In 2005, shortly after I published a book about ways to reduce
the various forms of "emotional drama" that can
arise in love relationships, I felt deeply honored and privileged
when a local reporter invited me to take part in a sort of
"community round table discussion."
The subject was domestic violence and emotional abuse, and
also participating was a counselor from a local youth organization
and a representative from a local group that combats domestic
If you'd like to read more about the highlights of that conversation,
is a link to the complete article about it.
This column will focus not so much on full-fledged domestic
violence, but will instead address the related problem of
excessive emotional control in love relationships.
For instance, if one partner gets to set all of the terms,
"rules" and parameters of an intimate relationship,
then this would be a classic example of one person having
too much emotional control over his or her partner.
Spotting the Signs of an Overly Controlling
More specifically, let's say that in an exclusive dating
relationship that has been going on for six months, one of
the partners, Adam, never goes to his girlfriend Elizabeth's
When one partner seizes full emotional control in a
love relationship, the other partner can start to feel
very restricted and resentful.
Instead he insists on her always coming to his place, making
the argument that his place is bigger and therefore more comfortable
than hers. At the beginning of their relationship, this behavior
would hurt her feelings. However, at this point, she has not
exactly accepted it, but she has grown somewhat numb to it.
Let's say he also always insists not only on choosing which
restaurants they dine at, but also on selecting and then ordering
her dinner for her. 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, Adam ordered Elizabeth a dish that she
knew she really would not like, and when she tried to chime
in to tell the waiter to get her something else instead, Adam
glared at her until she felt shamed into silence.
It was a terrible feeling. Never one to make a fuss in public,
Elizabeth found herself fuming inside throughout the rest
of the dinner, all the while trying her hardest to conceal
her anger at Adam's 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.
"Is He Always This Controlling?"
But of course there was no mistaking that "pit-in-her-stomach"
feeling of fear and dread for anything else. Under most circumstances,
she would feel no qualms about defending herself and her views,
but today was somehow different. The whole experience was
very confusing and upsetting.
So, rather than directly confronting Adam about how his actions
had made her feel, the following day she called Marlene, her
sister (and confidante), to talk about what had happened.
Elizabeth was initially embarrassed to tell Marlene what
had transpired, and she wasn't even sure which aspect of the
situation was the greatest source of her embarrassment: the
fact that Adam 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.
Once Elizabeth finally forced herself to get the words out
about exactly what had happened, and how awful she had felt
about it afterward, Marlene asked (just as any concerned sister
he always this controlling?"
At first, Elizabeth felt dumbstruck. It was never something
she had really thought about, at least not in those precise
terms. She knew Adam was a bit of a "stickler" about
certain things, but she figured that we all have our little
foibles, and up until now, she had never really envisioned
that this side of his personality could actually be emotionally
destructive in any way.
But now she felt compelled to re-examine everything that
had gone on during their relationship in a new light.
Learn To Trust Your Gut Instincts
And when she did start to think more deeply about his behavior,
it slowly started to dawn on her that all of the little bossy,
nit-picky things that he did, and all of the odd little "rules
and regulations" that he had always insisted upon, might
actually add up to an excessively controlling personality.
Now, we all have our various defense mechanisms for coping
in a sometimes chaotic world, a world that can throw any of
us an unexpected emotional "curveball" without a
But not all defense mechanisms are healthy and constructive.
And when it comes to emotionally controlling individuals,
their primary defense mechanism for trying to cope in an unpredictable
world is to try to impose their wills, wishes and worldviews
upon everyone and everything around them.
One way, then, to conceptualize a controlling person is as
a fearful, anxious person, a person who is simply trying his
absolute hardest to exercise some control over a world that
is (quite obviously) out of his control.
Healthy intimate relationships are not based on a power
struggle for control, but are grounded in a foundation
of mutual love and respect.
This way of thinking about excessively controlling individuals
allows us to
feel some empathy and compassion toward them, because
we can all understand (and at a certain level, even relate
to), the all-too-human desire for control that so often drives
their often outrageous behavior.
But feeling at least a certain level of empathy for an
overly controlling person (who is obviously struggling with
his or her own set of emotional issues), and opting to stay
in an intimate relationship with such an individual are two
very different things.
Remember, one of the cardinal rules of all love relationships
is that we cannot change how other people think and behave,
we can only change how we think and behave.
So if a romantic partner is exhibiting behavior that is excessively
controlling, it is not a good idea to go into "rescue
mode," and think that you can change the way that person
functions, either in the context of their intimate relationships,
or in the world at large.
In such a situation, it is a far better idea to cut
your losses by ending the relationship, no matter
how emotionally attached you may have become. Otherwise this
kind of controlling behavior is far more likely to escalate
and intensify-rather than decline-as the relationship
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