Stacy came in looking angry. Her husband had recently sounded the alarm bell on their marriage and told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue the relationship. In an about-face, she behaviorally tried to do everything she could think of to reignite his commitment to the relationship. He continued to avoid her. She explained, “All week, I have done all these nice things for him that I thought he would like. I made his favorite dinner and cleaned up all the dishes myself. I’ve tried to express appreciation and tell him when he’s doing great as a father. I’ve tried really hard to keep from yelling. He still avoids me. I don’t know what else to do. It’s not fair.”
I glanced over at him, expecting no response, and noticed him staring at me, arms folded across his chest, daring me to comment on his unresponsiveness. I knew there was a reason for his avoidance, because of their history. I turned back to his wife. “I know you are hurting. This has all been incredibly painful and scary for you, and it’s hard to try so hard and feel hopeless.” She nodded and added, “I don’t see how I’m expected to make all the changes. If I’m putting myself out there and trying, then he should too.” Her tone suggested that I should chastise him for his behavior.
I continued, “Can you do something for me right now?” “What?” she asked. “Can you please start breathing for him right now?” She looked at me like I was crazy and replied “What do you mean?” “I mean breathe for him. Right now. Go. Make him breathe.” Seconds later, she said, “I can’t make him breathe.” “Right,” I affirmed, “You can’t make him breathe just like you can’t really make him do anything else. You are an entirely independently functioning individual. You can invite him to breathe and possibly influence him to breathe, but you cannot do it for him nor make him do it. It may be unfair. Your sense of justice may be violated, but you cannot make him do anything. That is an incredibly helpless feeling, I know…and let me add this…even if you could control him, you wouldn’t want to, because he would resent you for it.”
She became teary, and I continued processing her softer emotions enough that I could turn to her husband and check in with him about his perception. He had noticed changes, but he didn’t trust them. He worried that if he did trust her changes, things would go back to the way they were before. He stayed disconnected in part to avoid giving his wife false hope about their future. It was a protective mechanism.
One of the simple hard and true facts about relationships is that we absolutely cannot control other people. Couples commonly end up in tug-of-war like power struggles over who will control the outcome of an argument. People in general like to exercise decision-making and control over their lives. In couple relationships, constant negotiation is necessary for joining two individuals who sometimes have conflicting desires and needs. That’s normal and healthy. There are big problems when people think they are going to manipulate or control their spouses to do what they want them to do, and even though it may feel like winning in the short run, it is a losing proposition in the long term.
People hopefully learn this in dating relationships. Not everyone does. When my oldest son was going through a difficult romantic break-up years ago, he asked me if he should write a letter to his girlfriend with specific explanations and questions. I answered that if he chose to do that, it was fine, but absolutely not to send a letter with any kind of expectation for how she might respond. I explained that, “You can do whatever you want. However, you can’t choose how or even if she will reply. You cannot ask her a question with the expectation for a certain answer—you must be prepared that she may not answer you, and even if she does, it may not be the answer you want to hear. If you can do that, then go ahead and send the letter. If you are sending it with an expectation for a certain response, think twice about it. You absolutely do not get to control what someone else does. You can only control what you do in response.”
Even if you could control your partner’s behavior, it is not in your best interest to do so. Some people can be quite controlling and effectively bully their partners into regular capitulation. What ends up happening is that controlling partners think they are getting their way and life is good while resentment builds in the partner that is constantly giving in to avoid conflict. Over time (and by time I mean that it can take four decades or more), resentful partners get to the point that they have had enough and finally take a stand, which usually means shutting the partner out completely or ending the relationship. Then, the controlling partners are confused because they had no idea their placating partners were angry for years. I don’t know how many times I have heard a controlling partner say, “If he (or she) had only told me—I had no idea I was being controlling.”
In too many marriages and relationships, instead of power equality, there is a huge power differential in which one partner benefits at the expense of the other. Unfortunately, many people lack the awareness that they are taking this kind of position in a relationship. If you are able to persuade your spouse to agree with you all or most of the time instead of your adapting to them, you may be a controlling partner. If you are constantly giving in, I believe you are at high risk for being a typical placating partner who is slowly building resentment that may explode later.
What to do about it
Controlling partners can ask spouses what they think about the marriage, what changes they want to make, and what they really want in life, and try to honor and validate the information and requests. In short, the best thing to do is increase your understanding of your partner’s position without trying to change it. People who feel invalidated or misunderstood will cling tighter to their positions. If you are inflammatory or reactive, your partner will probably not share this with you, and you will be no better off. When controlling partners feel at all unsafe, placating partners will continue to give in and withhold expression of their opinions. If your partner isn’t sharing his or her opinion, this can be a huge warning sign.
If you are a partner who constantly gives in to avoid conflict, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling toward your partner. Try to find a way to discuss this dynamic with your partner. If your partner is controlling to the point of being abusive, you may have to face some difficult questions about continuing the relationship. Giving in to abusive partners does not make them less controlling—it feeds the pattern.
A typical example
Although power struggles show up in every marital context, a really common area is in the bedroom. A spouse who doesn’t want to be physically intimate because he or she doesn’t feel emotionally connected (and yes, that happens for men as well as women—people often don’t want to have sex with controlling partners), may end up giving in just to get the partner to go away. The problem is, if they really don’t want to engage, they can become bitterly resentful.
In one typical session, a wife came in upset because after she verbally explained to her husband that she didn’t feel safe enough with him emotionally to want to engage in a physically close relationship, he pressed her on the issue until she gave in and had sex with him, even though she didn’t want to. The result was another relationship rupture. In this case, she tried to say no to him but then gave in and then punished him for it. I asked what would happen if she said, “OK, I will have sex with you, but I want to be clear that I will hold a grudge and be resentful toward you afterward and it will disconnect us further.” She said, “Oh I could never say that—it would hurt his feelings.” I said, “But you are saying it—you’re just not using words—and you are hurting his feelings more because when you punish him with your anger, it’s an unclear message, and he doesn’t know what’s really going on. All I’m asking you to do is to be congruent. Verbalize what you are already creating, and give him the choice about whether he really want to participate in that process or not.” The husband admitted that even though experiencing rejection would be painful, it was more painful and confusing to be punished after his wife gave in, and made him feel worse. He didn’t realize he was coming across as controlling.
Control can work both ways here. In other scenarios, a partner may refuse to engage in a physical relationship, and the absolute refusal becomes the control. I believe there is a distinct lack of integrity in a partner who refuses separation or divorce but then refuses to improve the sexual relationship in a long-term marriage. It’s one thing to temporarily abandon sexual relations while actively working on making the relationship safe—it’s entirely different to shut a partner out sexually with no hope for improvement. This hopeless scenario in my opinion is quite cruel.
In the above cases, one partner was using verbal coercion to achieve sex and one was using icy withdrawal to avoid sex—both are controlling, and both are losing in the long-run.
(Side note: sexuality is tremendously complex and there are many reasons why couples disconnect around physical intimacy. The problems are usually a combination of individual difficulties AND relationship difficulties. I don’t want to oversimplify the problem. These particular scenarios don’t necessarily translate to many other scenarios)
Ultimately, realize that you can only really control yourself. You can certainly influence and invite your partner, but do not use coercion to do it. If you win with coercion or manipulation, you’re not really winning. There must be a recognition of a partner’s right to his or her opinion. You do not want to make your partner to do something they don’t want to do. Conversely, if you constantly give in to achieve “peace at any price,” you’re not doing your partner any favors. You are feeding into the cycle of manipulative control.
Take a serious look at your marriage to make sure you are not playing the part of puppet or puppeteer. Either role is bad for you, bad for your partner, and bad for the relationship.