Are you experiencing a difficult marriage? Do you feel that you are the only one who cares about your relationship and your spouse won’t listen to your pleas for change?
According to the principles of Relationship Theory that I outline in my book At Risk – Never Beyond Reach, there are alternatives to perpetuating negative patterns of behavior in marriage. To understand how changes can occur, we will begin by examining five key areas of interaction between couples: control, love, self-esteem, individuality and meaning.
This week, we’ll explore the nature of control and how the imbalance of power can have negative effects within the family structure.
Control may be one of the most important areas plaguing difficult marriages. Remember, no one likes being controlled. In fact, those who suffer at the hands of a controlling spouse often linger for years with feelings of anger and depression. They may also experience the following feelings:
· 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 theirs.
· They must obtain permission to act in matters that are, in fact, their own business.
There is also no doubt that control breeds hostility and resentment. I once spoke to a couple where the husband controlled every aspect of his wife’s life. He decided how she raised her children, where she shopped, how much money she could spend and whether or not she could have a cell phone. Their marriage was in a shambles and they had developed various negative styles of communication, stopped bonding with one another and lived a life of isolation and constant friction while living in the same house.
I have seen other troubled marriages where 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. These couples – like others – need to moderate their level of control and achieve a healthy balance of power in their relationship.
Also, it’s not just about communication, but attitude and perspective as well. A controlling personality tends to ignore his or her spouses needs and feelings and focuses only on what they view as necessary to maintain their own sense of security and equilibrium. The controller’s message is: It’s my way or the highway!
This mistaken attitude towards control also affects all family relationships, especially those with teenagers. A couple once came to me to discuss their teenager’s controlling behavior in the home. Their son tended to yell at his brothers and sister, boss them around and insult them on an ongoing basis. It became apparent after spending just a few moments with the parents that the father also had difficulty managing his anger and felt free to insult his wife on an ongoing basis in front of me, and much worse, in front of his child. Their son had learned early on how to control and berate other family members and was now mirroring the behavior he learned from his parents.
To help this family, I aimed to reduce external control and replace it with Relationship Theory, which teaches families how to shift towards respecting each other’s feelings and working to fulfill each other’s needs to the best of their abilities. This family needed to stop trying one another and to begin to respect the other person’s sense of autonomy.
For marriage to work, both husband and wife need to watch carefully how they exercise control. One step towards moderating an imbalance of power is to begin to develop an attitude of chesed or good will towards one another. When this is accompanied by expressing appreciation for one another on a daily basis, couples may begin to see each other as valuable and unique individuals, both adding to the quality of the relationship.
Another way of moderating control is by having a frank discussion about how decisions are made and who makes them. In some instances control can be divided in a healthy way, as long as both sides agree to the arrangement. For example, a couple could decide together who makes decisions and in which areas of influence. A lot depends on whether or not both sides consent to the power structure. The problem begins when one side assumes that they are the one in control and neglects to take the other person’s desires into consideration.
When couples begin to moderate their level of control, they often begin to experience more positive feelings in their marriage. One couple once described to me that when they reduced their level of control they felt as if they where newly married once again.
After control is replaced by Relationship Theory, couples can then go on to work towards improving their ability to love another. Next week we will explore the dynamics that love can play within a healthy marriage.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch is the executive director of Shalom Task Force and the author of a new book about parenting teenagers called At Risk – Never Beyond Reach: Three Principles Every Parent and Educator Should Know. He maintains a practice in family counseling and is a popular lecturer on parenting and relationships. You can visit Rabbi Schonbuch on the Web at www.neverbeyondreach.org or e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.