Control Freak, Part Two, the Spouse

In part one of this three part series, Control Freak, the Family, we discussed parents attempting to overly control children. Part Two of Control Freak deals with how we may inflict our old issues on other adults, specifically on our spouses. We are all products of everything that has happened to us, how we were treated by parents and others when we were children, and how we have been helped (or not) to grow through both the minor and major traumas of life.

If we were made to feel bad about ourselves as children, often by a critical or overly controlling parent, we may grow up to try to handle the fear of not being good enough, that self-doubt, even self-hatred, by attempts to make our spouses and children, be a certain way. Controlling behavior is an endeavor to quiet some fear and gain a sense of well being, (happiness?) by putting ourselves... well... in control!

Does your spouse attempt to control what you wear, what you eat, your hairstyle or lack thereof or how you use your free time? Is the effort at control perhaps more subtle than these obvious issues? Does he/she "backseat drive"? Want to manage how you do the laundry or cook the meals? Always with justification, of course: if you do it this save time, money, energy...or it looks better, tastes better, is easier etc. And my personal favorite, "It's the right way." In whose opinion? Those spouses, friends and relatives who want to be in charge of you may do it nicely, even gently. If the one attempting to manage your life is sugar-sweet and has a southern accent, you may have difficulty identifying the comment as criticism or control and simply find that person annoying.

In extreme cases, spouses, typically husbands, exert power over wives to the extent that the wives have no freedoms, no friends, are not "allowed" to have jobs or to participate in social activities without the husband. The development of such severe pathology in a relationship is usually gradual and subtle. Some religions and certain cultures endorse husbands being in charge of wives, literal in control of another adult human being. More common, at least in the U.S., is the marriage where one individual simply has the need to direct everyone and everything. Like the frog that sits in room temperature water, does not notice as it is gradually heated and eventually boils to death, the spouse of a controlling person may not be able to articulate that he feels increasingly controlled; he may just wonder why he is so unhappy.

Perhaps even more damaging than the parent who is overly controlling of the children, is the parent who criticizes and attempts to control the other parent. Children see the relationship their parents have with each other; moreover, they live in the atmosphere provided for them. If you are anxious and angry, refusing to deal with your own issues and blaming others, you impose on everyone around you...except when you are pretending in front of people you want to impress (usually everyone except your family). By insisting on having your way, (the right way), you disrespect and devalue the other person, implying they and their values are wrong.

Children who helplessly watch a parent being belittled and trivialized or worse, as the other parent attempts to control and refuses to respect, have great difficulty with future relationships. They develop problems with trust and an underlying sense of "things just not being quite right."

Instead of bickering, try focusing on the good in your spouse. Don't try to control every situation. Trust him or her to have valid opinions. Respect him and his opinions. And quit judging, even under your breath, at every opportunity. Deal with your own anxiety and stop inflicting it on everyone around you. Make a decision to let go, to trust, to forget about what people will think. Consider therapy or a workshop to jump start your changes. Don't wait until you destroy your marriage and do irreversible damage to your children.

Dr. Dawn Obrecht is the only MD addiction medicine specialist on the western slope of Colorado. She is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and her office is in Steamboat Springs. She teaches a communication course to medical students at the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver


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