As a marriage and family counselor, I work with many individuals struggling with the controlling nature of their partner. In some cases, one partner is more controlling but most often, both people are exerting an unhealthy level of control in their relationship. The one doing the controlling usually doesn’t see it as an issue, he or she views control as being “right.”
“If she’d just do what I tell her to do, everything would be okay.”
“If he’d just listen to me, we’d be better off.”
“He just doesn’t want to admit that I’m right.”
However, gone unnoticed and unchecked, controlling behavior can lead to feelings of disrespect, hurt and anger. We all want to have our way sometimes but when our way becomes the only way at the expense of our partner’s feelings, we are doing our partnership a disservice. Not to mention setting ourselves up to live a very lonely existence.
My goal as a counselor is to help couples end the “control-conflict-anger-resentment” cycle, stop justifying their behavior during this cycle and learn how to communicate better with a healthy dose of give and take.
The first step is understanding the root cause of control.
The Illusion of Control
Control is a seductive illusion. When we think it’s working, it encourages us to exert more of it. Even when it comes from the best of intentions, trying to control your partner can damage a relationship. The one being controlled is agreeing to the demands put on them and the controller is then responsible for the outcome of every situation. This cycle should be avoided early on in your relationship.
What causes controlling behavior?
Fear is the most common cause for controlling behavior. We tend to tighten our grip when we’re acting on fear – think of the death grip you give the handlebar at the top of the rollercoaster, right before it takes off over the edge! When fear kicks in, we think tightening our grip can stop bad things from happening. In relationships, one person is saying, “Stop trying to control me.” while the other person sees that protest as completely unjustified. The more one protests, the tighter the other’s grip becomes and they both end up in a cycle that’s hard to break.
Fear can also come from childhood experiences – Not being able to control your life or environment, the feeling that things were spinning out of control, general chaos in your household or family dynamic, having a controlling parent or guardian.
Where Does All This Fear Come from in the First Place?
Most the time, fear comes from childhood experiences such as:
Not being able to control your life or your environment;
The feeling that things were spinning out of control;
Chaos in the house or the family.
Growing up with a domineering parent can create the feeling that he or she is getting a need met while our needs go unsatisfied. We can become afraid that we’ll never get our needs met if we aren’t assertive, which is a lot to take on for a child, and as we drive forward for what we want, we steamroll others around us. We grow up practicing the same behaviors we hated.
How to Correct Controlling Behaviors
1. Be aware of your behavior.
Reflect on your behaviors and actions at the end of each day, when things are still fresh on your mind. When might you have been controlling? Whom did you try to control? What situations did you try to control? What were you feeling when you were in control mode? Awareness is the first step in making a change. When we can label and confront our feelings, we can see patterns in our behaviors that are not effective in our relationship.
2. Connect with your fear.
What is the underlying fear that’s driving your behavior? Are you afraid of not being able to control your life or your environment? Maybe you’re afraid that things were spinning out of control? Maybe you’re still feeling that there will be some kind of chaos in the house or the family if you don’t control everything? Acknowledge that fear is driving you. Be honest and identify that fear and resolve to bring it out in the open.
3. Take responsibility for your actions
You may have stepped on a lot of toes with your controlling behavior. That’s okay. People are generally forgiving when you apologize and take full responsibility for your actions. Don’t place blame on your partner. Instead, tell him or her that you needed some time to reflect on your actions in order to do better in the future.
4. Loosen your grip.
Consciously adjust the power dynamic in your relationships by giving control to others. Be patient with yourself as you adjust to this new normal. Over time you’ll notice that the control you thought you had is no more real than the control others are placing on you. You can let your partner take the lead in some areas of your life. In fact, this is essential to a healthy relationship.
Relationships are about give and take with the power dynamic constantly shifting. Trying to control your partner throws that dynamic off balance and can damage a relationship over time. You can correct your controlling behaviors by first addressing the fear behind them. If you need professional guidance, click here to schedule your complimentary initial consultation with me.