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6 Tips for Managing Life With a Control Freak

... and 5 possible explanations for their attitudes.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Controlling people can be hard to live with—with their constant advice, rigid routines, and schedules, times; their backseat driving and their demands that the dishwasher needs to be loaded in a certain way, and the tools in the garage put back on the proper hooks. They obsess and map out every minute of Thanksgiving or Christmas weeks in advance, and they get irritable or angry when plans get disrupted or you fail to follow through on what you said you were going to do.

Here are some insights into the mind of the "control freak":

It’s not about control, it’s about anxiety.

While there are some out there who are controlling because they are into power or feel entitled and expect the world to go their way, for most controlling people it’s all about anxiety. Control is a bad solution—but it's not the problem. Often such people grew up in chaotic environments, or with anxious or even abusive parents. As children they walked on eggshells, looking over their shoulders. To cope, they became hypervigilant—always on alert, always anticipating problems.

Control—planning things out, knowing what is going to happen, knowing what others are doing, mastering the routines and rules—reduces their anxiety and makes their environment emotionally safer. When you are on top of things, bad stuff can’t sneak up on you quite so easily.

Controlling people usually don’t see themselves as controlling.

More often they think of it as “common sense," “being responsible," or simply “planning ahead," “setting priorities," “being helpful” (especially when giving advice), or “doing what’s expected." Their frustration comes when what is so obvious and/or important to them is not so obvious and/or important to those around them.

They're self-critical.

The criticism they can hurl at you often replicates the same abuse that they hurl at themselves. Their need to stay on top of things leaves ample opportunity for screw-ups, which they then beat themselves up about.

They have trouble with transitions.

A lot of controlling people know on Monday what they are going to do on Saturday. If you throw them a curveball on Saturday morning by suggesting that your brother come over for dinner, they may snap at you about the brother and why he "always" has to come over, but it’s really more about that curveball derailing their cemented plans and leaving them feeling emotionally rattled.

Under stress, all this all gets worse.

Stress ramps up anxiety for most people; for those into control, with added stress comes added control in response—more rigidity, more frustration, and micro-management.

What can you do if you live with a controlling person?

Realize that it’s about their anxiety. Saying to yourself (a lot) that it’s anxiety that is the real problem can help you feel less victimized, less like being treated like a 10-year-old or being scolded.

Talk about anxiety. Rather than getting caught up in how ridiculous or controlling your partner's behaviors are, ask instead about what they’re worried about. You want to sidestep that “You’re controlling," “You’re not responsible” power-to-power dispute about whose reality is right. The control is about them; it's their solution to anxiety, and you’re helping them with their problem.

Give them a heads-up on changes. If you are thinking of having your brother over on Saturday, bring it up, say, Wednesday or Thursday. Just throw it out there to suggest your partner "just think about it.” This gives the other person time to readjust his or her weekend plans and emotionally settle and think about it with time to spare. Ditto if you are running late, etc.—give as much advance warning as possible to help with expectations and transitions.

Decide on your own limits. If you partner wants you to sterilize the entire kitchen after you’ve made dinner or fold underwear in a precise four-step process, decide on what you can comfortably be willing to do. The mindset again is deciding how you can be sensitive to his or her anxiety, rather than falling into the feeling that you are being treated like a child, one who lives with an unreasonable parent. State your limits clearly and calmly.

Have straight-ahead conversations about what bothers you. Is it too much backseat driving, too much advice not asked for, or too rigid a Saturday routine? Try to have a reasoned, adult conversation about these issues—not when you're frustrated or he or she is irritable, but when you're not. Again, avoid drama—instead, ask about what the other's worries are, and see if you can reach a plan for agreeable compromises.

Consider counseling. If you can’t have these sane adult conversations—if you’re too skittish to bring things up or if the conversation goes Jerry Springer too quickly—consider couple counseling, even for just a few sessions, to help navigate these issues in a safer environment.

All of this obviously is easier to say than do, but like a lot of relationship problems, it’s about seeing the possible problem under the problem, choosing to react differently, and being adult, all without the expectation that the other will magically change, but because you care about the other person, and because you are doing the best you can do.