Control Struggles in Relationships

Control struggles between partners are oftentimes the ruin of a couple. But what is a battle for “control” in the context of a relationship? When I introduce this concept in couple’s therapy there is usually a negative reaction. It seems to stir up visions of fascism or a power-crazed individual. To me, however, the control process is descriptive of a dynamic in which two partners take an immovable stance on one or more issues deemed important enough to bring them to treatment. The context of this struggle may range from something relatively minor such as the purchasing of a car, to the number of children a couple should have.

People referred to as “control freaks” feel the need to make most, if not every decision in their relationships. These individuals tend to dominate their partners. Other controlling people appear passive in their refusal to cooperate; a subtle yet effective technique just as infuriating to their counterparts as the more overtly dominant style. The Gandhi method of resistance comes to mind.

Controlling individuals may have been “parentified” as children or burdened with overwhelming responsibilities beyond their age and maturity level. Others may have felt “out of control” in a chaotic family of origin such as one in which an addiction ruled. Some controlling people may have found their parental role models irresponsible or incompetent. And still others may have been traumatized and in turn, learned to defend against their overwhelming trauma-related anxiety by attempting to control as much of their environment as possible.

Anxiety is widely considered to be the underlying common denominator of a strong need to exert control. Exposing the true origin of the anxiety is key, but it is also imperative that each partner accept that they are—in some form—contributing to the control struggle. Each partner must also be willing to give up something to end the struggle. Breaking a partner’s will to get what one wants is a dangerous tactic that may only lead to the struggle’s appearance in a different relational context. For example, it is not unusual for one partner to confess years later, that they were upset about feeling forced to have children or to live in the neighborhood they were uncomfortable in. This person might have initially acquiesced to their partner’s desires, but associated displeasure tends to show itself in some way during the relationship. The following are 5 consequences of an enduring control struggle:

1.  Apathy: Some couples just give up; they accept that they will never get their needs met. Affairs may ensue, or depression may pervade the relationship. This is potentially destructive for children to witness because they are taught helplessness and hopeless rather than how to problem-solve. As adults, many take this attitude and the absence of these skills into their future relationships.

2.  Distrust: If a partner does not feel as if he/she will be heard, thoughts and feelings may be hidden from their partner. This partner may also do what I call an “end-run,” or an attempt to get what they want while keeping their behavior secret. Once caught, however, distrust and control increase.

3.  Domestic Violence: In some couples the battle for control can escalate into emotional and physical abuse. This should come as no surprise given that power and control have long been positively correlated with abuse. Clinicians know that breaking a cycle of abuse is tricky and may require techniques to avert the battle such as preparing an escape route for one or both partners. But unless underlying issues are treated the battle will most likely reappear.

4.  Erosion: Control struggles can last for years; unless they are dealt with they can wear a relationship down. Couples in this position may experience a constant flow of relational symptoms (e.g., less affection, low sex drive, and more distance) yet not be able to connect them to the source of the difficulty—the anxious struggle for control.

5.  Aversion: Either partner may at some point become so disgusted with the relational dynamic that they develop an aversion towards one another. If this occurs, it is probably too late to save the relationship. One male client admitted: “Once I escaped from my wife, I felt as if I had escaped from prison.”

The struggle for control can be more destructive to relationships than most people realize. I see this type of battle time and again in my practice and I am convinced that it must be caught early. People do not like to consider themselves controlling and this makes life difficult for the couple’s counselor as well. But this concept should not always be taken as pejorative. Most often control struggles do not consist of a right or a wrong…just a strong need for compromise.


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