It is so common, and I hear it all the time, “my partner has control issues”. What is this about, how does it impact our relationships, and how can we change it?
Have you ever noticed that issues of control mainly only arise in our most intimate relationships? Why is that? Because that is where we are most vulnerable. That is the person who has the ability to hurt us the most. If we allow ourselves to take the risk to be intimate with another human being, we take the risk of getting hurt. Intimate relationships require us to be our most vulnerable selves if they are going to reach a truly deep level of intimacy. To be that vulnerable can be extraordinarily scary. Especially if we have been hurt in the past. So where does the issue of control come in? When we want to feel safe. We want the benefits of falling in love (companionship, affection, fun, comfort), but we don’t want the risks that come with falling in love (loss, pain, discomfort), so in order to feel “safe” we attempt to control our partner so that we don’t get hurt. Isn’t that what we all want in relationships, to feel safe? To know that this person will be there for us always and never hurt us? Is this a reasonable expectation? Can we ever really know that this person will always be here? Unfortunately the answer is no. We cannot always know. And even though we logically know this fact, and we logically know that we cannot control another person, on another level we attempt to control anyway, for safety, for survival.
How does this impact our relationships? In an attempt to control to feel safe, we may ultimately create what we are most afraid of; distance. Controlling behavior tends to push our partner away. It can be smothering and demanding. It deprives our partner of feeling a sense of freedom and independence within the relationship. And in the end, it may end up pushing that person out of the relationship.
So what can you do? The very first step in change is understanding. You must first have an awareness of this behavior, then understand what is underneath the behavior, and further understand how this behavior impacts your partner and your relationship. Once you have an understanding, you can then communicate at a deeper level with your partner, possibly bringing you closer together and then you can begin to make changes. You can ask for things from your partner that would allow you to feel more safe without being demanding and controlling.
First; ask yourself some questions. How is my behavior controlling? What is it that I am trying to control? Why don’t I feel safe in this relationship? After you answer these questions for yourself, ask how it impacts your partner and your relationship. Talk to your partner about it. Let your partner know that you are aware that your behavior is having a negative effect on the relationship and you want to make some changes. Acknowledge how they might feel on the receiving end. Talk about safety and what makes you feel safe in a relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Ask your partner, as well, what he/she needs to also feel safe in this relationship. The next step; during times when you feel threatened, rather than getting defensive and resorting to controlling behaviors, share with you partner that you are feeling vulnerable and unsafe, and ask for the reassurance you need.
For the partner on the end of the controlling behavior, try to see this from your partners perspective. Try to understand that this is not about you, but it is about your partners need to feel safe. If you can look at this from a compassionate and empathetic standpoint, it will be easier for you be helpful toward your partner in making these changes. There are important questions that you may ask yourself as well: is there any thing you are doing to contribute to this problem? Are there any behaviors that you are displaying that may be contributing to your partner feeling “unsafe”?
Both of you can ask yourselves the question: what kind of partner do I want to be and what kind of relationship do I want to have? Once you define this, you can then begin to make changes to move toward that goal. Often times persons with controlling behavior don’t realize that the behavior leads to results they don’t want rather than results they are trying to achieve. By changing some basic thoughts and behaviors, you can begin to move toward having a healthy and fulfilling relationship.
Competition: a rivalry for supremacy. We live in a very competitive society. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this can be a very good thing. Competition is good in many ways. For example, in sports, it gives us somebody to root for. Sports give us a social outlet to feel like part of a team. And if we play sports, the competitive spirit keeps us motivated and working hard to excel. In the work force, competition keeps us on our toes and working toward achieving, and when we achieve success above the competition, it feels great. Competition is also important in the business world, it keeps prices down for consumers. So when is competition a bad thing? When it enters into our intimate relationships.
There is no place for competition in relationships, yet it sneaks in and can destroy relationships. In competition there is a winner and a loser. In order for us to win in a competition with our partner, our partner must become the loser, and when that happens, the relationship loses. What does competition in relationships look like? Fighting to be right. Couples often get locked into arguments that end up being less about the topic and more about winning and being right. For example: Linda wants to buy a new car because she is tired of paying for repairs on the old one. Joe wants to keep the old one and says he can do most of the repairs himself. They begin to fight about this on a regular basis where it becomes about who is right and will win the argument rather than listening to the meaning behind the fight; (Linda feels unsafe in the car, Joe wants to feel competent that he can keep Linda safe). The fight then becomes about being right and winning the argument. Had they both taken the time to understand each others point of view, they would have seen that there was a reasonable compromise: a win-win situation.
When couples get locked into power struggles, they will often have the same arguments over and over. Sometimes they will argue about different “topics” but the underlying purpose is always the same; to win, to be right. If during disagreements, you find yourself trying to convince your partner of your point of view, or trying to get your way, chances are you are locked into being “right”. And if your partner is in the same frame of mind, and you are both waiting for the other to change, you are in a no-win situation and the relationship is being damaged one argument at a time.
So how do you get out of the fight? There are some simple steps that you alone can take to make change. And if you both follow these steps, the improvements to your relationship will be profound.
1. Make your first goal to understand your partners point of view. This is called empathy. Empathy is a crucial skill to nourishing a relationship. It is the ability to put yourself in your partners shoes and see things from his/her perspective even if you disagree.
2. Validate one another’s feelings. Say something along the lines of, “I can see how you would feel that way.” Or, “well, after hearing your side of things, I can certainly understand your perspective”. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree, you are still entitled to your own perspective, but taking the time to understand and validate your partners perspective can create some very positive and effective dialogue.
3. Find the areas of agreement. After taking the time to really “hear” one another, take some time to identify where the two of you are in agreement.
4. Find the middle ground. Negotiate and compromise. This is much easier to do when you have empathized with one another’s stance on the issue. There may not always be a compromise, but having dialogue with respect and empathy can mean the difference between dealing with issues in a healthy way, and causing destruction to your relationship.
Let’s look at the steps in action.
Linda and Joe recently got married. Before getting married both agreed they would take a nice honeymoon within the first year of marriage. A year has gone by and no honeymoon. Linda is getting upset that it hasn’t happened and the two of them argue about it often. They finally sit down to talk about it both seeking to understand the other. Linda explains that from her point of view, the honeymoon would “seal the deal”. To her, they didn’t really start their life together until they went on the honeymoon. She felt hurt that he wasn’t making the effort. Joe said to Linda, “if that’s what the honeymoon meant to you, then I could see how you would feel hurt.” Joe went on to explain that he had been putting it off because of what he thinks it will cost. He explained that he feels he is supposed to be the “provider” and it is his job to make sure that they are taken care of financially. He didn’t see the honeymoon as a financially sound decision at this point in their lives. Once Linda understood where Joe was coming from, she was able to feel better about the fact that it hasn’t happened yet. She realized his intent was to care for her. Both got out of being right. Once this happened they were able to compromise. They were able to plan an enjoyable honeymoon that was within their budget to do so.
One of the primary things to remember is to always respect one another. Communication is important in a relationship, but if communication occurs without respect and empathy, it can be very damaging. By using these tools, you can create significant improvements in your relationship. Even if you have disagreements every day, they do not have to be damaging to your relationship. “It is not how compatible you are, but how you manage incompatibility.”
One thing I tell clients, is that when you are having disagreements, hold hands with one another. Sometimes this simple physical touch is enough to keep you calm and remember to work for a win-win compromise.
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