by Dan Neuharth, PhD
Dear Jade: The first thing to remember about controlling people is that their control is driven by their fears and hopes. It's hard not to take it personally when control is directed at you, but it isn't personal. When they're in controlling mode, they're dancing to fears that leave them with less freedom than a marionette– although they may not know it. Unfortunately, many controllers try to escape feeling helpless by trying to pull the strings of those around them.
Two questions to ask yourself in any controlling relationship:
1) Is the control abusive? It is never okay to be physically, sexually, emotionally or verbally abused. You don't have to take it. Seek professional help and, if the abusive pattern continues, get out.
2) On balance, do I gain or lose more from the relationship? All relationships involve compromises. You wrote that your husband can be both crazy-making and endearing. What's the overall ratio? If, in response to his control, you give up your principles, ideals, goals, and sense of self, that's a tremendous price. If, on the other hand, the relationship offers you more than it costs, find ways to cope.
Some suggestions for dealing with controlling mates, friends, family, clients, and/or co-workers:
Simply observe their control. Take a day and make mental notes of what seems to set them off. The great thing about research is that nothing can go wrong– everything that happens is data from which you can learn.
Switch the focus. If someone seems fixated on telling you what you're doing wrong, get them to talk about themselves. Ask how they faced a similar situation. That may be what they want to talk about anyway.
Pick your battles. Decide which relationship issues are most important and insist of them. Then let the others go. Perhaps then you can just let the dishwasher-and-dashboard domination pass with a smile.
Be the person you want to be. Trying to out-control control freaks generally doesn't work; they've had a lot more practice at it than you.
Understand why they control. Compulsive behavior generally is driven by anxiety about what they view as a dangerous, unpredictable world. When you know why they act as they do, you can have compassion for their behavior.
Experiment. Ask your partner to switch roles for five minutes. You be the controller and your partner plays you. Then talk about what the experience was like.
Give time to yourself. In any relationship, you have the right to say, "I'd like some time to consider what you said. Let's talk again tomorrow."
Finally, keep your sense of humor. As humorist Brian Kiley said, "I love being married. I was single for a long time and I got so sick of finishing my own sentences."
Here are some of my favorite books about coping with controllers:
Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You Patricia Evans
Emotional Blackmail Susan Forward
The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists Eleanor Payson
Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man Scott Wetzler
Loving the Self-Absorbed Nina Brown
Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry Albert Bernstein
I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality Jerold Kreisman
Stop Walking on Eggshells Paul Mason
Lost in the Mirror: An Inside Look at Borderline Personality Disorder Richard Moskovitz
When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You Jan Yager
People-Reading: How We Control Others, How They Control Us Ernst Beier
In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People George Simon
Coping with Difficult People Robert Bramson
The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern Nina Brown
How to Break Your Addiction to a Person Howard Halpern
Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting Your Marriage Susan Forward
Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men Lundy Bancroft
Click on links below to read other Ask Dr. Dan Columns:
If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World