won’t lie. He addressed all my concerns and begged and did what he could to get me back, literally. I couldn’t believe it was him. We pretty much promised to each other that we were committed to each other only. He addressed all of the messages and clarified anything that I asked him. We agreed to communicate better and bang out any issues that came up.

Even though we moved forward with the relationship, everything that happened led me to have trust issues, insecurity issues, triggers and more questions when I saw things that were off or seemed like he was up to no good again. The communication from him worsened and it was like his promises to work on that communication just weren’t relevant anymore. Any little thing that I ask him about (I’m very soft-spoken and don’t get angry or loud) makes him instantly get frustrated, blow up and say I’m negative and worried about the wrong things. I really can’t talk to him about any concerns of mine.

When I feel uneasy about something or begin to suspect something, I ask him, like an adult should without accusing, yet he always blows up and says that I’m just making things negative and that I’m the only negative thing in his life. Clearly, he isn’t listening to me and I plan on moving in with him but I don’t want to move and nothing changes. How can I get through to him?  Please help me. It’s been emotional abuse at this point and he doesn’t see that.

Thank you, “Janet”, for writing. Please know that my reply is said with love and respect for you.

To start, at the end of your letter you confirm that your relationship is emotionally abusive which is good because you are aware of what that term means. Several things stood out in your email, one of which that really concerns me is that every time you approached him or commented about something he was highly defensive.

This is a big problem because people who want to do what they want and get away with it will become highly defensive because they don’t want to have to answer for it. They get defensive because it’s a lot easier to say sorry to shut you up and it’s easier to control their partner if they get angry because nobody wants to deal with an angry person. The best way to shut someone up is to get angry.

They will call you sensitive and say you are always negative so that they can put the blame back on you for bringing up legitimate things. Even if he is completely faithful you’re still bringing up legitimate concerns that bother you.

This is where the empathy I mentioned before comes in. An empathetic partner will say they didn’t realize it bothered you that much, and now that they know they’ll definitely not talk to that person anymore because they don’t want to upset you. They will say that you are more important to them than anyone else.

That isn’t what’s happening here. Every time you comment on something, he brings the focus back on you, so you focus on what you’re doing “wrong.” And if you are focused on what you’re doing wrong. It takes your attention off of him. And then you find yourself trying to figure out how you can show up differently, be nicer and approach him in a different way.

So that’s one of the things showing up in your email that is a huge red flag to me. What does a red flag indicate?  It is one of those things that won’t change if he has something going on in his life that he doesn’t want you to know about. This is the way he’s going to be, he doesn’t want to talk about it, he wants to get away with whatever he’s doing and he doesn’t care enough about your feelings to discuss it. 

Also, he may not want you to be upset because he is continuing to communicate with people that you don’t want to communicate with. Again, he could be perfectly faithful but he’s got this secret life that he doesn’t want you to ask him about so he puts that out there and makes you feel bad about yourself. 

Another thing I want to talk about is how when you said he fought for you it made you feel powerful. It was as if someone would stand up and say “No, I want this relationship. I want you and I’ll do anything it takes.”

I want you to know that some of the other signs that you’ve given in this email add up to someone who’s so afraid to lose control of you that they will sound completely genuine, empathetic and worried. They don’t want to lose control of you because if you leave it’s like a big slap in the face of their ego. It would destroy him to not have control over you so that he can keep this world that he’s creating together.

For example, if he is seeing other women and loses you, then he’d need to recreate a whole new world with somebody else and figure out some sort of control structure. I’m not saying that this is happening but I wanted to give you an idea of what could be going on.

It’s great when you have a healthy relationship and someone is willing to fight for you however your letter talks about those same red flags coming up again, which tells me that it was an act. That doesn’t mean you’re not worth fighting for, It just means he could be putting on an act so he doesn’t lose control over you.

Someone who is genuine and empathetic is going to continue working on the relationship and showing up in ways that he knows you love, respect and appreciate. That’s what people do in healthy relationships. Both people show up for the other person in ways that display how much they care about them, love them, support them and want them to be happy.

In emotionally abusive relationships the abuser is an actor that shows up and pretends to care. In the beginning of those relationships, there’s a lot of love bombing and gift bombing where they will overdo the love and compliments to get you on their hook. It’s like “love fishing” where they’ll put the hook out there and snag you with all this positivity because they know that’s what you want to hear and how you want to feel. Once that stage is over, then it’s like a free pass for them to be controlling, emotionally abusive, manipulative or unhealthy in any number of ways.

Fighting for you was his way of keeping you and staying in control of the relationship. Emotionally abusive partners use this as a tool because they know that once they use this the other person is going to feel just like you did. They’re going to feel wanted and important.

To me, it’s a red flag because you mentioned that this type of behavior showed up again which means you should use this as a gauge or guide. This repetitive behavior doesn’t change, it only transforms and adapts based on your responses. For example, if you threatened to leave in the future he can turn on the charm again or even start begging and crying which allows him to play the role of the victim.

Emotional abuse is elusive and covert because you can’t tell in the moment from a single component that something bad is going on. You have to place all the behaviors together to get the bigger picture and based on your email the picture that I’ve pieced together indicates that your life with him is not going to get any better. This doesn’t mean that I’m telling you what to do but I see this unfolding in a way that is not good for you.

Since he lives in a different city, if you move in with him you won’t know anybody there. If you haven’t heard my episode on isolation, you need to listen to it right away, because that is the first step in isolation.

Isolation is where the abuser takes you away from your support structure, family and maybe your work. Once you move you no longer have access to this system of love and support. The one person available that’s supposed to love and support you also ends up being the same person that is being abusive towards you. Ultimately you end up being stuck on an emotional roller coaster that eats away at your emotional core until you are just a shell of the person you used to be.

The last thing I want to say is I find that people that are meek, submissive, generous and empathetic usually meet someone that likes to control, manipulate and coerce. These types of people are attracted to each other. The initial stages of a relationship can be revealing. If there’s too much of a good thing, it’s something to question.

For example, my girlfriend got some crystal plates on a first or second date with a guy before we met. She was surprised and didn’t know what to say because they were just starting to get to know each other. She didn’t know about gift-bombing back then but after that day, she realized she didn’t want to see him anymore. When she called him and said she wasn’t interested in seeing him anymore he suddenly was no longer a loving, kind and caring person. He became a jerk and got angry because she stopped seeing him and was offended that the gift didn’t seal the deal.  

Once a person like this loses control two things happen. They fight to keep the control they have by appearing to be genuine, caring and loving. They also become angry, dismissive and cold. It almost seems like a bipolar response. It’s either really good or really bad. 

When they don’t get what they want they turn into a jerk that makes you feel guilty and bad about yourself and leaves you wondering what you did wrong. You feel this way because you’re kind and caring and so you check in with yourself to make sure you’re showing up in a positive way. Emotionally abusive people don’t check in with themselves and then say ‘I could have shown up a little differently in this situation. You’re right,  let’s talk about it.”  Instead, they point fingers. 

Sometimes when my girlfriend and I talk things can get heated. When that happens, even when it’s heated, I’m still listening and hearing what she has to say. And even though I want to make my point and feel right, I will back down and say “You know, yeah you’re right about that.”

Then I’ll stop and she’ll back off a little bit because she doesn’t want to hurt me. We don’t want to hurt each other or make each other feel bad, we just want to get our point across. Usually when one person backs off the other one does too, then we can calm down and talk about it more rationally and reasonably. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s nice to know that we can both get fired up even get angry and still listen and be reasonable.

Great communication is where you are allowed to feel angry and suspicious without being abused. In the letter you mentioned that you found suspicious things on his computer. If my girlfriend found stuff on my computer, and I was apologetic and I felt bad about it, I’m going to make sure that no matter how many times she asked I want her to feel comfortable and like she has every right to question me.

I’m going to make sure that every time she mentions it, I’ll say “Absolutely! Here, check my computer because I don’t want you to have any suspicions.” What he’s doing to you, Janet, is allowing your suspicion to stay alive by avoiding the subject and putting the blame on you to make you feel guilty.

You might have to get angry and break this pattern of you staying quiet. I’m not saying you have to nor am I saying it’ll be effective. What I’m saying is he is taking advantage because he knows that you won’t speak up and say that you suspect something. He knows that you won’t tell him not to avoid the topic or to show you his phone immediately. I believe that you are in a bad situation that will only get worse if you move in. I hate to give you that news but you asked my opinion. 

You have every right to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just hoping that you hear my words, and maybe do a little sleuthing, like a detective. I won’t go into too much detail about that but I will say that I don’t like lingering suspicions. I need to know if my suspicions are right! Sometimes we need to prove to ourselves that someone isn’t who they say they are.

One last thing is that you asked how you can get through to him. I don’t know if I can answer that because if he has an agenda and wants to control you, no matter what you do, he will adapt and try to find a way to play you. Janet, I’m so grateful that you wrote to me and I hope my words mean something to you. If you choose to follow them or not, this is your life. I want you to do what’s right for you and make decisions that work for you. Just imagine a future where nothing changes, you move in, things get even worse, and you can’t say anything without him putting you in your place.

Yes, I’m painting a negative picture but the relationship you described in your email concerns me. I hope this helps.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Paul Colaianni is a Behavior and Relationship Coach, and the host of The Overwhelmed Brain and Love and Abuse podcasts.

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