Marriage: The “Control” Question

When discussing marriage, any mention of control is likely to push a few buttons! That’s evident by how some folks talk about their spouses: “I sure can’t control him!”  “She’s completely out of control!” or this entertaining comment: “If I could control him/her, we wouldn’t need help!”

This article is one in a series on marriage.
You can find the first article in the series here.

So, whose behaviour can you control? This second question in the structured Reality Therapy approach to marriage counseling is clear: Each of us can only control our own behaviour. However, that simple reality often doesn’t stop us from trying to control others!

When a couple is having difficulty, there are often strong attempts by one (or both) to control the other. Controlling behaviour isn’t necessarily done with negative intent.

For example, Sarah feels pressure to keep up appearances, so she tries to force behaviours on her husband Sam by saying, “Don’t go out dressed like that!” or “You should paint the house. What will the neighbours think?”

Alan, on the other hand, attempts to control his wife Alice by “taking care” of her. This is the “I know what’s best for you” justification. For example, Alan says, “You ought to get more exercise,” or “You shouldn’t let your boss make you work evenings.”

Finally, some attempts to control are simply that—attempts to control. When Patricia tells her husband Paul, “Don’t you dare go out after work!” she’s really saying, “You shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.”

Attempting to force someone to do what we want is the essence of external control. To the person doing it, it may not seem like control at all. When Paul finally comes home two hours late (apparently having gone out after work in spite of Patricia’s wishes), Patricia stomps off in a huff, yelling over her shoulder, “I made a special dinner for you two hours ago; now it’s ruined. I hope you enjoy it.” Patricia wants to “make” Paul feel guilty about being late. How well does that work for Patricia?

We see external control everywhere. Nagging, complaining, and criticizing are some techniques people use in their attempts to control others. When that occurs in marriage, the spouse resists. The more one tries to control the other, the greater and more creative the resistance.  Just as a knot tightens when two people pull on it, so too does the conflict tighten, becoming harder to undo.

Thus the need for clarity: Whose behaviour can you control? Paul was late for dinner, but he didn’t “make” Patricia angry. Patricia is in charge of whether she is angry, sad, disappointed, or nonchalant.  Likewise, only Paul is in control of how he reacts; Patricia can’t “make” Paul feel guilty.

Once each person takes ownership of their own behaviours, they can start working on taking more effective control. What does it mean to take more effective control?  Stay tuned…

This next article in this series on marriage is here.
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