Control

Posted on June 3, 2015

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So your partner tries to control you, huh?  That seems a relatively common complaint.  I get it.  You’re an adult and you don’t want to feel like you are under someone’s thumb.  Since I hear this complaint more often from men than from women, for the sake of convenience, let me use gender specific pronouns.

My first question is for you.  What do you suppose is going on for her?  When I hear control, the first thing I think of is fear.  Assuming that is correct, what is she afraid of, and why?  If you don’t know the answer to that question, you might want to find out.  There is probably some catastrophe she wants to avoid.  It could be that she is not feeling important to you.  Control could also be indicative of a loss of trust in the relationship.  If you have been caught in a lie (no matter how ostensibly minor), for you partner, it undermines everything.  One lie calls into question everything that she thinks she knows about the relationship.

Expanding on that, let’s look at some possibilities of where this fear has come from.  First, your partner may have brought this into the relationship from either childhood or prior relationships.  If her earlier experiences taught her that when things are out of control, things go very badly, the natural tendency is to try to keep things under control.  You can particularly see this in people who grew up with an alcoholic or otherwise addicted parent.  Second, there could have been injuries in the relationship that have caused her to feel a need to control.  As mentioned above, any sort of lying will often trigger this response.  Any other violations or betrayal can cause this as well.  This includes affairs, addictions, reckless spending, or any other perceived abandonment.  Third, it may have more to do with you than her.  Addicts, on the whole, hate boundaries and hate being controlled.  There is also the “don’t fence me in” mindset that some hang on to.  Inherently when you took your wedding vows, you made a promise to live within some fences.  If you don’t seem to be doing that, the natural response from your partner is to ask you to do so.  Another thing for you to self-examine here is how much you hold up your end in taking on responsibilities in the relationship.  If you think you take on a little more than half of the responsibilities in the relationship, you probably take on less than half.  It is just how it is.  If you try to meet in the middle, you will always come up short because it will always feel like you are doing more than your share.  If you try to serve your partner and don’t worry about who is taking on the great load, you have a good chance of both feeling supported.

This all begs the question of what to do about the situation.  Here are some possibilities.

If you are the one trying to control the situation, realize that you cannot control your partner.  If he is going to be unfaithful, he will, and no amount of controlling is going to keep that from happening.  This does not mean being oblivious.  It also does not mean that you don’t keep your boundaries.  It also does not mean you do not ask for what you want/need.  You want to make sure that you are avoiding criticism and contempt in the way you ask for those needs for security to be met as these lead to further disconnection and reduce the chances that your needs will be met.  If there have been significant betrayals in the relationship, you may have some non-negotiables for you to stay in the relationship.  Another thing to consider is if this might not be about your partner, but about wounds you received prior to this relationship.  You might want to examine your own disaster scenario (the outcome you really fear) and assess whether that is really a likely or even possible scenario.

If you are feeling controlled, first try to understand what is happening for your partner.  This requires that you have the capacity to step out of your own experience and try to see this from the point of you of your partner.  Empathy and understanding are hugely powerful.  You want to understand[1] your partner’s experience, care about your partner’s experience, and have your partner perceive that you understand and care about her experience.  Being able to see something from someone else’s perspective does not mean that you agree with that perspective or that you accept that their version of events if accurate.  Human beings tend to say and do the things they say and do for a reason.  If it seems to make no sense, you need to work harder at understanding.  Understanding you partner does not mean giving up your voice in the relationship or relinquishing your needs.  Second, if your partner is triggered based upon some past betrayal in the relationship, there may be some concessions you need to make as part of the healing process.  You may need to establish firmer boundaries for yourself in order to help your partner heal (and keep yourself from repeating the offense).  Third, looking at your own expectations and motivations may be a good idea.  Once you have a wife and children, they will take priority over a lot of other things that you used to enjoy doing.  This doesn’t mean you give up all of your friends, hobbies, and pastimes, but that (particularly for the season of raising a family) your wife and children get to be your priority.  Sometimes that means that you don’t get to do some of the things you want to do.  Welcome to adult life.  That’s how it is.  If your wife indicates that she does not feel like a priority, it is important to hear her heart rather than becoming defensive.  When she feels heard, it creates more opportunity to talk about what is important for you.  Fourth, there may be some wounds that you brought into the relationship that makes you hypersensitive to anything that feels like an attempt to control you.  You may need to consider that possibility as well.

Secure connection and autonomy are not opposites.  As Sue Johnson has observed, they are two sides of the same coin.  The more your partner is feeling secure, the more autonomy the relationship can support.  Making your partner feel loved, valued, important, understood, influential, and emotionally safe in the relationship can go a long way toward eliminating the need for control.

Still stuck?  Find a therapist in your area, sooner would be better than later.  We are much cheaper than divorce attorneys.  Better for your health too, but that’s another story.

[1] As an aside, try to eliminate the phrase “I understand…” from your way of speaking.  The way you communicate understanding is by reflecting back your partner’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.

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