Married couples, not infrequently, are faced with this challenging dynamic, where one partner is controlling in the relationship and has an investment in keeping control. This could be over finances, lifestyle issues and even sex. With men, this can take the form of bullying their wives emotionally and worse case physically. For controlling women, the outcome is often control over the kids, money and even the bedroom.
Most often, controlling tendencies come from a person’s unique, personal history. In other words, they bring this personality into the marriage – rather than the marriage being responsible for creating a controlling spouse. Past hurts, especially developmentally, go a long ways to create anxiety and the need to not be hurt again.
Controlling behaviors often come from a position of insecurity. The fear behind this is losing control over their world and ultimately, being hurt in the process. Coming from a wounded childhood where little control was given over as a child, means controlling behaviors become a way to cope and survive. If no one is going to meet my needs, I’ll make sure I get them met. And instead of being vulnerable in the marriage, I’ll insure I don’t get hurt and will keep things in order so I’m not at risk.
So the question becomes for the non-controlling spouse, how do I maintain my own happiness – knowing I can’t change my spouse and that even trying to change my spouse, would threaten him or her and lead to more efforts to control and manage the relationship? Happiness isn’t a cheap commodity so this is a tall question but critical one.
First and foremost, stay out of the control-response loop. Just because someone is trying to manage your behaviors and feelings, doesn’t mean you bend and give in to the pressure. So maintaining your individuality becomes critical.
Remember, the controlling spouse ultimately wants to limit your individuality as a person and in ways that don’t conform to his or her vision of who is in charge. They falsely believe this is an antidote to insecurity. Your individuality can be threatening to their feeling of security. But it’s vital you don’t surrender your growth because of his or her fear. As we go through life, we all need to prioritize our potential and uniqueness to be whole people. This brings satisfaction and certainly happiness at some level.
Second, don’t try to become controlling as a counterpoint to your spouse’s actions. The answer isn’t to “fight fire with fire.” This only makes things worse. Instead, manage your own life. Fill it with positives and the lifestyle you want. It is important to do this in ways that don’t threaten your mate – you don’t want to trigger their need for control if they feel you are exiting the marriage. Be firm about your individual interests but also invite him or her in to your life. Teach them they don’t need to control you to have you in their world. But don’t forget to honor and reinforce positive behaviors from them when they demonstrate non-controlling efforts to connect. And if you catch them being vulnerable, don’t forget to be there for them and try to bond with them at that level.
Third, set clear boundaries about what’s OK and what’s not. Being able to tell him or her “That doesn’t work for me – can we try another way?” is helpful if done in kind and caring ways. They may not respond but you’ve done your part in speaking clearly about what is and isn’t acceptable and you’ve been positive about wanting to staying connected as a couple.
Fourth, find legitimate sources of support that bring positive connection and help fill you up. A close friend can be instrumental in sustaining your evenness and being with you in caring ways that allow you to feel close and valued.
Finally, develop a powerful voice in your personal life and with your partner. Find positive ways to talk with your spouse about what you want in the relationship. Be clear and assertive, while supportive of what he or she wants. Developing a vision about closeness and intimacy may relieve the anxiety a controlling spouse lives with about whether their needs will truly get met or not. Remember, the controlling spouse is scared – afraid their wants don’t matter and so they must manage behaviors to reach that outcome. Doing an end run around the panic and fear means talking about connection in a way that consoles and also allows you to talk about what you want.
One caveat. A controlling spouse may be an abusive one – even physically. If this is the case, seek professional help immediately.
Remember, we create happiness. It doesn’t just happen. You are the author of your life and so it becomes essential that a controlling partner doesn’t take away your effort to build a happy and successful journey.