Marriage Counseling

How To: Correct Controlling Behaviors

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.

Navigating Difficult Conversations With Your Partner

As a life and performance coach, I know a few things about having difficult conversations. Mine have included topics that would make most people cringe. To be honest, I’d like to put off difficult conversations as much as everyone else, but I’m sought out to help clients resolve problems that can’t happen if I avoid putting the issues right out there on the table.

The thing that gives me courage is my belief that even though the conversation will be difficult and bring up painful emotions, the results will make it all worthwhile. Maybe you can relate? Having difficult conversations is part of any relationship.

The alternative is what I call the ‘Avoiding-Lingering-Blindsiding’ paradigm. We avoid having a necessary conversation. Meanwhile the consequences of the lingering issues cause festering. When the lingering issue becomes too much to bear, we finally feel pushed into the conversation. But now, our emotions are cranked up and we’re not as effective in maintaining our calm and presenting the issues in a way that doesn’t seem attacking or condemning. Meanwhile, the person on the receiving end feels completely blindsided and ambushed by the whole thing. Think about it for a moment. Whatever the challenge is, it’s probably been going on for some time and it was never brought up. Now you want to talk about it!

The issue won’t go away by itself and putting them on the bottom of your to-do list while you continue to let the consequences linger does no one any good. Having difficult conversations is a basic skill in all relationships; they are a part of growth as a couple. When I teach Team Building for Greatness to government and private sector clients, we explore the stages on building a team which include (1) Forming (2) Storming (3) Norming and (4) Performing. The team grows and increases attachment as it progresses through those stages, especially the Storming stage.

Consider these points as you navigate your next difficult conversation:

1. Avoid the “Now” and “Later” Approach

How many times have you wanted to have a conversation and you reached out to someone saying, “We need to talk later?” When exactly is later? Is it later today, later this week or later this month? While they wait, the other person becomes more defensive, anxious and worried not knowing what the conversation is about or when it’s going to happen. A better approach is saying, “I’d like to talk about {fill-in-the-blank}. Does later today work for you?”

Stating the issue and proposing a timeframe gives the other person a chance to get his/her thoughts together ahead of time. You can avoid potentially explosive reactions or worse yet, silence, when you give the other person time to prepare for your conversation.

2. Pick a neutral location.

It’s impossible to cut all the emotion out of a difficult conversation, but the location you pick can add or lessen stress and intensity. Picking the bedroom is sure to add heat but talking in the living room may lessen the emotions. I never coach clients in their homes unless they have a health concern as the feelings brought up in the conversations we have in their living room, kitchen, dining room, etc. will linger long after I leave. My office is a neutral safe space for coaching. You don’t have to leave your house for every conversation but try to find a neutral location where emotions can flow freely.

3. Be direct and clear.

As a cadet, I remember being taught, “Never give a command that can be understood. Give a command that cannot possibly be misunderstood.” The same thing works when having difficult relationship conversations. Ask questions along the way to make sure your message was understood.

4. Focus on results rather than blame.

It’s easy to launch into generalizations and blame when you’re upset, putting the other person on the defensive. Defensive people are often resistant to change, which has you both back to square one. Instead, focus on the results you hope to gain from the conversation. Notice the difference in the statements below.

“You never call when you’re going to be late! It’s like you leave the house and forget all about me!”

“I worry about you when you don’t call and you come home late. Can you please give me a call or a quick text the next time you’re running late?”

To lower their defenses even more, try saying, “I’ve been meaning to bring this up, but I wanted to see if things would change. I will let you know sooner the next time something is bugging me.”

5. Practice active listening.

Listen to what he/she has to say instead of positioning yourself for a comeback. He might have a valid point that pushes the conversation further. She might present some new information that changes your position. Quiet your inner voice long enough to really hear what is being said.

6. Anticipate future conversations.

I rarely have clients who only book one session because most issues require a series of difficult conversations to iron things out. We often try to unload every emotion in one conversation. Understand that the first conversation will be the first of many.

Below are the 5 stages you might experience in your difficult conversations –

1.     Clearly defining the issue

2.     Discovering the challenges and many sides of the issue

3.     Envisioning the possible outcome of the issue

4.     Developing solutions

5.     Implementing the solutions

If you push too hard in the first conversation, you will have a hard time getting through the stages above. And each stage is vital to resolving conflict in a healthy way.

7. Be willing to compromise.

All relationships take compromise. There is your position on an issue, there is his/her position and somewhere in the middle is something you both can live with. If you’re so focused on having things your way, you may set yourself up for future resistance. Be willing to compromise for the benefit of a healthy, long-term relationship.

Wish you would just focus on me...

The other morning, I was completing an article about the benefits of intentional focus in relationships. And as fate would have it, a music video came on (I often use them for background noise when I’m writing – Don’t judge me!). This particular one caught my attention. It was by the artist H.E.R. The lyrics are:

Can you focus on me?
Baby, can you focus on me? Babe

Hands in the soap
Have the faucet's running and I keep looking at you
Stuck on your phone and you're stuck in your zone
You don't have a clue

But I don't wanna give up
Baby, I just want you to get up
Lately I've been a little fed up

Wish you would just focus on


The words made me question how many people in relationships wonder what it would take to get their partner to focus on them? If you don’t focus on the house plants, eventually they die. If you don’t focus on the car, sooner or later it’s going to leave you high and dry along the side of the road. If you never pay attention to the house, you can expect trouble in the very near future.

But for some reason, we have the expectation that we can live in the same house with someone else and things should just keep moving in a positive direction. If you don’t intentionally focus on your partner and the things that are important to him or her, at least some of the time, he or she is going to put all your stuff in the box to the left (another video came on).

I’m not talking about being perpetually under foot or the “watching every move you make” type of behavior. I’m talking about intentionally focusing on what makes her happy, what makes him feel loved. We sometimes find it easier to focus when there are dates on the calendar – birthdays, holidays and anniversaries – but what about all the time in between these special occasions?

There’s an observable cycle that happens in even the closest relationships. Dr. Steven Covey calls it ‘The Tyranny of the Urgent.’

1. We start off really focused on our partner. We need to do that to get him or her focused on us, right? Things are urgent in the early stages.

2. Life shows up and a whole bunch of urgent stuff that we need to get done as quickly as possible. Focusing on our partner is still important to us; however, it’s just not urgent anymore – he or she fades to the background.

3. Our significant other (SO) gets upset because she feels forgotten, he feels invisible. We love our partner, showing him or her is urgent, so we start that process all over again – back to number 1.

We all go through this cycle because life happens. It’s when it becomes a habit and your SO always feels on the back burner that it becomes a problem. So, how do you break the cycle and start to put more focus on your partner? Consider these questions -

  1. Do you have an intentional program/process to impress your SO that is ‘urgent stuff resistant’?

  2. Do you go out of your way to intentionally try to touch their heart on a regular basis?

  3. Do you make plans to surprise them on a regular basis?

To break it down further, work through this 3-step process -

First, determine what exactly ‘focus’ means to you. You might read “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman for ideas. Does focusing on her mean having a weekly pre-scheduled date night? Could you focus on him daily by cozying up on the couch before bed to talk about the day? Maybe focusing on her means listening more (and giving less advice) and focusing on him means letting him teach you about his newest hobby?

Second, schedule that intentional appointment. I mean actually put it on a calendar. That makes it ‘urgent stuff resistant.’ Plan those date nights and block off time that’s about the two of you – put it on your calendar. Don’t leave it to memory or you will forget…there’s just something about a scheduled appointment that automatically makes it appear that much more important. You have birthdays, anniversaries, meeting days, etc. on there already, right?

Third, keep track of your partner’s needs, new interests, wants, likes, etc. Take note of what she’s been talking about a lot lately and what he’s interested in these days. Get specific so you can plan events your SO will actually enjoy. My wife loves being in nature so I plan day trips for us to take a bike ride to the Shenandoah. I love seafood so she’s always scouting out new seafood restaurants for us to try.

If you try something  he or she loves, do it again – if it flopped, give something else a try. Being together and going through those ‘flops’ together will only make your bond stronger, right? Have fun with it and make it urgent.

Do these things and your SO might not be thinking:

You don't have a clue

But I don't wanna give up
Baby, I just want you to get up
Lately I've been a little fed up

Wish you would just focus … on Me


Will This Last? Part 4 of 6

If you haven’t read parts 1 through 3 of this series, take a moment to read them here –

1. Goal and ambitions – do you share similar life goals and ambitions?

2. Getting along with others – how your partner interacts with your circle of family, friends, strangers, etc.

3. Time and money – how you manage your time as a couple, how to handle money matters

Here in part 4, we explore a simple topic that has many layers – whether your significant other (SO) has a focus on you, including what’s important to you. And no, this isn’t about your SO watching every move you make and wanting to be joined at the hip. But you do enter their sense of curiosity some of the time? Do they ever curtail their personal interests to engage with you because you are now one of their personal interests? Or, are all your discussions about the children, work and the bills?

How do you know your partner is thinking about you? Below are some easy questions you can use to determine whether they have a focus on you.

1. Do you have a title?

Out of nowhere they have a title for you that they use around others. You have become ‘My man,’ ‘My woman,’ ‘My boo,’ ‘My bae.’ And remember; it’s not enough for them to have a name for you when you’re all alone. Do they use that same name when they’re around people they care about? It’s okay to be their ‘Boo’ when you’re alone. But it’s another thing all together when they call you ‘Boo’ in front of their best friends and family members. Have you gotten a title yet?

2. Does your partner make an effort to understand you?

Understanding comes by study. You want to be in a relationship with someone who cares enough about you to study you. The person that has a focus on you actually takes the time to contemplate everything about you. They really think about what’s important to you and then use that information to engage with you. Does your SO try to exist with you in an understanding way?

3. Does your SO find ways to make you happy?

You’ll start to experience little surprises. She got you something in your favorite color or made plans and tried to surprise you. He recalls something you said in conversation and asks you more about it. These little surprises don’t have to cost a thing – a thoughtful gesture, a handwritten note or cozy night for just the two of you. Is your SO trying to see that smile on your face?

It really is the ‘little things’ that help relationships endure. Now that you have read and answered questions for 1/2 of this series, how would you rate your relationship thus far?

I would love to hear from you! Comment below or email me directly at

Will This Last? Part 1 of 6


Three of the most common questions I’ve been asked over more than a decade of relationship coaching are,

  1. “How do I know if this person is really my soul mate?”
  2. “Are we meant for each other?”
  3. “Will this relationship last?”

That last question keeps people awake at night. I totally understand their fear because I had similar doubts before I got married, even knowing all that I know about how to build and maintain a healthy relationship. I actually asked my mom, “How do I know I’m really in love?” She gave me an answer that I’ll never forget, but that didn’t help me one bit. She said, “You’ll just know.”

All 3 of these questions and the feelings they stir up are warranted. Choosing a life partner is a huge decision you only want to make once. It’s scary because the beginning of a relationship is always perfect because you both are on your best behavior. Soon you stop seeing it as being each other’s best behavior and you start thinking it’s your real behavior because your emotions are clouding your judgment. Over time you realize that those best behaviors have faded and the real person is standing right in front of you.

As Dr. Phil says, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior,” so if you’re seeing some behaviors you don’t like, take note. You can find a quick relationship quiz online to tell you whether you two are meant to last but those quizzes don’t factor in the behaviors that are unique to your relationship. To help you answer that question and feel settled in your final answer, I’ve developed that 1 question into these 6 key areas -

1.     Goals and Ambitions

2.     Getting Along with Others

3.     Time and Money

4.     A Focus on You

5.     Trust

6.     Fun and Work

When you and your partner have similar goals and ambitions from the start, you’re more likely to remain strong and committed when that initial “lust phase” wears off. That’s because your relationship is built on a bond that’s deeper than physical attraction and butterflies. If you’re not sure whether you have similar goals and ambitions, consider these questions -

1. Do you have similar life goals and ambitions? Are you going in the same direction? Do you both want children and if so, are you open to adoption or foster care? What are your career goals and aspirations? Compromise is required in a relationship; however, if you have to give up all your goals and ambitions to help with someone else’s goals and ambitions, in the future you may feel you paid too great a price. Compromise is important but compromise isn’t giving up everything you want to help your partner get everything he or she wants.

2. Are they interested in you and the things you care about? When you discuss what you care about do they try to get more information so they know what you’re trying to do? Even better, do they spend time trying to understand how they can be of support? Or do you get comments that discredit and minimize the things you care about?

3. How similar are your value systems? Values will affect everything from how you train your first puppy together to how you raise your children and conduct yourselves throughout the ups and downs. Do you have the same fundamental spiritual practices? What is his/her moral code? How does he/she treat others in the service industry?

If you are able to honestly answer, ‘Yes’ or affirm all of these, then congratulations, you may be in a relationship that will stand the test of time. Don’t worry if your answer to some of these questions was, “No,” or, “I don’t know…” but do keep these questions in mind as you move forward in your relationship. Uncertainty isn’t a reason to quit now but it is a great reason to pause and review where you are right now. In the next article, we’ll discuss getting along with others.

When Your Spouse Won't Go To Counseling

In my many years as a marriage and family counselor, I’m often sought out, as a last resort, to help couples on the brink of divorce. By this time, couples are fighting, wondering whether to split or stay together, or dealing with issues that are tearing them apart. Even though counseling and coaching get a bad rap, you can work with a marriage counselor at any stage in your relationship – good and not so good times. However, because of the stigma, there are times when one partner chooses to skip out on sessions. They might think, I don’t need someone outside my marriage telling me what to do. I don’t want to be made out to be the bad person again. Or, this person doesn’t know anything about me so how can he/she help me? Both men and women have these thoughts that keep them from going to counseling.

What do you do when your spouse won’t go to counseling?

1. First, this doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed to fail – Seeking professional help is a smart move, However, not getting it right away doesn’t automatically mean your relationship is destined to fail. Continue to work on your marriage, communicate as best you can and talk through your challenges with my “honesty hour (insert link)” technique. There’s still a lot you can do even if you don’t get help right away; keep working. Related: How to save your marriage in 30-days

2. Start with marriage coaching – Here’s something to consider – not everyone who wants help has to go right into counseling. There’s a difference between coaching and counseling and it’s often the difference in your partner being more receptive to the help. In coaching, you partner with the therapist to set your own desired outcome. The goal is for you to become the expert in your situation. In counseling the therapist is often regarded as the subject matter expert, and will use their education, past behavior/experiences to solve current issues. Your partner might be more receptive to coaching first, because in coaching there is nothing that needs to be “fixed.” Coaching will help you both enhance your communication and relationship in general – not dissect your problems. The focus is on how to keep you on track toward building and maintaining a healthy marriage.

3. Try activities that will bring you closer together – Sitting at home stewing over and arguing about the same issues all the time? It might be time to get out and have some fun for a change! This isn’t about running away from your problems but about finding activities that can bring you closer together, help you to enjoy each other’s company again, talk more and just have fun! Date nights, working out together, taking up a new hobby or taking a vacation are a few good places to start. All of these activities will get you out of your daily grind and could help bring you closer together again. Related: 5 Things Happy Couples Always Do

4. Go to counseling alone – You do need your spouse’s help to improve your relationship but you can be the one to take the first step. The tools and techniques you learn in your individual coaching sessions can enable you to help your partner feel more open to sharing thoughts, feeling and fears. Everything is a process and it can start with one person - you.  

Are you ready to bring the joy back into your marriage or relationship? Maybe your partner has let you know that they would not attend counseling or coaching sessions. You can still get the ball rolling in a positive direction, schedule a free 15-minute consult.