The Issue of Control
Judith Rader, MA, LMFT
July 9, 2007
Many relationship difficulties center on the issue of control. In couple sessions, therapists will often hear, “He’s so controlling – he gets his way with everything.” Or “I feel like I have no control with our budget – she spends so much money on the kids’ clothes." Or, “I can’t stand driving with him. He speeds, and then accuses me of controlling him when I ask him to slow down.” Or, “I hate being late to dinners and events; and she makes us late to everything." In each of these instances, the distressed partners are experiencing a troubling loss of “voice” in everyday life events.
Indeed, "control" is not a dirty word. All of us wish to have some degree of control over our lives – to be able to make choices that speak to our unique needs and desires. We naturally do not want to worry about, or otherwise feel distressed by decisions our partner unilaterally makes that affect us and bump up against our own needs. So how do we navigate the disparate needs of two different individuals? How do we retain our voice (i.e., a sense of control over our own lives) as we live side-by-side and share our life with another who may see things quite differently than we do?
The answer lies in first ensuring that both partners’ needs and desires are adequately heard and understood in a prolonged discussion that demonstrates curiosity for the point of view of the other. And then, both partners must collaborate to co-create a solution that encompasses sufficient pieces of what each is advocating for - towards the goal of finding a solution that reflects some of each person’s preferences. As such, solutions cannot be “black and white” – but most typically will be made “in the gray area”.
There are several reasons why partners struggle with control issues. Some are controlling because they fear losing a sense of self if they do not get “all of their way”; and thus, they feel threatened by their partner’s differing preferences. In these instances it helps to remind ourselves that the only way we can come close to achieving such complete control in our everyday choices is to live alone. For indeed, the tradeoff of our entering into relationships to share the good times (borne of easy joint decisions) is that we also must cooperate over navigating the tougher decisions.
Paradoxically, some people control out of a fear of being controlled by others. Typically they have experienced a controlling parent or caregiver in early life. Here, a husband, for example, may not dislike his wife’s preferences per se. But the very fact that she puts forth her desires resonates with, and triggers childhood wounds of his feeling inconsequential or unimportant. And so he automatically sees her participation in decision-making as threatening; and he addresses that discomfort by attempting to aggressively override her wishes.
Control issues affect couples in areas of conflict resolution and decision-making regarding a host of different categories including: chores, vacation choices, parenting, money, intimacy styles, and weekend activities. The following observations and guidelines apply to these instances.
1. Do not advocate a point of view in terms of “right or wrong”. There may be a more “thorough” way to perform a chore, or a less expensive choice of vacations, or a parenting decision informed by a particular child advocate, or a less risky choice of investing money. But these are all simply preferences; so it both muddies and distresses the discussion if a partner argues, for example, “You’re not cleaning the kitchen floor the right way,” or “You shouldn’t (i.e., it’s wrong to) discipline Joey with that tone.”
2. Do not invalidate partner preferences. (ex., “That’s crazy that you want to hire someone to do house-cleaning once a week.” or, “Why does Tommy need to take a bath every night if he doesn’t want to?” – asked with a scornful tone). To enable our partner to feel heard, it is important to validate his/her preferences and feelings. (“I hear that you want some help with the house-cleaning on a once-weekly basis,” for example.)
3. Once we have validated our partner’s point of view, it is now time to “weigh in” with our own feelings. For example, “I worry about adding on more household expense in light of our desire to send the kids to camp this summer. It doesn’t appear to me that we have the money do both.”
4. Pay attention to tone! The slightest bit of negative tone changes a question demonstrating caring curiosity into a “put down” in the guise of a question. “Why would you want to limit his after-school activities?” - asked with an incredulous, scornful tone – serves to invalidate a partner’s point of view rather than seek clarification. The same question - asked with a slightly different choice of words and a softer, more curious tone, denotes genuine curiosity as in, “Could you help me to understand what you’re picking up that moves you to want to limit his activities?”
5. Remember that both partners should paraphrase what they have heard the other say before sharing their own point of view, feelings, concerns, etc. For example,
“I understand that you feel it’s important to have some house-cleaning help once a week. From my vantage point, I’m a bit concerned about our finances. And I would prefer to see if we could enlist the help of our kids to do some of the work, especially since we’ve always talked about their sharing in chores.”
“So you’re feeling you would rather have our kids take on some of the chores, and save money. I guess I’m not against that idea. But I would like to share with you all the things that I notice aren’t getting done, and see if there’s too much there for the kids to assume.”
“You’re concerned that it might be unrealistic to have the kids take on all of what you’re noticing is not getting done. I am interested in your sharing the list of chores with me, since I don’t notice as much as you do. Depending on how long it is, maybe I could take on some chores.”
“You’re willing to hear the list of chores I feel aren’t getting done. And you’re thinking you might be willing to take on some of the chores yourself if there are too many for the children. I like that idea. I guess I would be willing to take on a couple more chores if I knew everyone else was pitching in.” Etc. etc.
6. Finally, remember that it is important to (1) thoroughly share ideas, preferences, and perceived needs with clear advocating skills (I would like, It’s important to me, I am disappointed when, etc.) and (2) demonstrate good listening skills BEFORE moving to a collaborative brain-storming of possible solutions. An example of brainstorming is:
We can share a list of what chores we both want done weekly, and determine if we could divide them up among the children.
If the list appears too long, I (husband speaking) could join in with some of them, and we could make a ritual of Saturday morning family chores.
I (wife) could take on one or two more chores during the week if you (husband) would agree to choose two chores that you would regularly assume as yours each Saturday. Etc. etc.
A spirit of teamwork, collaboration, and good-will - which is necessary for productive brain-storming of solutions, usually ensues once partners work hard to both advocate for themselves and demonstrate understanding of their partner’s point of view.
Control conflicts involving two particular issues – that of lateness and driving style/speed – distinguish themselves by the limited number of possible solutions that can be employed to resolve them. A brief discussion of the nature of emotions will help to explain why. Many people experience their late arrival for events, meetings, etc. as a deep, gut feeling (a “primary” emotion) of shame. This shame is typically borne of their sense that they have broken an important personal social value – that of responsibility and/or respect. While shame is sometimes a maladaptive/unhealthy emotion – the result of old messages (hence a “secondary” emotion) from childhood of not being “good enough” or “pretty enough” or lovable, for example, the shame that keeps us respecting other people’s time is a healthy, primary experience of shame that organizes us adaptively - to not disrespect or inconvenience others.
Conflict resolution results from behavior changes – and not from feelings changes. Chronically late partners simply cannot ask their counterpart to not feel shame. They cannot ask their partner to “lighten up,” for example, so that this issue can be resolved in the chronically late partner’s favor. Nor can they seek a compromise (a solution “in the gray area”), that asks their partner to accept “just a little bit of shame” – by seeking a solution that involves just a little bit of lateness. Core feelings (of fear, shame, and happiness, for example) simply cannot be altered by request.
In an example where chronically late Patricia causes her husband John to feel distressed by their usual arrival well after events have started, the following guidelines are helpful.
1. Both Patricia and John should share with each other what lateness means/feels like to them. They should not judge their partner’s feeling – but simply strive to demonstrate understanding of their partner’s point of view by paraphrasing what they have heard.
For example, John might say, “It feels so disrespectful to me to arrive late to dinners with friends.” Patricia might say, “I understand that you feel very disrespectful when we arrive late to dinners with our friends. I guess, for me, it doesn’t seem like ‘a big deal’ to keep our friends waiting a few minutes. Time was never a big issue for me growing up.” John might add, ”So for you, it doesn’t distress you much to arrive late to dinners with friends. It’s something you’ve always done growing up. From my perspective, I feel that it demonstrates a sort of disregard for our friends when they designate a time for their dinner party, and we arrive 40 minutes late as we did last evening. And although I don’t like to arrive late at all, I usually don’t see our lateness as ‘just a few minutes late’ as you alluded to.” Etc.
2. Then John and Patricia can proceed to resolving the problem by making one of only two possible choices. Patricia will agree to be ready to leave in time to ensure on-time arrival. Or if she chooses otherwise, John will agree to leave separately/earlier, and meet Pat at the event. In either case, John’s core, gut feeling of shame will be honored. And Patricia will indeed have a choice between two options
Driving speed and technique is another theme that is frequently associated with control issues. Here the passenger feels controlled by a driver who resists slowing down and/or driving less aggressively. Meanwhile, the driver often feels controlled by the passenger whom he/she feels is monitoring his/her driving.
The passenger’s distress derives from the deeply felt core emotion of fear. And again, asking the passenger to not feel his/her core, gut fear – or to try to moderate it, will prove fruitless.
Conversely, the control that the driver feels at being asked to slow down is not a core feeling (of anger), but rather a “secondary” experience of anger. It is, in fact, open to change (typically through counseling); because rather than being anger at the gut level (such as we might experience if our wallet or purse were stolen), this secondary anger is the residue of old maladaptive messages - most likely from one’s parents or primary caregivers (of not doing things “right,” of needing to be monitored, of one’s mistakes being shameful rather than a normal part of growing up, etc.).
Because driving control issues involve one partner experiencing a “non-negotiable” core emotion of fear, these control conflicts also do not lend themselves to brain-storming a host of different solutions. So, helpful guidelines when dealing with driving control issues are:
1. Partners should share their respective experiences, and demonstrate understanding of their partner’s point of view by paraphrasing what they have heard.
In an example with fast-driving James and his wife Deirdre, she might say, “Your frequent changing of lanes and your fast driving result in my feeling fear and anxiety,” James might paraphrase, “I understand that my driving style and speed cause you fear and anxiety. I don’t feel that fear and anxiety. And I know I’m a safe driver.” Deirdre might share, “I hear that you don’t experience the same fear and anxiety that I feel as a passenger. And you’re expressing that you are a safe driver. I agree that you have never had a serious accident. But simply knowing that does not alter the sense of fear I experience when you’re driving fast. I would like to relax and talk to you during car rides. But I’m constantly feeling too distressed to do that.” Etc.
2. Then James and Deirdre should resolve the problem by agreeing to one of only two possible solutions. Either James will agree to slow down to a comfortable speed for Deirdre when she expresses fear (or let Deirdre drive). Or Deirdre will agree to drive separately. In either case, her core, non-negotiable feeling of fear will be honored. And James will indeed have some choice.
If James feels too “triggered” (angry) by having to slow down or drive separately, counseling would help him explore how his ability to see his partner’s request (which speaks to her gut feeling of fear) has gotten tangled up with memories of childhood requests from parents/caregivers that he experienced as overly controlling and/or intrusive – and as such, has given him a sort of “allergy” to anyone making a request of him. Similarly, if Patricia feels angered by her two choices, counseling would help her disentangle feelings of being controlled by John’s request (to respect his core feeling of shame) from old anger derived from childhood caregivers’ requests - that were most likely communicated in a way that caused her secondary shame. (For example, ten-year-old Patricia might have chronically heard messages such as, “Hurry up, Patricia. You’re so lazy. You never think of anyone else. We’re supposed to be ready to go and you’re still watching TV. What’s wrong with you?” etc.).
Control issues figure prominently in couple distress. The communication techniques described above provide powerful support for constructive conflict resolution. However, if employing these techniques fails to resolve your conflicts, counseling can play an important role. Therapists can help clients uncover control issues from childhood that impede their ability to see their partners’ requests as simple, healthy self-advocacy- thus enabling them to more openly consider their partner’s preferences and requests.