Have you ever been in a relationship with a controlling person?
It can feel stifling, because a controlling person is always trying to tell you what to do or how to feel.
Isn’t that a lot of makeup?
I don’t want you going out for drinks after work, you should be coming straight home.
Why did you spend that much money on clothes?
You should lose some weight and start working out, then you’ll feel better.
You need a hobby that’s not going to be so time-consuming.
When someone says these types of things to you, it’s easy to recognize their controlling behavior.
But YOU aren’t like that, you might think. You’re not a controlling person. You don’t tell your partner what to do.
Instead, you are nice—sometimes too nice. You do so much for your partner. Perhaps you clean or fix things around the house, plan or cook most of the meals, remind your partner of important appointments, and you encourage him or her to better themselves through classes or therapy.
But you don’t demand it of them.
You’re always there when your partner needs to talk or vent. You have a sense of when they need you, and you’re more than happy to be there for them. In fact, you sometimes put off doing what you want to do in order to support your partner.
You’re not overbearing or critical. You choose your words carefully because you just don’t like rocking the boat. You want to pick your battles.
When you do get upset, you’d rather just stay quiet and let your partner come to you to smooth things over. You’re not going to tell them what to do or how to feel about you. You want them to figure that out for themselves.
You’d never want your partner to think you’re a controlling person, because you’re not.
But guess what?
If you relate to any of the above, you ARE controlling.
What?! You might say. That doesn’t make any sense. You never tell your partner what to do.
It’s understandable that you don’t “get” how you’ve been controlling. But let me explain…
I’ve found that there are two major areas in which we try to control others.
Sometimes we try to control what people do, and other times we may try to control how they feel about us and react to us.
While you may not be the former, you may just be the latter.
Let’s take the example of Christopher and Pam. Christopher tends to focus on what Pam does—how she spends her time and who she spends it with, how much money she spends, how well she keeps the house, and how she looks.
When Pam doesn’t behave in the way Christopher thinks she “should,” he becomes angry, judgmental, and withdrawn. In Christopher’s mind, he will feel loved and safe when Pam behaves the way he wants her to behave, and he feels justified in attempting to control her when she is out of line. Love for Christopher means someone doing what he wants, and he wants control over this.
This is the overt form of control. This is about trying to tell someone what to do or not to do, or how to feel.
Pam, on the other hand, tends to focus on Christopher’s reactions to her. Pam wants control over Christopher’s reactions by being warm, accepting, and understanding. When Christopher is judgmental and withdrawn, Pam feels unsafe and tries to control Christopher with her niceness and care-taking.
Pam gives herself up and tries to do what Christopher wants in order to control his feelings about her and his reactions toward her. Eventually, when Christopher does not give her the acceptance she desires, she gets angry, but niceness and care-taking are her first choices. Love for Pam means someone being accepting of her and she wants control over this.
It’s easy to see Christopher’s controlling behavior. His anger, judgments, and withdrawal are quite obvious.
It’s harder to see that Pam is actually just as controlling as Christopher—not about what he does, but about how he feels and reacts. This is a covert form of control.
Even if you aren’t being overtly controlling, there may be other, more subtle ways you are trying to control your partner. For example, you are trying to control if you are:
I know how you feel. It took me a long time to recognize my own controlling behavior, because I’ve never been controlling of what people do. I’ve always given my family and friends great latitude to be themselves and do whatever they want regarding what makes them happy.
Eventually I realized that my control was always around how people feel and respond. I wanted people to be open, caring, and compassionate with me so that I would not have to feel lonely with them and helpless over them.
In your case, you may be covertly controlling your partner in order to affect how they feel and respond to you.
But where does this need to control come from, you might ask?
As is the case for many of us, it all started in childhood.
There’s no shame in the fact that all of us have controlling behaviors toward others, covert or otherwise.
We learned it when we were children, when we were much too little for the big feelings of guilt, shame, anger, loss, and rejection. No matter how great your parents were, you would have experienced painful emotions when you were young. Most of us did.
These feelings scared us, and we tried whatever we could to feel better.
Some of us rebelled, thinking that if we caused a fuss we would get more attention from our parents.
Some of us conformed, making as little fuss as possible in the hopes that this would buy us the love and comfort we needed.
Either way, we were trying to control other people in order to feel loved and avoid pain.
We either learned that we can tell others what to do (overt control) in order to accomplish this, or we learned that we could affect how others reacted to us (covert control) by people-pleasing and abandoning our own needs.
That’s why, as an adult, if you put your needs last, or always defer to others, or act extra “nice,” what you’re doing is attempting to control how others feel about you. You hope that your partner sees how agreeable you are and will want to stay with you.
Anything that has an agenda attached, is a form of control.
And it can have a tremendous negative effect on your relationship.
Our controlling behavior eventually results in creating whatever it is we are trying to prevent. We control to get love and avoid pain, yet by controlling rather than loving ourselves and others, we create the very pain we are trying to avoid.
We people-please and abandon our own needs to get love and respect, but it backfires when we feel unappreciated and burned out, so we get angry and resentful of our partner.
We stonewall or bite our tongue in order to make our partner feel comfortable around us so they won’t reject us, but in doing so we suppress our own pain and over time, we grow apart from the person we wanted to love forever.
We yell, make demands, or blame our partner because we want to control how our partner behaves in order to feel secure in the relationship, but we end up losing them anyway because they get tired of being abused by us.
That’s why I say that the #1 unhealed issue that people are struggling with inside of a relationship, that they then carry from relationship to relationship, is CONTROL.
Fortunately, once you learn to recognize how control is running your life and what you can do to heal it, you can tap into an unending source of love, safety, and acceptance, no matter whom you’re with, or whether or not you’re even in a relationship to begin with.
It was a huge awakening for me when I realized how many controlling things I did to try to get others to be loving with me. Accepting my lack of control over how others choose to treat me has been extremely freeing.
Now, if someone is unloving to me, I’m no longer compliant in an effort to get them to be loving. I just go to my higher self and find out what it means to take care of myself in the face of their unloving behavior, accepting that I have no control over how another chooses to be.
Accepting that I can’t control others’ feelings or behavior has freed me to take loving care of myself.
I call this process of learning how to take care of myself in order to stop trying to control others “Inner Bonding.”
It’s a six-step process I developed together with my friend and fellow therapist, Dr. Erika Chopich, and have taught to both clients in my private psychotherapy practice and to thousands of people all over the world through workshops and books.
Teaching this process of Inner Bonding has been the highlight of my 50 year (yes, 50!) career. I’ve been so grateful to be able to show individuals how to take action with regard to self love by listening to their inner guidance and taking responsibility for their feelings.
Now I’ve partnered with Flourish, so I can extend that help and guidance to as many people as possible. Almost everyone can benefit from learning about how to take action on self love and heal the dysfunctional coping strategies we use to distract ourselves from anxiety, malaise, and other painful emotions.
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