Are You Controlling?

Happy couple lying in grassI have a brand new definition of controlling behavior: It takes away civil liberties.

Let’s take an example. Suppose a couple is arguing and the husband blocks the doorway. Do you think he violated the Constitution? Well, let’s say a guy decides to rob someone coming out of a building and blocks his exit. What then? Do you see that it’s the same thing? In America, the first man’s wife should be able to leave if she wants, regardless of whether he wants to finish the discussion.

I once worked with a couple, Lizbet and Emilio. Emilio was a big, powerful man, a tough-looking guy who worked out. What nobody knew about him and he was ashamed to admit is that Lizbet controlled him like a puppet on a chain. Emilio came from a poor family with a lot of arguing and occasional violence. He hated it and he vowed never to be like that. And he wasn’t.

The problem is that he married someone who was. Lizbet would go into a rage when things didn’t go her way, and, to keep the peace, Emilio did whatever she wanted. Everything, absolutely everything went her way. While Lizbet was not violent, in taking charge of everything from where they went out to eat, to the movies they would see, she robbed Emilio of his identity. Why didn’t Emilio get out of the marriage? He thought he had made a big improvement on his parents’ marriage; after all, there was no violence and really not much arguing either.

But things were getting tough. Emilio lived through this by throwing himself into his work, which he loved, but a big problem surfaced when he was told he would have to relocate. Lizbet objected. Her work was right there where they were. She assumed he would cave in as he always had, except that this was Emilio’s bottom line. His life preserver was his work and she was about to take that away in addition to everything else.

Lizbet didn’t become this way from thin air. She came from a family of manipulators. Her mother, a successful model, had been through three marriages, each to a wealthier person; her father was a politician who knew how to spin facts to suit his needs. The two of them spoiled Lizbet materially to compensate for not spending time with her. She learned how to get what she wanted by twisting stories around to make her position look good. When that didn’t work, temper tantrums were handy alternatives. In spite of usually getting what she thought she wanted, she was unhappy and never could figure it out. She thought perhaps it was because she didn’t get enough.

Lizbet was attracted to Emilio because he was handsome, successful, and nice. Besides which, she could tell immediately that he would not be an obstacle to her obtaining her heart’s desires. She was right. That is, until the showdown over the job transfer. They ended up coming to me as a last ditch effort to save the relationship. I asked Lizbet, when would enough be enough, and she realized that she had no clue. I followed that question with wondering whether she thought her mother was happy, and she admitted she probably was not, in spite of all the benefits that came with her stardom. Lizbet suddenly realized she did not want to lose Emilio, who was one thing her parents were not: straightforward. She decided to begin work on herself.

We began with a philosophical look at what being controlling means. I explained to her that with no voice in where they would live as well as the smaller decisions that go with running a home, Emilio is really being deprived of the ability to pursue happiness. Although Lizbet thought Emilio could get another job where she wanted to live, it was obvious to her that she would be robbing him of something that gave him extreme satisfaction and even pleasure. She wished that she loved her career equally as much. Thinking about it more made her realize that there was not too much that she really enjoyed in general. As we talked, it dawned on her that her own attitude and behavior were getting in the way of her happiness. We created two new rules for her to follow daily:

  • Happiness is giving
  • Fairness means 50/50

They would both be difficult rules for her to follow. In order to help her work on them, she posted yellow sticky notes around with these two simple rules to serve as reminders.

Now it was time for Emilio to take responsibility for his part of the problem. Patiently, I explained to him that although he thought things were better than in the home in which he grew up, they actually were not much better at all. I drew a picture for him of what life would look like to a child in their home: The child would think that life meant slavery to the master with no ability to assert oneself. Emilio realized that not fighting is not enough. It is necessary to assert oneself. Emilio now had the task of recognizing—and expressing—his wants and needs.

And I got Lizbet’s agreement to hear him out respectfully and consider his points carefully before voicing her own opinion. Then she was to do the hardest thing: Give up what she wanted often enough to notice the happiness (her first rule, above) she got out of giving.

Related articles:
Decision Making in Relationships: Three Important Values to Help you Know When to Give in or Dig in
When Is the Marriage Really Over?
When One Partner Bullies the Other

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Far Rockaway, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • lissa d

    lissa d

    February 23rd, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    she came from a family of manipulators, this is all she knows so of course this is what she is naturally going to gravitate toward

  • MaureeN

    MaureeN

    February 24th, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    Aren’t we all controlling in our own way? I don’t think that there is one person alive who does not have some sort of control issues, do you?

  • croft

    croft

    February 24th, 2012 at 8:25 PM

    don’t you think almost always it so happens that a timid and nice person gets married to someone totally different and one that comes to control the former?is it opposites attracting or does the partner become that way due to the timidness of the other one?

  • Carolyn

    Carolyn

    February 25th, 2012 at 9:04 AM

    There are some of us and if we are honest then we know who we are, who thrive on being controlling and having to always be right.
    That is our nature, who we are. It is not that we necessarily mean harm by always having to be in control but that it is hard to be anything but that.

  • brian t

    brian t

    February 26th, 2012 at 4:38 AM

    Why is it that so many control freaks really get off on the whole its my way or the highway mantra?

  • Joan Ketchen

    Joan Ketchen

    July 12th, 2013 at 10:34 AM

    Croft, I hear you except the marriage of the “nice” timid person to the “someone totally different”. This implies the person who is required to take up the slack and “control” the relationship due to the timid person’s inability to do so is “not” nice? My first husband was the one in control. I had life easy and seldom made any decisions. People oftened called me sweet but certainly never called me outspoken. I didn’t have to. He did the speaking for us. My second husband is timid and I make just about ALL decisions. It can be, and often is for me, stressful and exhausting carrying the whole load. So I wanted to point this out from the perspective of the preceived not so nice person’s side

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