Confronting and managing control issues in a relationship

It doesn’t feel good to feel controlled in a relationship. It also on a soul level doesn’t feel good to be controlling someone else. Yet unfortunately, it happens all the time and often continues that way until someone has had enough and wants out of the relationship.

Over time people can get used to being controlled and feel like it’s the only way to get by in the relationship, they go with the flow but within that flow, they are collecting and carrying resentment with them.

Controllers can get fed up too, they can feel burdened by the responsibility of taking charge of certain areas and stop finding those that follow them attractive. Often losing respect for the person they control, despite wanting them to dance to their tune at the same time. Does that make sense?

The key thing to remember is that long-term controlling behaviour destroys relationships and marriage. Even if short-term it may seem ok to go along with it. The issue of power and control in relationships are often hidden to the outsider. Yet within a marriage or close family relationship, it is likely to be an ongoing battle, which affects a person’s self-esteem, happiness and even a sense of identity.

Are you being uncomfortably controlled?

Or are you being too controlling?

Before I go on to look at the most common control conflicts let’s look at the 2 main types of control in marriage.

Overt control, demanding, dictating, bullying and aggressive behaviour. And more subtle forms of control like shutting down, disappearing, silent treatment and other forms of passive aggressive behaviour.
One of the most common destructive patterns of control

I see is the pursue-withdraw control syndrome. It’s where one partner keeps approaching the other about an important need or problem, while the other becomes overloaded and withdraws or superficially complies. The pursuing partner becomes more and more frustrated leading him or her to increase the pressure, while the withdrawer becomes more and more overwhelmed by it, resorting to flight or fight to escape the pressure.

Both partners feel caught in a trap that just keeps replaying. Neither feels like they have control and both see each other as controlling – does that make sense. The withdrawer thinks you are controlling me step back or I am going to ignore you even more and the one wanting something feels like they never have any power or choice and they are sick of being controlled by being made to wait.

This can happen in any area of a relationship in sex, communication, with household tasks. It makes the control issue further and further away from being resolved and both feel irritated. Make sense?
So to STOP this dance you need to get off the dance floor of pushing and being needy or withdrawing and shutting down.

What is needed is moving towards rather than away from each other. If you don’t know how to express it, maybe share this with them and see I think this is happening to us, let’s find a new way forward.

Now let’s look at some of the most common control conflicts that I help with

Communication control

Communication control is where one person in the relationship refuses to engage in discussions on certain topics. They, therefore, are dictating what can and can’t be brought up. Those that control the topics, often do this as a defence mechanism because they either are only thinking of themselves, don’t want to have to admit they are wrong or fear of being attacked.

For obvious reasons, this damages a relationship long-term because for closeness and connectedness to be present, you need to be able to discuss what is on your mind. If you cannot then frustration or resentment can build.

I see this time and time again with saving a marriage after infidelity. After a spouse has discovered an affair, they want the cheating husband or wife to go over what happened and all the details several times, they also may need to know why.

However, the person who had the affair wants to move on, put it behind them and forget about the infidelity. As much as the other person wants to let it go, they struggle to do so because they have so many questions, thoughts and images going round in their head and want to talk about.

The control in this situation is different and needs to be addressed before the affair does further damage than already caused.

Another topic that can be off limits in relationships between a husband and wife is sex. Many couples don’t talk about sex, I am British and it’s not something many Brits do well having open conversations about sex, it’s a cultural thing.

I lived with my boyfriend for 3 years and we could not talk about our sex life. Strange looking back now given the work that I do, whilst it was over 10 years ago now for me, I see many couples married for many years who can’t talk about sex.

Successful relationships are all about making sure that no topics are off limits. Personally, I see any uncomfortableness in me about a topic as an opportunity to grow and work through what it is bringing up for me. Does that make sense?

Any uneasiness is a sign that you need to face something. Burying your head in the sand is not going to help you or the relationship. Because we should be able to express ourselves and our concerns and needs right?
Not discussing topics concerning your loved one is manipulating the relationship in a way.

So what can you do, if your husband or wife, parent or other close family member is refusing to discuss an issue?

It is tempting to get angry and push it, but I find empathising works best. Because their refusal usually indicates fear. Fear that they may be attacked, fear that they will be embarrassed and lose face, fear of confrontation, fear they may have to change and they don’t know if they can or fear they have to admit they were wrong.

So the refusal to discuss certain topics is often a form of defence to protect their self-esteem. So you need to help them to open up by being as gentle and as kind as possible. Making it a safe place where no one is attacked.

In the marriage work I do, I coach couples on the 15 principles of successful communication for greater connectedness and this involves giving individuals the confidence and tools to speak out and voice their concerns, as well as creating a safe environment to do so.

Some people I work with have never expressed their feelings before and it’s great to see the results in the relationship when they do follow through and do this.

When it comes to anger management, alcoholism or drug addiction, denial is often at play. You may be shot down here because they are not ready to admit to anyone let alone themselves that they have lost control. With this, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you, it’s an issue they are struggling with in these cases best to get support for yourself and guidance on how to address it.

Control of free time
Who organises what you do in your free time? Is it you or them? This is an interesting one as I find many men and women, especially men like to be controlled in this area. In that, they enjoy not having to think about what they will do that week during the evenings or that weekend or where and when they will go on holiday that it will all be done for them.

It is rare to find balance in this area in a marriage, as overtime one person usually ends up going along with what the other person wants.

Quite often it is easier that way and therefore accepted that one will take over such activities and both are happy with it.

That’s to start with anyway. However, after a while what typically happens is one person gets fed up with always organising everything. They get fed up as they feel like the whole relationship is driven by them. I see this all the time when I help men to win back their wife.

Their wives are frustrated because they are sick and tired of being the one to arrange everything. They say to me “Nicola, why is it always me that decides what we do, why do I have to organise get-togethers’ with their family or arrange my own birthday and our anniversary.

I just want them to do come up with something to do on the weekend or give me a surprise date night rather than leave it all up to me.” So you see control does not always benefit the person that has control, it can be exhausting.

Dan is someone I worked with to save his marriage on this own. As his wife had threatened divorce and refused marriage counselling. Her biggest complaint was that he doesn’t don’t do anything, she does everything. This one is perhaps easier to address than other control conflicts. It is about taking the right action.

Dan didn’t have a clue about finding things for the family to do on weekends, or how to address his wife’s complaints, so together we went through them one by one. Very quickly we managed to come up with a few creative ideas that his wife would enjoy so he could show her that he can take control and was willing to be more responsible for the fun and excitement side of the relationship. She instantly became more attracted to him.

It doesn’t always work out like this though. Some people like to hold on to control of leisure time and refuse to do anything they don’t want to do. They may refuse to visit family on weekends or over the holidays, they may organise all the trips to suit their interests, they may be so stubborn that anything that is not their idea is squashed and leave the other person to either do it alone or not go.

It’s hurtful when this happens but the best and only thing to do is to not give in. Both people need to make themselves happy to have a happy relationship. If someone gives in completely it is highly likely that regrets or resentment will build and life is too short for that.

Other control issues that can come up can be about sex, housework and how the home looks, parenting, physical appearance and finances.

For now here is a bit of guidance for you to see if it fits well with you and could be worth trying. If it doesn’t feel right don’t do it. No one knows you and your relationship better than you do.

The best way to deal with control issues is to stand up for what you want in a non-aggressive way and be willing to negotiate until you can agree on a middle ground. If you can bring such issues up in a light-hearted way, as a joking comment when you are both in a good mood that can work well. Enough to get them to know that you want it to change. That’s always a good strategy at first hinting. If that doesn’t work then I recommend using:

I feel and I would like statements to get your point across.

For example, I feel upset when I am not part of the decision making and I would like to be more involved.

Or I feel rejected when topics I want to discuss are brushed under the carpet, I would like it if we could discuss this issue please, let me know when is good for you and I will be ready.

The reason it’s important for a relationship to stop control issues from becoming chronic is that it is not attractive to be manipulative. It is also not attractive to be passive aggressive, where you are annoyed but are not speaking up and instead of showing your frustrations in subtle forms.

It is far better and far more effective to influence your partner with love and kindness than it is to demand, control and beg.

So the point I want to make is control issues can all be managed — IF you can understand them and speak up. They won’t go away on their own. Left unattended, they can endanger otherwise strong relationships over time.

Now if your partner really is an “ it’s my way or the high way” kind of person and you have been feeling unhappy for a long time. Consider getting some support to work out how to change this in a way that will bring your partner towards you rather than away from you.

And if you recognise yourself as the controlling one and are trying to make it up to your spouse then you will want to say and do the right things now to change this, before it’s too late. Do get in touch if you don’t know how to best go about this.

What is needed on both sides is a positive, proactive approach to control issues in marriage. As if overt or covert control is chronic and entrenched—it can cause serious trouble in the marriage.

I believe that relinquishing control is the best gift you can give yourself and relationships. For you, it is a gift because it doesn’t feel good to be controlling and it is certainly not empowering to know someone is doing something because you are making them.

Does that make sense? You want to inspire and be respected rather than be bossy and selfish surely?
Self-centredness is often behind the most controlling behaviour. When I look back at the conflicts I use to have in my relationships it was because either I wanted to have my cake and eat it or my partner did.

Since supporting countless couples to save their marriage or design a new life after separation I have noticed that beneath control there is always fear, resentment or self-centredness driving it.

None of this is attractive in a relationship or good for a marriage. Instead of controlling when you allow your partner to be who they are and who they want to be you attract them to you. You also inspire them to reciprocate and love you for who you are too.

If you have been controlling and want to make it up to your husband or wife or if you feel like you are being controlled and have tried everything to get your spouse to change and it’s just not working, get the 7 secrets to saving your marriage free e-book. (You can get it here)

It has plenty of marriage advice that can help you to stop divorce and save your marriage and if you cannot wait any longer and are willing to invest some time into changing things, get in touch and let’s chat about how to turn things around quickly.

Looking for Counsellors in Dubai? Nicola Beer offers  Private Counselling Dubai, Counselling in Abu Dhabi, many expats fly from different areas for her Counselling Riyadh, Jeddah, Bahrain, Doha and Muscat are the most frequent customers for weekend individual or marriage counselling services.    

Nicola Beer