Control (Another Run At It)

Posted on October 16, 2015


I heard on the radio recently that with Janet Jackson’s latest release, she became the first recording artist to have a number one album in each of four decades.  That has absolutely nothing to do with this post other than that this post and her 1986 album have the same title.[1]

I know I have written about this topic before, but it keeps coming up in therapy.  And there is still more I want to say about it.  When couples come for marital counseling, often one partner will complain that the other is controlling.  Of course, no one wants to feel controlled by their partner.[2]  I want to look at this problem from a couple of different angles and see if we can shed some light on it.  Not everyone whose partner is complaining of being controlled is having the same experience.

For purposes of our discussion, let’s assume that your partner really is trying to control you.[3]  When I hear/see “control,” my first thought is “fear.”  What is the catastrophe that your partner fears should he/she let go of the control?  Is there a fear that if I don’t control the money that disaster will strike us and we will not be prepared?  Has there been some loss of trust that has created a fear that if I don’t monitor you, you will betray me or leave me?  If this is the fear, it could also be a byproduct of a childhood experience or previous relationships.  Is this an over-functioning/under-functioning situation?  Sometimes one partner is trying to compensate for a real or perceived under-functioning from their partner (e.g. I need to pay attention to these things because you won’t).

There are several responses to this problem that are not helpful.  The first is to give up your voice in the relationship.  Not every decision is a hill to die on, but if you never have your say, resentment will build up over time.  The resentment will take its toll on your love and attachment.  The second unhelpful response is secrecy and subterfuge.  This creates a sort of parent-adolescent dynamic in the relationship.  You do not want to be married to your mom or dad, and your partner does not want to be married to an adolescent partner.  This approach undermines the trust in the relationship, and that really destabilizes things.  The third unhelpful response is trying to stick the “controlling” label on your partner.  Making the issue about your partner’s character is criticism and criticism is one of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse.[4]  This is route to disconnection, rather than connection.

Let’s talk about some responses that might be more helpful.  Being told to use “I statements” has become something of a cliché in therapy and mediation.  There is a good reason for that.  It’s because they actually are really helpful if you do it right.  So why is control a problem?  Why does it come up so often in therapy?  It is because of how it makes you feel, right?  In short, it doesn’t feel good to be controlled.  It doesn’t feel good to feel that you have no voice in the relationship.  You may get the message that “I am competent and you are not.”  Or “I have to take keep tabs on everything because you cannot be trusted.”  Maybe what you hear when your partner does something that feels controlling is “You are not capable of making adult decisions.”  Maybe it is “I don’t care about or value your opinion.”  Following this a step further might be “You really are not important to me.”

The reason what your partner is doing is a problem is because it is distressing to you.  And it is distressing to you because of the message you get about you, your partner, and your relationship.  This causes you to have an unpleasant emotional experience.  The problem really isn’t “You are controlling.”  The problem is “when you made that decision without me, it made feel not important to you, and that is really painful for me.”  The first response is likely to put your partner on the defensive.  The second is likely to draw your partner close.  If the desire to control has resulted from some violation or betrayal in the relationship, a helpful response is, “I’ve hurt you very badly and you get really afraid I might do it again.”  This doesn’t mean that your partner’s response is helpful or healthy, but it does make sense in that context.

Trying to control your partner is a losing battle.  It will never bring the peace you seek.  If you are the partner who feels controlled, work to resolve it from a place of what happens for you rather than what’s wrong with your partner.  Really, that is a good idea with most any issue that comes up between you.

[1] I could reasonably say it was probably one of the last 10-20 albums I bought on vinyl.  By 1987 I was switching over to CD.

[2] For this discussion, let’s exclude Dependent Personality Disordered folks.

[3] The other possibility is this is that this is more about your stuff than that your partner  is actually trying to control you.

[4] The four horsemen are the interactional patterns identified by the research of John and Julie Gottman that are so damaging to the relationship that their continuance will destroy the relationship.