Are You Communicating Effectively? How to Avoid Using Aversive Strategies in Your Relationship

by: Allison Lloyd, LMFT

Many individuals, couples and families who seek out therapy report that they have a difficult time dealing with conflict in an effective way, often using aversive control strategies in the ineffectual attempts to change the behavior of those around them.


In this article, I identify and describe some of the most common aversive strategies used to control people in interpersonal relationships. Take a look over this list and see if you use any of these strategies in your relationships.


Also, think about where the use of these strategies may have come from. As a young child, did a parent or another adult figure use aversive control? Perhaps you learned that intimidation can control people by watching your Father threaten you or your siblings. As an example…if your Father screamed at you because you were playing too loudly or being too rambunctious with friends in the house, chances are that you were frightened and stopped this behavior immediately. You learned that yelling/threatening/intimidating others is an effective way to get your needs met (i.e. there was peace and quiet in the house after your Father screamed at you – he swiftly got his needs met and you changed your behavior immediately).


Common Aversive Strategies:

1. Withdrawal/Pulling Away: Using withdrawal or abandonment as a form of aversive control can be very powerful. The message conveyed in this instance is something along the lines of “If you don’t do what I want or change your behavior, I am walking out the door.” As you can imagine, this is very scary and upsetting for the listener. You can also remain in the same physical location as someone, but pull away to a point where the other person feels disconnected/emotionally “left out to dry”.


2. Discounting: When you engage in discounting, you are effectively telling another person that his or her needs are not valid/important (especially when compared with your needs). An example is: “When we go to visit your Mother, all the two of you do is sit around chatting or gossiping about other family members. At least when we visit my Mother, we do productive things together and it’s not a waste of time.” In this example, the speaker is stating that his visits are more important and valid, whereas his partner’s visits are silly and a waste of precious time.


3. Making Threats: With this aversive control strategy, one individual threatens to somehow hurt another in some shape or form. This can take many forms…and as you can imagine, can make the other individual who is on the receiving end of the threat feel scared, alone and resentful. An example is: “If you don’t come to the party with me tonight, I might just find another guy there who appreciates me – and I’ll get rid of you in a snap!”


4. Blaming: This aversive control strategy can take on many shapes and forms. When you blame someone else, you are effectively looking for a scapegoat or a source or your own unhappiness. Sometimes blame can look like this: “If my husband/wife/brother/sister/boss/friend acted differently, then I wouldn’t feel so upset and our relationship would be much better.”


5. Fear/Shame: This strategy aims to make someone else feel foolish or ashamed for acting a certain way or having a need that might be different from you own. When you use fear or shame to get what you want, you are forcing someone else to give up an important need so that you feel better. An example of this might be as follows: “Why do you want to go to the gym? All you ever do is complain that you hate working out and to be honest, you never seem to lose weight no matter how much you workout.” The message here is that going to the gym is useless, why waste your time? As you can imagine, this makes the other person feel ashamed of their need to exercise and reach their weight loss goal.


6. Guilt: With this strategy, one individual is essentially telling another that he/she is “bad”. An example of this is: “I’ve spent the whole day cleaning this house, and you can’t even spend 5 minutes to put your clothing away? You’re so inconsiderate and obviously don’t care about the time and effort I put into our home.”


It is important to take some time to think about how you persuade others around you to give you what you need or want. Are you using some of the strategies listed above?

·What do you do to influence their behavior?

·If you are using an aversive strategy as part of this sequence, think about the consequences. Is it the healthiest way to really get what you want?

·What is the response to your aversive control strategy? Is the other person cooperative, but also feeling hurt/angry/resentful? Might there be hurt feelings in the future? Is the other person likely to shut down?


Allison Lloyds, LMFT supports clients in finding and creating more happiness, peace, and cultivating healthy relationships. Allison's specialties include working with individuals and couples who are successful in many aspects of their lives, but want to improve their relationships, career or work dynamics, or are seeking support in dealing with life transitions, loss, depression or anxiety. Allison is a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the Women's Mental Health Consortium and the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. She writes for HopeAfterDivorce.org, FamilyShare.com, CupidsPulse.com, and LAFamily.com. You can learn more about Allison and her private practice by visiting www.synergeticpsychotherapy.com or calling (917) 399-3837. Follow Allison on Twitter @SynergeticPsych.

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