The subject of having a possessive or controlling relationship partner may feel worlds away from the sweet sentiment behind asking someone to be your Valentine. However, many couples find there can be a slippery slope from desiring a lover to wanting to own them. When it comes to coping with feelings of jealousy or insecurity, couples can cross the line from love to possessiveness. They often intrude on each other’s boundaries and disrespect each other’s inherent independence. Think of all the secret searches through cell phones, the guilt trips when one partner goes out with friends, the outbursts when reassurance isn’t offered, or the interrogations over attractions to anyone else.
There are many subtle and not-so-subtle ways people attempt to control relationship partners as a means to calm their own emotions. Yet, feeling connected to someone doesn’t mean it is okay to act entitled, or to exert power over them. In fact, attempts to exercise power over our partners actually serve to reduce and diminish our own attraction to them. When we try to control someone close to us, we limit them in ways that make them less themselves. We want our partners (and ourselves for that matter) to be fulfilled, well-rounded individuals who are fully alive. When we make our partner feel guilty for choosing to spend time with friends, for example, we actually shrink their world. We should always aim to grow each other’s worlds rather than restrict them. Otherwise, we take the air and life out of the relationship. It’s no surprise that studies have shown that jealousy and surveillance behaviors we often associate with possessiveness lead to relationship dissatisfaction and destructive behavior.
So how can you stop the possessive patterns in your relationship? The first step is to understand why you engage in controlling behavior, and the second step is to deal with the underlying feelings that drive you toward an unequal dynamic.
Most of us have some degree of fear and insecurity surrounding our close relationships. These feelings can spring from deeper struggles we have with trust, low self-esteem, fears of rejection, loss or intimacy itself. These deep-seated emotions can lead to a desire to control. Instead of exploring where these feelings come from, we tend to project them onto our partner and start acting out controlling behaviors that we hope will alleviate these painful feelings.
For example, we may on some core level feel unlovable or like no one would ever choose us. This negative self-concept can lead us to act out all kinds of jealous or insecure behaviors with our partner. We may start giving them the cold shoulder in hopes they’ll show interest in our feelings. We may act victimized and wounded by any comment or action that we can construe as disregarding or rejecting. We may outright scold our partner or make rules about where they can and can’t go, what they can and can’t do. All of these behavior patterns have a lot more to do with us than our partner. And most of them have deep roots in our past.
As children, we developed strategies or defenses in an effort to protect ourselves from difficult or painful conditions. These early experiences shaped our expectations about relationships and the defenses we formed then still play out in our lives today. That is why making sense of our own past and exploring our early attachment patterns can be very helpful in understanding our feelings of possessiveness as adults. For example, if we experienced an anxious attachment pattern growing up, we may have felt a lot of uncertainty around getting our needs met and felt like we had to cling to our parents to make them take care of us – in essence, to survive. As adults, we may project these feelings onto our partner, feeling like we need to make things happen, remind them to notice us, etc. We may have a lot of anxiety about their movement, fearing rejection or abandonment. As a result, we relive the past, clinging or making efforts to control our partner, so we can feel secure.
Unfortunately, because these feelings are rooted in our history, we rarely, if ever, get the reassurance we seek from acting out our old defenses in the present. Instead, we repeat patterns from our childhood, acting on our insecurities, and often pushing our partner further away in the process. The patterns and defenses we form growing up may have been adaptive to our childhood, but they can hurt our current relationships. However, there are real steps we can take to break patterns of defensiveness and achieve an equal and trusting relationship.
1. Enhance our sense of self – If insecurity is at the root of our possessive behavior, we have to start to look at ways to bring more self-compassion into our lives. We have to take steps to overcome our inner critic and truly accept that we are worthy and okay on our own, independent of anyone. We are strong and capable. Even if our worst fears come true, and our partner does reject or betray us, we have to know that our world will not end.
2. Resist engaging in jealous, authoritative, or punishing behaviors – Actions like surveillance will only alienate our partner and drive a wedge between us. Plus, they lead us to feel bad about ourselves. No matter how anxious it makes us, we have to resist the urge to exert power over our partner. We have to ignore that inner voice telling us, "Just don’t talk to her. She needs to know she can’t just work late and expect you to be happy." Or, "Let him know you won’t stand for this. He better not think he can just goof off every weekend."
3. Accept that these feelings are from the past – Our anxiety will never ease until we deal with where it’s really coming from. Current events trigger old, primal pain. If we’re having an especially strong desire to control or possess our partner, chances are this has something to do with our history. Making sense of our story by creating a coherent narrative of our past can lead us to a great sense of self-understanding. It can help us know our triggers and feel calmer in the present. Therapy can also be a life-changing tool when it comes to understanding and overcoming these feelings.
4. Find ways to calm your anxiety – There are many methods for calming our anxiety. Mindfulness practices and breathing exercises both allow us to learn to sit with our thoughts and feelings without being overpowered by them or allowing them to control our behavior. Some helpful exercises for alleviating anxiety can be found on the website PsychAlive.org.
5. Oust your inner critic –We all have a “critical inner voice” that attacks us and those close to us, often sabotaging our relationships. This critic feeds us thoughts like, "She’s probably cheating on you." "Who would love you anyway?" "He’s just going to leave you." This critic is often at the wheel when we experience relationship anxiety, distorting our thinking and encouraging us to engage in possessive behavior. You can read more about how to to identify and stand up to your inner critic here.
6. Invest in your life – One of the most important steps we can take when dealing with possessive feelings and impulses is to focus on our own life. Ask “What lights me up? What do I like to do?” We should try to shift our attention off our partner and start thinking about all the things that we’re interested in pursuing – that would enhance our sense of who we are as independent individuals.
7. Talk to your partner from an adult perspective – It can be valuable to have an open and honest conversation with our partner in which we disclose our struggle with insecurity and feelings that we need to control the situation. We can commit to trying not to act on these feelings, but let our partner know what’s going on within us, so we can feel closer to them. While any attempts to control or induce guilt may make our partner feel resentful or annoyed, an open conversation in which we don’t lay blame, but explain our personal struggle is a vulnerable act that will often allow our partner to understand us and feel for us.
When it comes to relationships, we are always better off trusting our partner and being hurt than restricting them. This is the only way we can truly know that we are loved and chosen by a free person. By enhancing our sense of self, enjoying our independence and truly appreciating the real closeness we feel with someone we love we can be self-possessed within ourselves. That way, no matter what the outcome, we benefit because we’ve acted with integrity and stayed true to ourselves, qualities that will serve us well in the long haul of any relationship.