There are few intimacy killers as potent as controlling behavior. Control is a problem we see on a spectrum, ranging from spouses who are simply nitpicky over one or two parts of their lives to spouses who engage in destructive behavior.
Most control issues fall somewhere in the middle and stem from your spouse’s anxiety about one or more parts of your life. When we read between the lines, we often understand that the controlling spouse’s motivation is something like, “I love you so much, I want you to be aware of these few things that aren’t perfect.”
If your spouse is controlling, you need coping mechanisms that help you defuse the difficult and uncomfortable situations they create from time to time. And you need, first, to understand that your spouse’s controlling tendencies are not about you. On the contrary, the control problem is really about your spouse.
Realize your spouse cares deeply about what they’re trying to control.
Most people who behave in a controlling way do so because they care so deeply about the things they’re trying to control–maybe too deeply. They might be attached to the idea of a specific outcome, for example. Or they might sincerely believe that their methods for getting certain results are the best (and maybe the only) methods.
A great example is the “backseat driver” scenario. Let’s say you’re trying to drive, and your spouse is in the back or passenger seat. Do they feel and behave as though they’re in charge of everyone’s safety in the car? Maybe they:
- Monitor your speed–and give you driving “advice”
- Can’t contain their “suggestions” regarding your route or the lane you’re in
- Cringe and grab the armrests every time you brake or make a turn
- Gasp and vocalize loudly when they think you’ve made a bad decision
It’s true that your spouse must really care about your safety–but the way they behave in the car could actually put you and your family in danger. Ironic, right?
The bottom line is, your spouse cares so deeply about what is going to happen that they will stop at nothing to get their way. But this isn’t just about caring or being invested in an idea or outcome. Your spouse is likely feeling some level of anxiety about the thing (or things) they’re trying to stay in charge of. (If your spouse’s behavior is coming from a place of anxiety, the best way to explore that is to seek professional counseling.)
Develop cues that let your spouse know when they’re being controlling.
Gentle signals–like using humor or offering a reminder when your spouse slips into a control pattern–can help your spouse break the habit of trying to stay in control. It’s not unusual for us to encounter couples where one spouse will treat the other like a child, for example.
Some people parent out of habit because they’re raising or teaching children all day. Others see themselves as authority figures in their marriages, and try to parent their spouses from that angle. If your spouse tends to parent or talk down to you, they’re slipping into a role–and it’s okay to kindly make them aware of what they’re doing.
You could tell your spouse something like, “I love that you’re a great parent to the kids, but I don’t need you as my parent. I need you as my spouse.” It could also be helpful to reassure them with something like, “I need you to feel free to be my peer, and let me make my own choices.”
Keep your reminders as light as possible. Chances are, your spouse doesn’t want to make you feel parented or incapable of taking care of things on your own. Again, anxiety is probably at the root of their behavior.
Protect yourself if your controlling spouse is out of control.
Sometimes, the need for control goes beyond anxiety and deep caring, and crosses into the realm of abuse. The ultimate goal of abuse is to control your movements, your relationships, your resources, and your decisions. Common, controlling abuse tactics include:
- Isolating you from your close friend and family relationships
- Controlling your access to means of communication
- Restricting your access to money, food, or other resources
- Monitoring or restricting your movements
- Verbally and emotionally abusing you and/or your children, including making threats to your safety or well-being
- Dictating all decision-making, regardless of your needs or feelings
- Physically abusing you or your children in any way
If your spouse’s controlling behavior is abusive, try to stay calm and remove yourself (and your children) from the home as soon as possible. Set boundaries, leave the space, and get to a safe place until your spouse has gotten themselves under control and sought out professional therapy.
Remember, you must allow your spouse to experience that natural consequences that come from behaving in a controlling, abusive way. Consequences are essential for your protection–and for your spouse to stand a chance at making positive change in the future.
Is–or was–your spouse controlling? How do you deal with their behavior? What was the outcome? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.