In most dating situations it would be highly unlikely for a person to act out in a controlling manner. For example, you would not see a young man rant and rave if his first-time shidduch is five minutes late for a date. Both parties are still in the illusionary phase of the relationship, where they are careful to limit any form of criticism and to maintain an air of civility during all interchanges. Control is also not usually a major factor at the beginning of a marriage, when most people are doing their best to start off with their best foot forward and limiting any excessive behavior.
While during the initial phase of a serious relationship people tend to treat their fiancé as a friend, over time, controlling behaviors can silently creep in and become apparent when one side attempts to yield an imbalance of power over the other. They may also start objectifying the other person and mistakenly believe that this person was created to serve their needs. And, when they don’t get their way, they feel it’s their right to force them to comply and make them do what they want.
It is true that you may think that what you want should be acceptable to your spouse, even though in reality it is debasing or demeaning. Of course there are many circumstances in which we have to do things we don’t feel are easy or pleasant. For instance, a parent may find it hard to tell their child to behave in a certain way. A wife or husband may complain that they need more help around the house or with their children. Problems begin when we start believing that we can actually control the other person’s behavior, and we don’t have to negotiate for what we need.
In counseling I often see situations where a husband very giving to his wife. He gives her all the things that he thinks she wants. He may provide her with all the comforts imaginable, including a beautiful home, car, clothing etc. Yet, she may feel that her husband is emotionally detached and unresponsive to the things she really wants – warmth and affection.
Meir, 24 and Tzipporah, 22, though recently married, have both begun to feel as if the other person was unresponsive to his/her needs. Although there had been respect on both sides, over the last few months, Tzipporah had begun to feel that her husband was wielding too much control over their finances. About two months prior to their first visit with me, Meir had decided that he would be solely responsible for their finances and without Tzipporah’s knowledge, had opened up his own bank account. Tzipporah would not have direct access to money, and instead would be given a small “allowance” for spending each week. Clearly, Meir had begun to control his wife, by using money as his primary weapon.
I was interested in exploring whether money was the only area of control in their lives. Often, control starts out in other areas, such as emotional control, or control over how love is shared or reserved to punish the other person. This is, it turned out, how Meir had shown early signs of controlling behavior. During their dating period, Meir began to take unusual control over their relationship. At first, he would insist on deciding when and where they would dine. At first, she viewed this behavior as somewhat gallant or chivalrous, and at a certain level she even enjoyed it, because she thought there was something charmingly old-fashioned about it.
However, one night, he ordered her a dish she knew she really would not like, and when she tried to ask the waiter to bring her something else instead, Meir glared at her until she felt shamed into silence.
During that date, Tzipporah found herself fuming inside, all the while trying to conceal her anger at his having treated her like a child in front of their waiter. Through a sheer act of will, she managed to keep up a steady patter of superficial, meaningless small talk, but she barely touched her meal. (After all, it was something she did not like.) She wanted to speak up afterward, when they were finally alone together in the car, but for some strange reason, she found that she was almost afraid to do so. It was a strange, unfamiliar feeling, being somewhat fearful and on guard around the person whom she believed she loved, and who, likewise, claimed to love her.
So, rather than directly confronting him about how his actions had made her feel, the following day she called her sister to discuss it. She was initially embarrassed to tell her sister what had transpired, and she wasn’t even sure which aspect of the situation was the greatest source of her embarrassment: the fact that her fiancé had treated her like a child in front of that waiter, or the fact that she had felt afraid — genuinely afraid — of confronting him about how badly he had behaved.