The desire to be in control is an innate part of us, and from an early age (say, the terrible twos) it becomes clear what we will do and not do in order to gain or remain in control. We learn behaviors and strategies early in order to get what we need and want, whether it’s our desire to be left alone or to be given chocolate.
Even before this, infants quickly learn survival strategies from their primary caregivers. That is, they intuit and learn ways of being to ensure they receive the necessary attention, protection and care they need to feel safe, protected, cuddled, and fed. These developmental ideas are bundled together and are called Attachment Theory, and this developmental frame (Karen, 1994) sits as a cornerstone in the way many clinicians – including myself – work with adults in therapy.
I am sure you have seen, experienced, and quite probably perpetrated tactics that are reminiscent of a toddler having a tantrum. Yelling, snapping, withdrawing, moping, giving the ‘silent treatment’, slamming doors, thumping tables, saying hurtful things, etc. This leads me to wonder what it is that you might be doing in your relationship? What are your tactics? And can you imagine a time that you might outgrow this way of relating to others?
“He’s just so controlling – something has to change!”
“Who’s really in control here?”
“She’s such a control-freak! She always gets what she wants…”
Control, or our desire to enforce it, is such an interesting thing. “Some people act like they are not in control, yet they control situations by simply giving up or giving in. They use compliance to get control” (Bachelor Evan, 2008). Others will take control by acting assertively and overwhelming communication and situations. Other times people will utilise John Gottman’s famous Four Horsemen, criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling to control and manage their relationships (Shepard & Harway, 2012).
I also wonder once we have it, how much of what we crave and gain is actually real or just an illusion? How well do all your control tactics work? Can you control the weather? The stock market? The neighbour’s lawn-mowing routine? Your greying hair? Have you eliminated all the negative emotions in your world by controlling them and allowing only positive (desirable) emotions in?
This brings us to a simple truth: the only things under your control are your actions. Yet many of us continually endeavour to control our partners, perhaps with a little short-term success, but not much long-term change. And you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, getting more and more frustrated and despondent.
Take some time to think about how you try to control him. Think of everything you have ever said or done to get her to change. Did your partner’s behaviour change in the long run? More importantly, did your actions enhance and enrich your relationship? Are you closer and more connected now, after all of this change-management?
I’m not suggesting that you allow your partner to run rough-shod, getting away with everything they want. That would not be a fulfilling scenario at all. But there must be equanimity if a relationship is to thrive: both partners must share the same attitude of mutual respect, both must feel complete and worthy, deserving of each other’s care and respect, choosing to travel together as willing companions. This mutuality is about relinquishing control.
Have you heard the poet Khalil Gibran’s famous metaphor, “…the pillars of a great temple stand apart, and the oak and the cypress do not grow in each other’s shadow”? It is often used in modern marriage vows to depict the idea of two strong individuals creating something greater than themselves by choosing to be together. Another analogy is that of two mountains which, side by side, create a protective valley between them. That temple, that shady meadow, that valley, is the relationship itself, the third element. But it cannot develop with one person exercising or imposing control-tactics.
Working with couples involves managing the relational tensions associated with three factors: the ‘them’ (the relationship) and the individuals within it (the two pillars). “An assumption that everything is shared denies individual differences just as much as the assumption of individuality disregards the essential relatedness of experience” (Clulow, 2001).
A relationship is a dance – and as you change your dance steps, your partner will probably change theirs. By shifting the focus from trying to control the other to being a better partner, you may start to feel freer with more capacity to be yourself! Ironically, you will also probably notice that your partner is more responsive to you and the ways in which you inhabit your relationship.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above post resonates for you. I work extensively with gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples; indeed, love does not discriminate.
Bachelor Evan, D. (2008) Break Up or Break Through. Alyson Books, New York.
Clulow, C. (2001) Adult Attachment and Couples Psychotherapy. Brunner-Routledge, London.
Karen, R. (1994) Becoming Attached – First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. Oxford University Press, New York.
Shepard, D., & Harway, M. (2012) Engaging Men in Couples Therapy. Routledge, New York.