Control Freaks

Dear Neil: What can you tell me about people who are “control freaks,” those people who need to control their children and their partners?

Wellington, New Zealand

Dear Wellington: There are two kinds of power. The first is POWER OVER. The other is PERSONAL POWER.

POWER OVER shows up as control and dominance: someone expects to get what he or she wants through the use of power over another. POWER OVER closes the door to true communication and intimacy, according to Patricia Evans in the book The Verbally Abusive Relationship (Bob Adams, Inc., 1992).

Intimacy in a relationship requires mutuality. Mutuality requires good will, openness, a willingness to share one’s self, and a willingness to share decision making and how resources (time, money, etc.) are used. Mutuality is a respectfulness for one another based on the belief that each individual is an equal partner in the relationship. Any act that involves controlling or dominating a partner, or that disregards consideration of your mate’s opinions and desires, or that forces a spouse to do something against his or her will, demonstrates a lack of mutuality. Behaviors that indicate a lack of mutuality are chronic criticism, inability to compromise, attempts to alienate your spouse’s friends, jealous behaviors, psychological/emotional smothering, or physically and/or emotionally abusive behaviors.

In an in-depth analysis of 49 spouses who fell out of love with each other, Karen Kayser, in the book When Love Dies (Guildford Press, 1993), discovered that more than one half of the couples cited their partner’s attempt to control them as the turning point in their marriages. Typical examples of a partner’s controlling behavior were situations in which a major decision, was made unilaterally, such as deciding where they should live or how they should spend their money. Some were major life decisions—others were quite minor. But the common element was the lack of consideration for the other person’s input, opinions and feelings in the decision-making process.

A controlling partner doesn’t desire a mutual relationship, but only a relationship that serves his or her needs. Therefore, a controlling partner (or parent for that matter) will not care about their spouse’s (or children’s) feelings. A controlling partner fears a spouse’s feelings and ideas because the differentness is perceived as interfering with what the controlling person wants. By discounting, ignoring or minimizing the spouses’s feelings and desires, the controlling partner can do with what he or she wants to.

A likely consequence of this imbalance of power is that the discounted person will feel devalued and controlled, and is then likely to harbor resentment and withdraw. You cannot control your partner and be intimate with him/her at the same time. If there is little equality, partnership and mutuality, intimacy will be lacking.

PERSONAL POWER is about being in charge of yourself. It is not about power over others, it is about power over self. Personal power fosters mutuality and co-creation in a relationship. It values all family members’ happiness, satisfaction and sense of empowerment, not just one person’s.

Whenever a decision needs to made in a relationship, an opportunity arises for control issues to get triggered. How you handle such disagreements speaks volumes about whether you have a mutual relationship (and therefore a happier and healthier relationship), or whether your spouse sees you as a “control freak,” and therefore harbors resentment and anger toward you.

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