Help! My Spouse is a Control Freak! What Do I Do?

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.

Check out Les’s books, The Control Freak and High-Maintenance Relationships, for a deeper dive into how to identify and deal with controlling behaviors in your marriage.

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.

7 Comments

  • James Bohrer says:

    Great stuff. Is there a flip side. How to cope if your spouse or kid is out of control. In other words they lack the behavior to control bad habits or complete life tasks. They als live a more disorganized life in general. This would be someone who has the cognitive abilities to do so. I’ve seen the two types come together. What resources would be helpful?

    • M says:

      In some cases, as with me, adult ADHD and difficulties with executive functioning sometimes interfere with everyday tasks and obligations. The last thing we need is for our spouse to “fix” us. Sometimes a controlling spouse will overwhelm with tasks, then become critical because some of those tasks aren’t done (this is especially difficult for someone with ADHD). Long before I knew I had ADHD (and before I met my spouse), I managed to get myself though college in 4 years (and back into college for a career change), kept my desk and finances organized, maintained vehicles in good order, and generally functioned well. 25 years later in my 50’s, my self-confidence is in the toilet; I’m constantly questioning whether I’m doing the right thing at the right time, I find myself on constant tangents, and all-too-often I try too hard to please my wife. On the few rare occasions I’ve tried to address how I feel, I get buried in a hyper-critical tirade, silent treatment, or long-term withholding of affection. But, I said for better for worse, and there are many times I know I’ve gone on unproductive tangents and could have finished tasks, so some of the criticism is justified. Three therapists later (including one marriage counselor), not much has changed for me or with the relationship. Boundaries? What boundaries?

      • Gill says:

        I agree that there needs to be a more nuanced reply than simply “controlling spouse” or “chaotic spouse”. I’m learning not to be both. I have aspergers syndrome and struggle a lot with executive function. We’ve been seeing a psychologist together who has experience working with ASD-NT marriages, and I’m so glad to be working in that context now instead of one where everyone was always trying to tell me to get organised and stop controlling, with no word on how that made any sense. When there’s an underlying neurological condition (ASD, ADHD, even just plain old SPD) there are different strategies required for changing those behaviours, because it’s not as simple as the above article makes out.

        If your partner has an undiagnosed ASD “subtle humor cues” suggested abovewill not work and you’ll just be forever frustrated. They may struggle to understand why their behaviour is frustrating even after you’ve explained it (especially if you give a fake “more polite” reason as many NTs do!).

  • Carol says:

    Thank you for pointing out that when controlling behavior develops into physical abuse — get out. Find a safe environment. The controlling partner needs help and you need safety and protection

  • A great article!
    Informative and to the point.
    I will bookmark this and share it with others!

  • Ivonne Trejo says:

    We obviously can’t control people and how they choose to function. However, we are responsible for how we respond, whether we do or do not make boundaries for ourselves and our relationships. Often times people feel like victims or are co-dependent or enablers and therefore feel “trapped or stuck.” Remember that though we make boundaries people can choose to cross and disrespect those boundaries but we then have to choose what are the consequences when people choose to violate our boundaries (we have choices even if sometimes we don’t like the choices) We get to choose, to make hard and difficult choices; we CANNOT control others; but we must respond and not react, we must not let fear or codependency or anything else paralyze us or make us think we are victims and have no options. We get to choose what we think, how we respond,and what we will tolerate, God has made us to be free so though the choices may not be the ones you want, and since you cannot control people (they are free to even make bad choices (and suffer the consequences for those “poor” choices) you have the freedom to choose how to function and respond. Remember to let God’s Word guide you along with a few wise and mature believers who can help you navigate through how to function in a wise, biblically sound way and not based on fears, insecurities and the poor choices of those we are in relationships with. Ask God for wisdom and strength to do the right thing according to His wisdom and His Word even if they go against your natural bent. Remember we humans get to choose if we are going to sin against God or others (He has given us that freedom-freedom to accept and even reject Him) but WE DON’T GET TO CHOOSE OUR CONSEQUENCES OR HOW LONG THOSE CONSEQUENCES WILL AFFECT US AND OUR LOVED ONES. So, you get to choose, you get to choose to even do nothing but take personal responsibility even for the choice of doing nothing- Remember you choose your behavior and thoughts but you don’t get to choose your consequences. You can do this because God has made you and designed that you be free to choose. He is faithful and sovereign and He adores you; if you belong to Him you must know that He is always working in your live even in the toughest areas and seasons of your live. We must do our part and let Him do the things that only He can do (the divine things- like changing and healing the human heart). He’s Good and Gracious! Remember my dear friend one day we will be home; so perhaps your relationships are such that you will learn how to suffer well in this life but know that this life is but a vapor and eternity is a long long time!!! It will be glorious and will be worth any suffering we have to endure in this world. Finally, let the Joy of the Lord be your strength; Let God be God- He is the best recycler-He takes the good, the bad and the ugly in our lives and will use it both here on earth and throughout eternity to accomplish His divine purposes for our lives! We can trust Him!! He is faithful and you are so loved by Him!

  • C S says:

    I admit that I struggle with this, but from the other perspective. Our marriage of nine months is very good, but I worry about my control tendencies. I know that God calls me as a woman to biblically submit to my husband, but several things make it difficult for me to figure out how that should play out in our specific marriage.

    For one, I am twenty years older than him. In general that’s not an issue for us, but I lived independently for many years before we married so it’s a complete change for me to take a more submissive role. Secondly, between his age and his background being raised in a seriously abusive environment, he is very hesitant to take a leadership role in our marriage. I would like to encourage him to do so, but it feels like doing that would just be another attempt to control him and push him into something he’s not ready for. Third, as a reaction to the abuse he suffered, he has a mental condition that means sometimes he will regress to a childlike state, although the adult part of him is still aware of what is happening. Though I am comfortable with such personality switches due to having experienced this with other people in the past, it does sometimes blur the lines.

    We can’t exactly afford a marriage therapist being on disability, and so far things seem to be going well, so for the moment I am simply praying that God will help me be the best wife I can be and to follow his will as shown in scripture to the best of my ability. Even so, I have to keep a constant, conscious grip on my thoughts and words and attitude to make sure I don’t push him too hard. Where it is the hardest is with decisions that would affect both of us, like if he wants to order food but we really shouldn’t because money.

    Just to put anyone’s mind at ease, when I say controlling tendencies I mean in the sense of making decisions or trying to talk him into doing something. I would never dream of harming my husband, and though he has suffered much abuse in the past, not once has he ever abused me in any way shape or form. We are both very gentle people.

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