Do you find that your relationship partner (partner, spouse, lover… or even your roommate, mom, dad, or sibling) is overly controlling? At the lower end of the spectrum, they might express their opinions about your work or relationship choices and enjoy sharing their profound wisdom. Maybe they just point out that you are doing it all wrong and should do it differently. Maybe they are intrusive and make unwanted suggestions while you are cooking, tell you what is or is not a weed in the garden, or ask you where you want to go for dinner before complaining about your choice and advocating something else. As you move up the spectrum of control, they might try to dictate if and how you spend money, how you generally organize your finances, your health care choices, or who you can or cannot have as a friend (among innumerable other examples). In this post, I am not going to be talking about abuse. Controlling your physical movements, scary or threatening coercion, or physical assault fall outside the range of normal relationship functioning and deserve to be addressed separately.

In normative romantic relationships, people sometimes find themselves feeling bothered, resentful, or irritable with their partners. If you listen to people’s “sniping” at each other (my term for critical quips) and watch them escalate in terms of the intensity and negativity of their interaction, you often find that they are not actually disagreeing on anything of substance.

What is typically at issue is whose needs are being taken care of or denied, who is or is not being considerate, who does or does not have freedom or autonomy, and whether they view these factors as situational or stable… in other words; who has the power in the relationship.

For the most part, these are “process” issues and not “content” issues; and if couples learned how to intentionally manage their process, I would probably be out of business as a couples therapist.

And what better way to deal with a controlling partner than to assert control yourself to reestablish balance in the relationship? This “compensatory process,” as first outlined by Jan Stets in 1995, can result in rapid escalation and entrenchment as both partners go “tit for tat” in responding to their partner’s attempts at control. Similarly, feeling controlled will often have a negative impact on people’s self-image (e.g., “he thinks I’m stupid or incapable) and lead to compensatory behaviors to counteract the negative thoughts and perceptions. Controlling the other, in turn, can re-establish the view of self as capable and confident.

Stets argued that falling short in perspective-taking when there are multiple areas of disagreement is a main factor resulting in the feeling of lacking control (i.e., powerlessness).

Attempting to predict and gain control over the environment is a human evolutionary adaptation. In other words, it’s normal and we all do it. So, it is not a matter of if, but, rather, when and how. It only becomes a problem when our efforts to control thwart our partner’s equal right to self-determination and autonomy… and when we and our partners lack the needed trust and understanding to talk openly about our needs in the relationship. If we balance our need for control with others’ needs for autonomy, we should be able to engage in coordinating our activities (negotiation, compromise, mutual control). Of course, we all have our own personalities, histories with controlling (or non-controlling) others, and abilities to regulate emotions and tolerate frustration. For example, people with preoccupied attachment styles are more likely to allow control by a partner than people with dismissing attachment styles, who tend to reject controlling behaviors (Goodboy and Bolkan, 2011). Knowing these things about your partner should help you a great deal in taking their perspective (i.e., perspective-taking) and developing a mental road map of them (i.e., mentalizing).

Consider the following:

So, don’t fight the symptoms.

Controlling behaviors in relationships do not typically come about simply because your partner is mean, hostile, or wants to dominate you. They come about because of an underlying need that is not being talked about directly. See if you can get your partner to talk about their actual needs with you and if you can get them to “hold space” for you to share your need for control and autonomy in turn.

References

Stets, J. E. (1995). Modelling Control in Relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 57(2), 489–501. https://doi.org/10.2307/353701

Goodboy, A., & Bolkan, S. (2011). Attachment and the Use of Negative Relational Maintenance Behaviors in Romantic Relationships. Communication Research Reports, 28(4), 327–336. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824096.2011.616244

QOSHE - Fighting the Need to Control in Close Relationships - Hal Shorey Ph.d
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Fighting the Need to Control in Close Relationships

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24.06.2024

Do you find that your relationship partner (partner, spouse, lover… or even your roommate, mom, dad, or sibling) is overly controlling? At the lower end of the spectrum, they might express their opinions about your work or relationship choices and enjoy sharing their profound wisdom. Maybe they just point out that you are doing it all wrong and should do it differently. Maybe they are intrusive and make unwanted suggestions while you are cooking, tell you what is or is not a weed in the garden, or ask you where you want to go for dinner before complaining about your choice and advocating something else. As you move up the spectrum of control, they might try to dictate if and how you spend money, how you generally organize your finances, your health care choices, or who you can or cannot have as a friend (among innumerable other examples). In this post, I am not going to be talking about abuse. Controlling your physical movements, scary or threatening coercion, or physical assault fall outside the range of normal relationship functioning and deserve to be addressed separately.

In normative romantic relationships, people sometimes find themselves feeling bothered, resentful, or irritable with their........

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