I’ve noticed an interesting trend among my Bethesda MD couples counseling clients lately — issues around control seem to be at the forefront of many people’s minds and at the heart of many couples’ conflicts. It makes sense — feeling “in control” means having a sense of peace, order, power, and predictability; while being “out of control” suggests just the opposite and is quite uncomfortable for most people. We all like to feel “in control” of our lives, but this doesn’t always translate to peace and harmony when both partners want to be “in control” of a couple dynamic. Feeling controlled by one’s partner is not something that most people enjoy, and I also believe that most partners don’t want to be perceived as the one doing the controlling. Power struggles, not feeling heard or valued, inability to resolve differences (which then become long-standing, intense conflicts) — these are just some of the manifestations of control issues that I see among the couples who sit on my couch each week.
Consider this example. Tom and Julie have been married for more than twenty years and have three children. After six months in MD couples therapy in which a lot of great progress has been made, they find themselves stuck one issue: Julie often feels as though Tom unfairly “calls the shots” in their relationship because when they disagree about how to handle a particular issue, he seems to have some sort of veto power that he uses to make sure things go his way. Julie often wants to take a more active approach to solving a problem (e.g., setting up a meeting with a school administrator to discuss an academic issue for one of their children), while Tom prefers to try softer approaches first, such as sending a detailed message via email. Tom’s preferences become the rate-limiting factor, and Julie feels both powerless to implement her preferred solutions and unheard by her partner. She continues to campaign for what she wants, and Tom continues to say no — extending the battle for control and injecting a high level of negativity into the relationship because the longer this goes on, the less possible a compromise feels and the more alienated they become. Eventually, one partner throws up his or her hands and “gives up,” the other implements her/his preferred solution, and they experience a days-long period of distance before they eventually (sort of) reconcile and move on to the next challenge.
Here’s my take. Relationships are partnerships in which power and control must be shared in a way that feels comfortable enough for both partners. Typically, that means understanding that there are some topics in every relationship that partners just have different perspectives on, and that isn’t likely to change. After all, we’re different people with different experiences, preferences, and beliefs. If partners can understand where these fundamental differences are and consciously decide to cut each other some slack when conflict arises in those areas, great progress toward compromise and letting go of the need for control can be made. Next, partners must prepare themselves for a discussion in which they aim to truly hear and understand where the other is coming from — entering the conversation not with the goal of being understood, but of understanding the other. Each should think about the core belief or value that is driving their attachment to their preferred solution, and then be willing to communicate that to the other person. Once that is understood, partners can attempt to create a compromise with the goal of giving the other person as much of what they want as possible. In Tom and Julie’s example above, Tom’s priority might be on maintaining positive, friendly relationships with the school personnel, while Julie’s priority might be ameliorating the problem as efficiently as possible. Certainly, there must be a solution that allows both of these to occur. Perhaps they can agree to compose an email together that presents a message that satisfies them both, and then agree on an amount of time after which they will set up a meeting if the email does not have the desired effect. This approach is not either partner’s perfect or preferred solution, but it is likely to be tolerable to both.
Another important component of handling these control dynamics successfully is, as David Schnarch proposes, realizing that some of these fundamental differences are here to stay and letting go of the need to change one’s partner. For Tom and Julie, differences in their preferences for dealing with problems are fundamental to who they are, and neither is likely to change. Each must accept that the other simply prefers to do things a different way, and that is not a personal attack, criticism, or indictment of the other. When they can both stop taking the issue so personally, and stop letting their differences make them feel criticized and controlled, opportunities for teamwork and compromise will open beautifully before them.
How have you seen issues related to control manifest in your own relationship? Sound off in the comments!
Lindsey Hoskins & Associates provides couple, family, and individual therapy in downtown Bethesda, MD. Email or call us today to set up an appointment!