Do You Wear The Pants In Your Relationship?


Understanding why your partner needs control and how to deal with it more effectively.

I want to talk about one of the most common complaints I hear in my office almost daily that potentially wreaks havoc on relationships. It's about control.

How many times have you said about your partner, or heard said about yourself? "He or she is so controlling!" It often goes something like the following: It begins with the so-called controlling partner telling you what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and why to do it their way. Or, the controlling one does something over once you've already completed it, accompanying their re-do with an editorial about what was wrong with the way you did it. I think you get the picture.

So here's the deal: people we label as being controlling do not feel powerful and in control. In fact, paradoxically they typically feel lonely, alone and frustrated, and very much not in control. They often feel this way because what they do is very off-putting. It generally pushes people away, and in particular it pushes you, the partner, away. One reason they don't feel powerful is because their efforts seldom yield the results they intend. In fact, they feel very powerless, but nevertheless continue their pursuit of control. Some become loud, or critical, blurring the distinction between being powerful, versus overpowering.

It reminds me of what we used to do in the Navy if we were working on a job that was not going the way we wanted: We would joke, "get a bigger hammer and just pound on it harder!"

What about the partners of so-called controlling people? The controlling person gets from their partner a mutually dissatisfying resentful compliance. This is also referred to as going along to get along. Typically, those who feel controlled by the controlling one simply want them to shut up or stop. Unfortunately, one way to do that, as for a while, is by complying. Complying only serves to reinforce the controlling behavior, and the controlling behavior reinforces the resentment that accompanies compliance. Not a good way to run a railroad!

So, why are some people so controlling in the first place? Think of it this this way: control is always about relief. That's right it's about relief! The question is, relief from what?

In general they want relief from some sort of internal emotional pain. They experience a painful internal state they do not express directly. It might be set of feelings that they can't seem to express or reduce such as anxiety, defuse fear, chronic nervousness, anger or hurt. They seem to believe that if others will simply change their behavior, the controlling one will feel better. It seldom, if ever, works out that way. So, what's a couple to do?

Here are a few ideas that will help begin to break this pattern:

   1. Do your best to keep your own emotional reactivity as low as possible.

   2. Calmly and with compassion, assert that you understand how frustrated your partner is with you about the prospect that you do not seem able to meet his or her standards.

   3. Try to appeal to the side of him or her that genuinely seems unhappy. Ask if he or she is willing to take a look inside and put some effort toward a focus on what truly may be bothering them.

   4. Do your best to not be defensive. Remember, controlling behavior, especially when it's a long-standing pattern, is about seeking relief from an unidentified internal state of discontent.

If the two of you are unable to discuss the matter respectfully and productively, find a professional counselor who can help. Go together! After all, you both desperately want relief and this is a very difficult pattern to break, and both of you play crucial roles in creating it, and breaking it.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.