“You’re So Controlling!”

When you’re feeling controlled by your spouse, what's the best way to respond?

Posted Sep 20, 2016

Have you ever said this to your partner? Or had your partner say it—or one of its oh-so-many variants, listed below—to you?

  • “You’re always trying to control me!”
  • “Are you ever going to stop controlling me?!”
  • “You’re trying to control me again!”
  • “I hate it when you ‘micro-manage’ me!”
  • “You’re so demanding!”
  • “Why does it always have to be your way or the highway?!”

So, what’s the problem in voicing your frustrations in this manner—in employing something like the words and phrases just listed?

Well, for one thing, it’s extremely likely to make the other person defensive—as in, “How can you say that?! I’m not trying to control you at all! I’m just telling you what I think.” Or, experiencing the critical comment as a frontal attack, they might be inclined to counter-attack—as in, “What?! You’re the one who’s controlling in this relationship!”

Clearly, neither response is likely to move the conflict between you toward a mutually acceptable resolution. Odds are they’ll only make matters worse. But before suggesting much more fruitful ways of conveying the exasperating experience of being controlled, let me describe the key problem in expressing your annoyance in so inflammatory a fashion.

To begin with, lambasting your partner for seeking to control you is to "mind read." It's to accuse them of consciously intending to impose their will on yours, to subordinate your needs, preferences, or desires to their own.

That's, after all, why you feel so humiliated and—in reaction—enraged with them. But most of the time, the dishonorable intentions you attribute to them don’t really fit the facts of the situation. Doubtless, your spouse is pursuing their own interests, letting you know what they’d prefer to do, or want you to do. But is their objective actually to dominate you, or aggress against you (which is exactly what the word “control” implies)?

And here I’m not simply engaging in semantics. For it’s imperative to emphasize that though your experience might well be one of being invaded or exploited, that alone doesn't signify your partner has the need, desire, or compulsion to control you. Typically, it simply means that they’d very much like to have things their way. And isn’t this the case with just about everybody ... including yourself?

Of course, I can’t rule out the possibility that your spouse is wanting to assert their power or dominance over you. And if that’s the case, you might be dealing with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder. Or someone who grew up in a dictatorial, patriarchal household where the wife was held as subordinate to the husband, and that she was required to “know her place,” deferring to whatever demands her male partner might make of her. So it’s certainly possible that your offended reactions to such a partner could “fit” the provocation.

Nonetheless, whenever your buttons get hammered, it’s essential to consider whether you might be overreacting. Ask yourself: “Did I have authoritarian parents who demanded obedience and didn't allow me to have my own voice?” Or, “Did my caretakers leave me feeling suffocated, squashing me whenever I tried to assert my growing need for independence and autonomy?”

If there’s still some residue of righteous anger toward your parents in their having disrespected or dismissed what you felt was fair, and you were obliged to keep most of your seething resentments to yourself (for fear of their reacting even more unjustly toward you), might your felt provocations today be somewhat overblown? That is, in their inadvertently unleashing still undischarged rage from the past? If so, then it’s definitely worth evaluating whether your presumably “adult” reactions now have as much to do with unresolved issues from childhood as they do to your partner’s seemingly malicious desires to subdue you.

An additional consideration is whether you may have been in a relationship earlier with someone who regularly trespassed your boundaries or virtually coerced you to defer to their preferences—belligerently overriding whatever objections at the time you may have made? In short, have you been victimized in a past relationship such that maybe you’ve become hyper-vigilant about its happening to you again?

But regardless of how justified your current reaction to your partner may be, the optimal way for you to respond is more or less the same—though it will probably be quite challenging, since their remark may have catapulted your emotions right to the ceiling.

If, that is, you’re truly upset by something supposedly “controlling” your spouse has said or done, here are some assertive—vs. aggressive—responses likely to be a lot more useful than reacting defensively or attacking-ly. Or, for that matter, walking off in a huff ... or in tears:

"When you’re this adamant about your views making so much more sense than mine, I feel like you’re trying to put me down, to control what I think—or even that I don’t know what I’m talking about. And that really hurts me. I mean, I can’t possibly agree with everything you say, and I really need to feel respected by you—that my opinions aren’t ridiculous or stupid simply because they’re not the same as yours."

"When you were so insistent about where we should go for our vacation, I know you didn’t really mean to overpower me, or disregard me. But without your even asking me what I might prefer, I felt like you were trying to control me—kind of like 'run over' me, as if what I might want wasn’t even worth considering. I really don’t want to attack you here, but could you please try to see this from my point of view? That would just mean so much to me.

 CCO Public Domain/Pixabay
Source: CCO Public Domain/Pixabay

"Maybe this shouldn’t bother me so much, but when you criticized me for spending too much time with my friends, it felt like you were trying to control me. I’ve told you before how important my friends are to me. So were you upset ‘cause it felt like I have less interest in being with you than I do my friends? Can we talk more about this—‘cause I don’t want you to feel less important to me, but I hate feeling under pressure to limit my time with friends (or even give them up) just to make you happy. Is there something going on here that I’m not understanding, something we need to talk about?"

"When you told me I was spending too much money, I felt you were trying to micro-manage me. Besides, the money I spend is almost always on the kids, or on stuff that we just have to keep getting—like food, or gas, or medications. It’s like you’re questioning my judgment, and that feels unfair and very controlling to me. I need to find out how we can get this settled between us. I don’t want you to be disappointed with me all the time for things I really have to spend money on. And I don’t want to be questioned constantly about our credit card bills. I need you to trust me more."

Obviously, such examples—focused much more on fostering mutual understanding and productive problem-solving than on mere venting—could go on indefinitely. For there are so many areas in your relationship where you can experience being controlled. And frankly, many of them—depending on your partner’s response to your frustrations—might indeed suggest that you’re living with an emotionally abusive partner. Such as your spouse:

  • Trying to make you feel guilty whenever you act contrary to their preferences.
  • Regularly questioning your whereabouts (whether from distrust, jealousy, or something approaching paranoia), as though you were up to something suspicious.
  • Violating your privacy by routinely checking your email account(s), calls or texts on your phone, or demanding that you share things that you’d prefer (for any number of legitimate reasons) to keep to yourself.
  • Criticizing you or putting you down, so that you constantly feel under pressure to lose (more) weight, dress in ways uncomfortable for you, prepare elaborate meals that would take way too much time, earn more money by working harder at your job or profession, etc.
  • Demanding more appreciation, recognition, gratitude, or some admission that you’re fortunate to be in this relationship—making you feel inferior, “one down,” or as though you’re so indebted to them that you don’t have the right to assert yourself.
  • Resenting the “alone time” you request when the relationship begins to feel “crowding” to you, as though you don’t deserve to give priority to your personal need to “regroup” through solitude and relational downtime.
  • Claiming that they’re “protecting” you when what they’re really doing is restricting your freedom and prohibiting you from making your own decisions. Remember, feeling preempted is hardly the same thing as feeling protected
  • Blocking what you need to feel fulfilled or appropriately challenged, such as getting a job (“Hey, look, I make enough money for the whole family to live on—I want you to stay home, not go to work or graduate school—’cause then you might not even be home when I get back from work.").

If even after you approach your partner about feeling controlled in the relationship—and with as much tact, empathy, consideration, and restraint as you can muster—they remain unresponsive, you have every right to insist that the two of you go into couples counseling. And if your partner downright refuses, well, maybe they’re not the person you should be growing old with.

For there’s just no way you’re going to be happy if you feel that to get along with them you have to go along with their “authoritarian rule.” Ultimately, there’s no good reason to stay indefinitely in a relationship that compels you to subordinate to your partner’s domineering will most of the things necessary for you to feel good about life ... and yourself.

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© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.