If you think your partner tries to control you or if you may be trying to control your partner, read on. Stay with me until the end of this article to get the full benefits of what some may think of as a my radical approach to addressing the situation. My experience is that a mutual and compassionate approach to controlling behaviors both (a) breaks them free from the controlling patterns, and (b) deepens their level of intimacy. If you feel stuck or if you don’t feel able to address these issues on your own, please schedule an initial consultation.
Controlling behavior is when one adult forbids another adult from doing something or tells them what to do. Trying to control a romantic partner is a losing strategy: It is not possible to control another person. And most people hate it.
So why is it so common for people to try it? We’ll get to the root of it in this article and that root will be the source of the strategy for addressing it once and for all.
Demands are made with the threat of reprisals. Reprisals come in many forms including judgment, name-calling, yelling, withdrawal, or threats of ending the relationship:
- Judgment: “You are so selfish.”
- Name-calling: “You are a jerk.”
- Withdrawal: “If you continue to be friends with her, it’ll mean we’ll spend less time together” or (worse yet) silence or huffing/puffing.
- Reward is another approach to control. “I don’t want you to go out with your friends tonight. If you stay home, it will make me so happy.”
The fear of reward or punishment can be introduced in a more sinister way such as blaming the other partner for their emotional experiences: “If you go out with your buddies tonight I will be so angry.” Sometimes the prospect of being on the receiving end of unbridled emotion is enough to motivate one partner to acquiesce to the other’s demands.
A first and important step is observing the controlling behavior. In observing it, it is important to distinguish between (1) what is being said versus how I am interpreting it, and (2) what is being done versus the story I am telling myself about it. That way, you can tease apart whether it is controlling behavior or a misunderstanding. If that does not make sense to you at this point, you may want to reach out to me or another relationship coach for a consultation to help sort it out with you.
The Good News
When on the receiving end of controlling behaviors, it’s easy to forget that a long-term committed relationship can be a powerful crucible for healing. Both people come to a relationship with unhealed wounds from childhood and/or from past relationships. Accepting each other and making the commitment to share both the wonderful and the difficult in life’s uncertain journey provides the unique container for positive transformation for both partners.
To make it concrete, in the remainder of this article I’ll use an example of a controlling dynamic from a real couple to lay out how to be clear and direct about your need for autonomy while still honoring the feelings of your partner.
A recent client in a heterosexual marriage (let’s call her Megan) said to me “I can’t stand it
anymore. My partner of 10 years is so insecure. He does not want me to have friends of the
opposite sex, even the ones I had before we were married. I can’t even shut the door to my
home office without him thinking that I’m talking about him with my friends.”
The irony of this specific situation is that Megan was trying to change her husband, Ted, by
saying “Stop telling me what I can and can’t do. I don’t like it.” They get stuck. The more Ted
tries to control, the more Megan pushes away. The more Megan pushes away, the more afraid
Ted becomes and tries to control even more. And on and on …
When Megan brings this situation into her individual therapy, often a therapist will
help her “find her voice”, create healthy boundaries, and advocate for herself. All of those
things can be helpful, but a missing piece is the healing that needs to happen in Ted. All
of these strategies assume that Ted’s behavior is “wrong” and needs to be stopped. The
strategies ignore the feelings (e.g., insecurity) of the controlling partner (Ted).
Honoring Ted’s feelings as valid is a critical step to creating safety in the relationship.
Honoring his feelings will help Ted to feel more understood by Megan so he can be more likely to acknowledge (1) the harmfulness and futility of his controlling behavior and (2) the pain it causes Megan. In honoring his feelings, Megan reconnects to Ted’s humanity, embracing that he becomes afraid just like she does, and he needs security in the relationship just like she does. That sounds like intimacy, right?!?! This intimate space is where healing happens and where the controlling behaviors can be transformed into mutuality, respect, and clear requests that value both partner’s needs.
In connecting to the root cause of Ted’s controlling behavior (e.g., fear), Megan’s perspective can include the understanding that Ted values her and the relationship, the couple can name the root cause explicitly, and they can explore alternative strategies that support both Megan’s autonomy and Ted’s needs for security. If that sounds too good to be true, it is because it is a short summary of what can be a very emotional and iterative set of steps in the couple’s journey to healing. What do both partners need to do to be ready for that process? …
Hearing the Message Beneath the Words
Many adults, when feeling an uncomfortable emotion, will revert to unskillful strategies.
Unskillful strategies are tactics that alienate their partner and do not result in creating the
relationship they desire. They feel overwhelmed with the bodily sensations and those
uncomfortable feelings get into the driver’s seat. “I don’t want you to have friends of the
opposite sex” can be heard for the deeper message underneath the tone and words as “I value
our relationship. I am scared that you are unhappy in our marriage and will leave me. I am
afraid of losing you.”
I know, I know… I have heard it many times that empathizing with the controlling partner can
seem impossible if you’re on the receiving end of those infuriating attempts to be controlled. When I work with couples there are at least 2 keys for empathizing with the controlling partner: (1) reconnect to your partner’s humanity and (2) intentionally remember your love for them. Their controlling behavior is an attempt to manage their fear. It takes support and practice but it is possible to learn to “hear” their attempts to control as (tragic) statements of loving you, valuing your relationship, and intense fear.
It takes learned skills to be with difficult emotions and to express them in
ways that connect rather than hurt your partner. An adult who has learned to be comfortable
with emotions, to listen to them as powerful messages, and to translate them into authentic
statements (about themselves and a request to their partner), may translate their own feelings
of fear into “I am feeling afraid. Can we partner together to create a relationship in which I feel
safe and you get what you need too?” Sharing skillfully is a much more effective option than denying the emotions.
Consider an alternative approach in which the controlling partner is told they are in the wrong, either by their partner or a therapist. The controlling partner is led to acknowledge the futility of their behavior and says to themselves, “I should not feel afraid. A healthy, secure person would not be scared. There must be something deficient about me. I want this relationship to work so I should allow my partner to go out with her friends.” This approach may work for a short time while the controlling partner makes best efforts to “muscle through”, but the cause has not been addressed. The reality is that the controlling partner is afraid. There is no right or wrong about our emotional lives. By sharing the truth of our inner life with our partner there is the possibility to get to the root of the pain, be with it, and heal through the ‘relationship container’ of acceptance & love.
A Guide for the Path
When two wounded adults are in a committed relationship, the stakes are high and issues can
appear unresolvable to them. My work as a coach is to support individuals and couples in this
journey. I draw upon skills from mindfulness, Nonviolent Communication, and Relational Life
Therapy to shed light on the dynamics of your particular relationship. As a person outside of
your relationship, I will bring a different perspective.
Part of my role is to support you in the identification and development of the skills to use disagreements and conflicts as the material for deep connection and healing. Unlike many traditional therapies, coaching produces quick results that you can see and feel as major positive shifts in your relationship.
Even if your partner does not agree to participate in coaching, I will work with you individually
to empower you to bring new skills to your relationship. Relationships are a system, so when
one person changes those changes influence the other person too. No matter what happens in your relationship, you will have mastered those transformative personal and relationship skills to bring to wherever you go & whomever you are with.
When you’re ready to invest in positive changes, it starts with a free initial consultation. That
free initial consultation allows me to learn more about your situation, see if there may be a
good fit in working together, and to propose a plan.
Note about confidentiality: All identifying information about the couple and their situation was altered to protect their confidentiality.