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Dr. Michael
Dr. Michael, Psychologist
Category: Mental Health
Satisfied Customers: 2177
Experience:  Licensed Ph.D. Clinical Health Psychology with 30 years of experience in private practive and as a clinical psychology university professor.
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Is a person who exhibits controlling behaviour suffering

Customer Question

Is a person who exhibits controlling behaviour suffering from a recognised, treatable mental illness? I am asking because for many years my husband has reacted with
verbal aggression and outbursts of sobbing whenever my attention is taken from him. He acts as if in deep grief after verbally abusing me and demands to be comforted, which I refuse to do.

His behaviour is triggered by things such as me spending time talking to a friend, me being ill, going to work, studying for exams, or extremely busy in other ways. On a bad day it could be because I spent too long in the toilet. After many years of practice, I am protecting myself from the abuse as best I can by refusing to be drawn into arguments and calmly stating that I have the right to do what I have done. More recently I have started to remind him of previous outbursts and the associated triggers in an attempt to get him to recognise what he is doing.

In general, he blames me and strongly believes in the lies he tells about what has happened. We visited a psychologist about the problems and he even lied to her, saying that I was the instigator of these "arguments". She pointed out to him that his behaviour was a form of domestic violence because he was isolating me from friends and family and intimidating me, which did not go down well.

When my husband doesn't feel threatened by my inattention, we communicate very well and are great friends. The quick solution for me is obviously to leave him, but is there something that can be done for him? I value the other aspects of our relationship. This is way beyond marriage counselling. I can't stress how extreme the behaviour is. He acts like the victim of an extreme trauma.

His behaviour follows such a set pattern, I feel it must be a recognised condition. Narcissism perhaps? His mother behaves in a very similar way and his father is completely submissive and indecisive. My husband has agreed to visit a doctor with me and allow me to describe his behaviour, in the hope of getting a referral to a psychiatrist, but I'd like to go armed with a bit more knowledge of possible medical conditions because doctors often dismiss my concerns.

Additional info: My husband has been receiving treatment for depression, but the treatment has had no effect on his behaviour at all.
Submitted: 6 years ago.
Category: Mental Health
Expert:  Dr. Michael replied 6 years ago.
Hello. I believe I can be of help to you with this issue. I sent you a response a few minutes ago, but my board doesn't show whether you have received it yet. Did you? If not, I will resend it..........Please let me know.
Expert:  Dr. Michael replied 6 years ago.
Your husband almost certainly has what is called a Personality Disorder. Let me start by noting that nearly all of the research experts in the area of personality disorders recognize a couple of things: 1) most people who have personality 'problems' don't fully meet criteria for one of the 10 or so 'defined' disorders; they either have some of the traits of a personality disorder and not others (don't fully meet criteria); or they have a few characteristics of one disorder and a few of another (a 'mixed' personality disorder). If you are interested in appreciating what a 'mess' the construction of personality disorders is, just Google Theodore Millon, who is one of the leading experts on describing and classifying personality disorders. When you look at all of his mixtures of disorders and subtypes, you see scores of nuanced personality problems; 2) personality disorder features vary greatly in their severity---most lie on a continuum of severity. Also, there are a fair number of unofficial personality disorders that are still a matter of research and clinical debate e.g., passive-aggressive personality disorder, masochistic personality disorder are a couple that come to mind.

You can Google the following personality disorders individually to read more about them, but my hypothesis is that your husband would meet diagnostic criteria for a personality disorder that is in fact, an admixture of several disorders i.e., he meets a few criteria of several, and together, they represent a mixed personality disorder or what is officially designated as Personality Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified). Google DSM and then each of the following: DSM Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder; Dependent Personality Disorder; Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Again, his particular disorder will involve 1-2 features of each of these, 'mixed' together.

What can you do? Well, you are the very best path, doing about 50% of what a spouse can do to help her husband with this problem. That is, you are ignoring or refusing to reinforce his insecurity behaviors; you are withholding attention when he is behaving in an unacceptable manner to normal actions of everyday independence everyone must engage in; you are proceeding to do what you need to do, without any fanfare or verbal reassurance. Good for you. The other thing you can do is to start paying attention to anything he does that shows a struggle on his part to RESIST being controlling, demanding, extract reassurance from you, when he becomes insecure. You probably know these patterns well and certainly, based on your history, there are some very small, minor things he is trying to NOT DO anymore to create conflict with you. When you exert normal independence behaviors, and he DOESN"T react badly, you need to reinforce this positively. For example, "I was very pleased today when you didn't throw a fit when I needed to visit my sick girlfriend". So be complimentary, give him a hug, etc., when he acts more appropriately. You should try this combination of actions (ignoring bad behavior, reinforcing small, positive appropriate behaviors) during the next month or two and try to keep a journal of what happens. Not much will happen at first, and in fact, his behavior might get worse, but after a couple of weeks, he will catch on to the new rules you are laying out for obtaining warm interactions with you.

This really isn't a matter for couples therapy UNLESS the therapist can help you ignore and reinforce various actions on his part. Merely talking about this won't get you anywhere. One of the problems with personality disorders is that they are highly resistant to fundamental change i.e., some of the more problematic behaviors can moderate a bit, but in this case, for instance, this man will be FOREVER hugely insecure, dependent on you for validation and constant reassurance---but he may not act up as badly about his feelings of insecurity and jealousy/threat. So personality disorder symptoms are generally thought to be stable, chronic, and not prone to much change. The other aspect of these disorders has to do with externalization of blame i.e., the person doesn't feel their behavior is really out of line or unjustified; conflicts are always externalized i.e., if there is a problem, it is because of someone else's actions, or 'you made me react this way'. So gaining insight is a real problem. Also, in general, people with personality disorders have a serious problem forming and/or maintaining high quality, intimate relationships over the long term. They simply don't achieve this end because of their behavior.

You really need to insist that your husband continue in therapy with a clinical or counseling psychologist who is intimately familiar with personality disorders. The 'outcome' of his behavior can be characterized as 'spousal abuse', but this is really an inadequate and superficial description. His real therapy 'work' involves learning ways to not react when he feels insecure or emotionally threatened, gain insight into how his behavior comes across to others; how it actually relieves his anxiety in the moment, but damages the relationship because others lose respect for him, etc. So individual and possibly, group therapy can give him the feedback he needs to improve his awareness and insight into his behavior.

I'll pause here and give you a chance to react.

I will pause here and allow you to react.
Customer: replied 6 years ago.
lt;p>Hello DoctorMichael,</p><p> </p><p>Sorry I took so long to reply. I'm in Adelaide, South Australia and it was the middle of the night when I sent my query. I've messed up my sleeping pattern this week due to the New Year.</p><p> </p><p>Thank you for your insight. I will read it a few times more. You've made me aware that it is a very complicated issue. My husband and I have been together for 20 years and I have always known that we have problems but only in the last few years have I been able to quantify things and recognise the patterns. I used to get very angry and upset but his behaviour escalated and then it was hard to work out if I was being unreasonable and I sometimes believed his behaviour was justified. </p><p> </p><p>What was the extra information you needed? I realise you're probably off-line now but I don't mind bouncing emails to and fro. I'll re-read your response and look up the information you provided. I'll press the reply button and hopefully my payment will be processed. </p><p> </p><p>Also, my husband has decided this morning that his behaviour is not healthy and is currently ringing mental health places in Adelaide. I have heard there is a long waiting list. Can I still keep up the communication with you? Please let me know the costs, etc.</p><p>I forgot to mention, sometimes things do improve and my husband copes with me communicating with friends. I have been telling him how happy it makes me, but you are right, I should be encouraging him and complimenting him more.</p><p>Cathy</p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p>
Expert:  Dr. Michael replied 6 years ago.
Very good to hear from you again. Yes, I can continue to interact with you. Typically, I'll work to answer a particular question. Sometimes a follow up immediately thereafter. What I hope customers will do is his the green ACCEPT button at the bottom of the screen after they post a response. As I said, even when they do this, I will still answer a short follow-up question or explain something they wish to know more about. Then, if people want to keep in touch, they would simply include my expert name in the title of their next question and I'll pick it up. The system would expect a new deposit at that point and then, if you felt the answer was worthwhile, you would again hit the Accept button so I can get credit and be paid for that question. So, please go ahead and take your time looking up the information and press Accept. Over the next day or two, I'll watch for your post to this particular question and give you a follow up answer if you wish one. Best regards.
Dr. Michael and other Mental Health Specialists are ready to help you
Customer: replied 3 years ago.

Dear Dr. Michael,

It is over three years since you helped me with these issues. Unfortunately my husband's behaviour escalated into physical violence and extreme verbal abuse. It was a very dangerous situation and my sons and I fled in October 2011. My husband has pursued me, sending abusive messages and ringing me and using the police as proxies by making false allegations and making unreasonable applications to the Family Court during the property settlement process.

I was fortunate to have a high-profile barrister step in at the last minute in the Magistrates Court and she prevented my husband destroying my career in defence. She is well known for her work defending victims of human rights abuses and domestic abuse. It gave me the strength to represent myself in the Family Court, and fight against my husband's deception and lies, for the sake of my children. The police finally stopped following up on his ridiculous attempts to have me arrested for serious indictable offences. I informed the Department of Defence of the domestic abuse and his lawyer's attempts to extort spousal maintenance out of me, by threatening to make further reports to the police and have my defence security clearance cancelled.

Gradually my husband lost his power over me. I realise my younger son and I are still at risk, but the husband has finally quietened down and has probably got the message "No More".

He has agreed to accept an offer from January 2012, of 50% of the family home I bought with an inheritance from my mother. He keeps almost everything else we own. Obviously it is not justice, as my younger son and I have suffered terrible things - homelessness, poverty and even hunger, because of my husband's actions. It is an extremely long and complicated story. For a while I found some solace by communicating with others in similar situations on the Out of the Fog forum.

I hope that your work makes some contribution towards preventing the horrific violence and emotional abuse that those with personality disorders inflict on others. I've noticed that Australian legislation is gradually changing for the better and the police are now being trained more to recognise the self-victimisation tactics and attention seeking behaviours of vexatious litigants and abusive spouses like my husband.

I am gradually compiling the story of what has happened to my family on a WordPress blog called Invisible Domestic Abuse, but I've done little work on it over the last year.