Couples in Control Struggles

Underrated fertile ground for the destruction of relationships

Posted Nov 25, 2012

What do most couples complain about? To quote a famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is, failure to communicate.” That’s right, most couples I treat report a problem with communication—and justifiably so. But in my opinion, many communicate just fine; misunderstanding isn’t always the issue. In fact, many partners are quite clear about what they want. The problem seems to be that neither can, nor will give what’s being asked of one another. Hence a control struggle often ensues with partners engaging in a circular game of quid pro quo, or with one or both attempting to establish a one-sided dynamic to make his/her needs sole priority.

A control struggle is employed in one or more convenient relationship contexts (e.g., sex or money) for the perceived need for self-protection. Protection against what you might ask? In most cases protection is sought against the anxiety that comes with being vulnerable. Some people control by taking charge; others control via a passive form of resistance. Nevertheless, both styles serve the same purpose.

What does a control struggle look like? Here are a few examples: Jan refused to have sex with Tom until he showed her non-sexual affection. Tom wouldn’t cuddle until he got sex. Cindy refused to curb her spending habits until Pete curbed his. Pete said that he’s the breadwinner in the family and that he deserved to buy whatever he wanted. Tara refused to cater to her intrusive mother-in-law; her husband Seth consistently breached marital boundaries by including his mother in all matters personal and private. The more Seth enlisted his mother, the more resentful and distant Tara became. And from the more kinky side of town, Debbie insisted that she be allowed to take on as many lovers as she pleased but that her husband Trent remain monogamous.

A control struggle isn't usually about right versus wrong so it does little good to join the couple’s blame game. I prefer to focus on alleviating the log jam before it deteriorates the relationship beyond return. Unfortunately, most couples seek treatment long after a control struggle has set in; and if they’ve added a trauma or two to the mix such as an extramarital affair, the jam is even more difficult to escape from.

How can a couple break a control struggle? The first step is to help the couple realize that they’re embroiled in one.To this end I—session after session—show the couple how stubbornly locked into their positions they are. I also label the couple as having a control struggle. This gives them something concrete to work on.

If appropriate, I tell the couple that they may be experiencing more than one control struggle simultaneously—a common occurrence. By doing so I’m reinforcing the pervasiveness of their issue.

It's also useful to encourage each partner to explore the origin of his/her struggle. Oftentimes partners have witnessed their parents in control struggles even though they may not have identified the dynamic as such. I then encourage each partner to take personal responsibility for their contribution to the struggle. If only one partner does so, the relationship may be less likely to improve.

Because both partners are prone to control struggles, I use this sameness to help them develop empathy for one another. It’s an anti-divisive technique that enables the couple to join together as if to say: “We have this problem and it’s called a control struggle.” At this point it becomes easier to get each partner to work together towards conquering their problem.

Once a control struggle is weakened or somewhat under control, I predict future struggles will occur. This intervention is reality-based because, let's face it, no relationship will ever be perfect; it also protects the couple from future frustration and a sense of failure. And last, I offer comfort by reminding the couple that they now have the skills to recognize and control the struggle before it does irreparable damage.

Control struggles will always exist in couples, but they can be controlled. That is…if the couples can give up enough control for the sake of gaining a healthier form of it.