Control may be the most destructive force influencing a marriage. Let me illustrate this point with the following story. About two years ago a woman named Bracha, 47, came to speak to me about her husband’s controlling behavior. This is how she described her precarious situation:
“My husband is a very controlling person. He likes to be in charge of everything and he’s always telling me what to do. It’s driving me crazy. I feel like I can’t live up to his standards. He’s critical about almost everything I do, like my housework, taking care of the kids, and how I talk in front of his friends. When I clean the house, he quizzes me on what I had accomplished, how long it took and how to improve in the future. I tend to lean toward perfectionism, so you can imagine how frustrating it is for me to spend hours trying to meet his needs and then have him question me on my behavior!”
There was no question that Bracha was suffering from an overly controlling husband. Instead of respecting and caring for his wife, he chose to belittle and berate her for not living up to his unrealistic demands. Worse, Bracha had tried her best to please her husband and was now made to feel that she was a failure.
For those who find it difficult to imagine this extreme behavior, try to remember the last time you felt controlled by someone close to you, and then multiply that feeling by one-hundred-fold. Most of us have experienced some kind of control in our lives. For example, your parents may have tried to control what you ate or when you went to sleep. At work, you may have experienced a boss who aimed to control your behavior or ensure that your productivity was high. In the classroom, your teachers may have tried to control your behavior and make sure you focused on your studies.
Some people grew up in families where anger and criticism were used as ways to control. If these were used in your family, you may have learned to respond to with compliance. You may have learned to put aside your own feelings and go along with what others wanted, in the hope of avoiding their wrath.
After learning how to handle control as a child, some utilize the same principles in marriage. Now it manifests itself in new way, for example, trying to “baby” your spouse by controlling his or her every move, giving in easily to what he or she wants, or retreating or resisting attempts to control you. All of these are systems of control.
Below is a transcript of a session with Eliyahu, 38, and Shaina, 35. After 12 years of marriage, their relationship was deteriorating and they were quickly drifting apart.
Eliyahu: I guess I feel that Shaina is just so distant and unaffectionate. Most of the time she’s critical and I can’t seem to do anything right in her eyes. I try really hard to please her, but no matter what I do, it’s not good enough. I want her to appreciate me and say “thank you,” for I do give to her. I wish she would be warmer with me and let me know that she still loves me.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): Shaina, Eliyahu feels that you are distant and don’t appreciate who he is or what he does.
Shaina: Don’t appreciate him? I just can’t seem to connect with him anymore. I feel irritated around him and I don’t really know why. He just annoys me. I feel like he’s clingy and I don’t like being around him.
DS: You said you don’t know why you dislike like him. Is there anything specific that you can point to?
Shaina: Well, for one thing, he’s doesn’t appreciate how hard I work for him. I work in a high-pressured accounting office and often come home late. When I do, he seems irritated and usually attacks me by saying that our kids are burdening him. But, you know, I work too hard for him to complain. I spend too many hours slaving at work for him to complain about me! I wish he would get a better job so I could stop working so hard! But he’s such a failure in business and I can’t stand having to bear the burden for the entire family.”
Despite Eliyahu’s attempts to move closer to his wife, every possible advance was being rejected by Shaina, who would stonewall or retreat into her own emotional world.
In this marriage, Eliyahu was acting like a caretaker. He tried to control her by being a “nice guy” and doing everything he thought Shaina wanted, including making dinner every night, doing the laundry, and taking care of his children. He secretly believed that if he was kind enough, he could control Shaina’s love for him. What he didn’t realize is that his niceness was really a “pull” on Shaina, which is one reason she kept her distance. Underneath, Eliyahu had a big fear of rejection and was trying to have control over Shaina not rejecting him.
On the other hand, Shaina was trying to control Eliyahu, primarily with her criticism. She was critical any time she felt Eliyahu wanted something from her that would make him feel safe and loved. She had a secret hope that if she criticized him enough, he would stop pulling on her for affection and attention. Unconsciously, Shaina had a huge fear of being “swallowed up” and was trying to protect herself from being controlled by Eliyahu. Shaina could not experience who Eliyahu was because he was putting himself aside to please her. She could not connect with him until he was authentically himself. The more Eliyahu pulled with niceness, the more Shaina moved away, and the more Shaina moved away, the more Eliyahu pulled.
Both Eliyahu and Shaina needed to learn how to take loving care of themselves, rather than attempt to control the other. Eliyahu needed to learn how to not take Shaina’s behavior as a personal rejection. He needed to see that her withdrawal was coming from her fear of engulfment that he was tapping into, but he was not the cause of her fear. She had this fear way before meeting him. Eliyahu also needed to start to be loving to himself rather than “nice” to Shaina. He needed to learn to take responsibility for his own feelings of well-being, instead of being dependent upon Shaina for them. In learning to take care of himself, he would naturally stop pulling on Shaina for his sense of worth and security.
I suggested to Shaina that she needed to moderate the tone of her comments and learn to speak her truth without blaming or judging. She could say things like, “Eliyahu, I appreciate the dinner you made, but I feel like you made it with an expectation that I should now love you, rather than because you felt like making dinner. I’d rather that you not make dinner unless you are doing it because you really want to, and without an expectation attached. I feel pulled-on and it doesn’t feel good.”
Eliyahu and Shaina decided that it was worth learning how to give love to themselves, and then see what happened with their marriage. Fortunately, because both of them were devoted to learning to take full, 100% responsibility for their own feelings and needs, they were able to move out of their protective, controlling circle and into a loving circle. As they learned to take responsibility for themselves, their love for each other gradually returned.
In a healthy marriage, control is at bare minimum; both individuals develop a sense of mutuality and respect, carrying out their different duties and roles. When they need to “talk out” issues they do so in a kind and compassionate manner. When they disagree, they are able to resolve their disagreements and move on with their marriage and relationship.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, treating Anxiety and Depression, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Brooklyn. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 646-428-4723.
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