Controlling behavior may be the number one reason that your marriage needs first aid.
If you are unfamiliar with the topic of control, it’s no surprise. Most people are unaware that control is a major issue for counselors, therapists and psychologists-at-large.
In Successful Relationships: At Home, at Work, and with Friends: Bringing Control Issues Under Control, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski explains that, “Everyone may have the need to wield control, and there are many relationships which may indeed require control. Exceeding an acceptable amount of control invites trouble.”
Trouble, indeed. Think about your relationships. Which ones do you find meaningful and enjoyable and which ones do you avoid like the plague? Take your friends, for example. Do you try to control them, tell them what to do, yell at them, kvetch when you don’t get what you want right away? Probably not. So why do we think its okay to do so in our most intimate relationship? Perhaps it’s human nature. When we are married and live with someone for many years, we begin to take for granted that, on some level, they exist to fulfill our needs.
Did you ever wonder why people who have been married for 20, 30 or more years will claim that they love each other, yet are always yelling at one another? I see these kinds of couples all the time, and not just in my office. Last summer I took my children to an amusement park and had to wait in lines for hours in the hot August heat. Standing next to me was a couple who must have been in their late 40s, with four children ranging from age 8 to late teens. They all seemed on edge and upset about standing in line, with hundreds of people in front of them waiting to take a 90-second plunge down the latest monster roller coaster. Their conversation went something like this:
Husband (to wife): I am getting so tired standing here!
Wife (to husband): I told you about the long lines.
Husband: Why can’t they make this go quicker?
Wife: There you go again, blaming everybody.
Husband: Blaming? That’s your job around here. You are so hot-tempered today, I‘m losing my cool.
Wife (trying to hush him down while everybody was listening to their little fight): Okay. I can’t stand it when you berate me in public!
At this point their twelve-year-old and eight-year-old children started pushing each other and the younger one started crying. And then, the mother started yelling at her oldest son to behave better, and the father turned around and screamed, “Cut it out or go home!”
This all points to the fact, that deep down inside, people believe that they somehow can control each other’s behavior. In this family, for example, the father thought that he could control the people waiting in line and started complaining out loud. His wife thought she could control her husband’s outbursts by putting him down, and by doing so, defuse his behavior. The husband then tried controlling her and started ranting and raving about her negative attitude. And once again, the wife tried controlling her whole family so that they wouldn’t look silly in front of the other customers.
You’ll notice that the need for control is often circular; first you try to control someone, then in response, they try to control you back. That makes you even angrier and intensifies your desire to gain even more control.
That’s why as a counselor I often find myself teaching couples how to moderate their level of control and increase their levels of mutual respect. The line of reasoning flows like this:
Less control and more focus on the relationship = healthy marriages.
More control and less focus on the relationship = unhealthy marriages.
When people are less controlling they are a lot more pleasant to be around. They also find it easier to create loving and supportive relationships. Living with a high controller is difficult. They tend to create emotional distance and the people living with them develop the following beliefs about themselves:
* They are stuck with another person’s definition of them.
* They do not have the right to their own opinions.
* They can earn love and acceptance by abdicating control to another person.
* They are “successful” if they fulfill another person’s vision, even when it does not in any way support their own.
* They must obtain permission to act in matters that are, in fact, their own business.
There is no doubt that control breeds hostility and resentment. Take Meir and Sarah, for example. Meir had arbitrarily decided how Sarah should raise their children, where she should shop, how much money she should spend, and whether or not she should have a cell phone. Case in point, Meir thought that Sarah was overly permissive with their children and spent too much time reading to them at night. Feeling it was his “right” to correct her behavior, Meir would berate Sarah about her parenting skills — sometimes in private, and at other times in front of their children. Each time one of their children acted out, he would say it was due to her “poor parenting skills.”
Sarah was enraged that Meir was exposing her and their children to his belittling and degrading comments. In sheer desperation, she began her own form of controlling behavior – going on shopping sprees and spending money beyond their means. Before long, Sarah had racked up over $7,000 on their VISA bill, believing that she could spend as much money as she wanted despite the devastating consequences to her family.
It was pretty easy for me to see that her shopping habits were directly connected to how her husband was treating her at home. The more harshly he behaved with her, the bigger the VISA bill. Sarah was trying to control her husband by hitting him with unsuspecting bills that would inevitably drive him crazy.
As usual, the circle of control didn’t stop there. Meir kept complaining about Sarah’s parenting skills and eventually decided to exert further control by cutting off her VISA card. He also felt that she could not be trusted to spend money as she pleased and opened up his own bank account without consulting her.
What really pushed Sarah over the edge was when Meir started reviewing her cell phone bills and questioning why she was calling her friends during the day (which would cost more minutes than their monthly family plan would allow).
Their marriage was in a shambles and with the friction burning in their home, their relationship was in serious crisis.
Marriages like this are not uncommon. When a spouse yields an inordinate amount of control over areas such as finances, education, food and vacation plans while leaving their spouse totally in the dark, the results can be catastrophic.
And it’s not just about controlling behavior, but attitude and perspective as well. A person with a controlling personality tends to ignore his or her spouses needs and focuses only on what he views as necessary to maintain his own sense of security and equilibrium. The controller’s message is: It’s my way or the highway!
There’s no doubt that control problems also affect a multitude of family relationships, especially those with children and teenagers. Take David, 42, and Lisa, 38, for example. They came together with their two teenage boys, Daniel, 15, and Gavriel, 13, to discuss Daniel’s at-risk behavior.
The situation in their home had become unbearable. The previous Shabbos, Daniel got in a fist fight with his younger brother and ended up breaking a window in their bedroom. This was not their first fight, but one of their worst ones in years. David and Lisa had also brought with them a laundry list of complaints about Daniel’s behavior. They felt that he wasn’t taking school seriously, that he was fighting in class, and worst of all, he was consistently rude to his parents.
To make matters worse, David started blaming Lisa for Daniel’s problems. He believed that she was “too accepting,” “parented without borders,” and “never disciplined him for doing wrong.” The tension in the room quickly boiled over and Daniel and Lisa started snapping at and insulting one another.
After calming down the situation, I began searching for clues to Daniel’s behavior. Was he a victim of abuse from one of his teachers? Did he suffer from a learning disability? Did he have an attention deficit?
I believed that the clues to their son’s at-risk behavior weren’t to be found “out on the street,” or in Daniel’s school. The source of their problem was sitting right in their room with us. It was obvious that Daniel’s father, David, had a controlling personality and difficulty managing his anger. And now Daniel had learned how to control others by attacking those who disagreed with him. Daniel was simply mirroring the at-risk behavior he had learned from his father at home.
To help this family, I aimed to reduce their use of external control. They needed to stop insulting one another and instead treat each other with respect. David was a “controller,” and the results, on an emotional level, were disastrous.
The lesson for marriage is that if we expect to be treated in a fair and loving manner, we need to be careful how we exercise control in our closest relationships. We also need to become sensitive to our spouse’s needs, and first and foremost, develop an attitude of respect for one another.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, Marriage and Family Therapy, is an expert in marriage counseling, pre-marital education, and helping teens in crisis with offices in Flatbush, Cedarhurst, and Crown Heights. He is a certified PAIRS instructor, and trained as a Level 1, Emotionally Focused Therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, and is a member of AASECT. He is the author of At Risk – Never Beyond Reach and First Aid For Jewish Marriages. To watch his free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit: www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723
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