Communication — 29 October 2003
How to avoid controlling behavior in your relationship

The issue of control is one of the most contentious aspects of couple’s
interactions. It conflicts with the universal need for autonomy and

We must distinguish between controlling and being in control. Every
partner needs to be in control of him or herself, while controlling no one. Controlling means imposing one’s will upon another’s feelings and/or behavior.

thoughts or body. It is the antithesis of individual freedom. Adults can
only demand of themselves, not of their partners, compliance with their
own standards.

In childhood we first get acquainted with an unequal distribution of
power. Parents control their children’s lives. Children do not like the
subservient position and may feel oppressed by their parents_ control.
Yet, they must comply to survive and thrive. Children know that this
phase of dependence is time limited and will end, as they become adults.

In adolescence, the struggle between parents and teens gets exacerbated
as the youngsters seek freedom of choices. Teens are on a quest of
self-definition and separateness from their parents. They also struggle
with their parents about asserting their personal powers. Often, it is
the time when they balk their parents_ dominance. Parental guidelines
and supervision for the safety and well being of their adolescents is
often viewed by the teens as arbitrary use of control.

As adolescents mature and become young adults, they earn the freedom to
make their own decisions and be in control of their lives.

Problems may occur when they enter a love relationship if they associate
love with dominance. They may believe that dominance is a form of
showing love, as their parents related to them. They may also resort to
duplicating their parents_ model of controlling behaviors. When you add
to this formula some personal beliefs about gender roles, dominance and
submission, intimacy and sharing, you can see why control in
relationships may become a major problem for some couples.

Complaints occur when partners attempt to control their lovers_
behavior, feelings, thoughts and body.

Some people see their mates_ demands for accountability of time and
conduct as controlling. “Why do you ask me to account for every moment
of my daily life?” This request feels restrictive to their autonomy.

Other spouses may need to know about all the exchanges between their
mates and their friends, or members of the opposite gender. “So what did
you talk about at lunch?” This may be interpreted as mistrusting
inquiries, similar to the parental doubts about them when they were young.

Mates who are criticized for their excessive affect or lack thereof
experience emotional control. “You shouldn’t be so emotional” or, “You
never express any emotions, how could you not feel sad about this?”
Being faulted for their feelings seems oppressive to the controlled

Partners may be controlled intellectually, when they are told what to
think, or what their political, moral, or religious beliefs should be.
When those “recommendations” are not followed, pressure may be placed on
the partners for compliance.
Some complain about their mates_ attempts to dictate their personal
appearance, attire and presentation. “I can wear whatever I choose”.
Others feel judged about their body size. “I know you are displeased
with my weight, but it is my business”.
Spouses may feel controlled by their partners_ judgment of their eating
habits, exercise routines, or lack of same.

Whatever the controlling behavior is about, it creates unhappiness. The
distress felt by the controlled partner is due to the restricted
autonomy, feeling deprecated, mistrusted, patronized and disempowered.

The personal autonomy and freedom we expect to have about our lives in
adulthood requires that we be at liberty to chart our own course of
action. We can choose to feel, think and act as we see fit. Any attempt
by anyone to exercise control over us is likely to be met with
resistance. Yielding to the ways of others, which is in contrast with
our own desires, values and wishes – feels oppressive.

Not all “controlling” behavior is born out of the intent to dominate. It
may be a reaction to fear, insecurity, a need to know, or even a need to
be helpful. If a spouse is unable to clarify the intent underlying his
conduct, his behavior may be erroneously perceived as controlling.

The response to feeling controlled may give rise to discontent, anger
and counter-controlling responses. For example, a woman who feels
controlled by her husband may develop a pattern of helplessness, illness
or ineptness, by which she controls her husband’s behavior. Or a man who
feels dominated by his wife’s suspiciousness, may be intentionally
flirtatious in front of her to evoke her jealousy and assure himself of
her love.

When couples develop a pattern of controlling and fighting about being
controlled, they are often at a loss to reverse the process or get
clarity as to the causes for their behavior. If they seek professional
help, they may realize that the perceived “controlling” behavior may
indeed be so, or it may be a reaction to other unresolved emotions.
Clarity of intent is often a first step toward the remediation of the

  •  Be aware that you are in control only of your own actions, feelings,
    thoughts and body- not your partner’s/
  •  You are entitled to your opinion, but not a choice- about your mate’s
  • Express your ideas about your partner’s preferences in a
    non-demanding, loving way.
  • Criticism, orders, threats, or any behavior that is offensive to your
    partner needs to be avoided.
  • Dialogue respectfully with your partner about his or her ways that
    displease you.
  • Request consideration of your views.
  • Negotiate a compromise.
  • Controlling behaviors reduce the relationship to a parent-child
    interaction. The loving partnership is damaged.
  • Partners who honor each other’s autonomy and respect each other’s ways
    are more likely to achieve true intimacy.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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