Five Reasons Why Controlling Others Doesn’t Work

Paradox. It is a word that my husband loves, and it is growing on me. Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about our need for control and the disastrous effects of this need on marriages and in other relationships. I have come to see a particular paradox that the more we want to control someone or something, the more we lose that control.

For a long time now, I have wanted to write a book on this subject because I see it so often. In the meantime, I am going to write a series of blogs on the subject. I would love your input and thoughts.

It took me some time to learn this lesson in practice. I am a sufferer of motion sickness: Flying, roller coasters, and boat rides all make me sweat with fear and it ends with the inevitable nausea. In earlier years, I would cope by tightening all my muscles and clinging on for dear life, often to the point where my knuckles would be white. It was during weekly flights to windy Wellington, New Zealand in a 19-seater plane that I learned a new way of coping. One day, I decided to relax more and let myself go with the flow. As I allowed my body to rise and fall with the swoops of the plane, I was surprised to find that my nausea disappeared, my fear abated, and I landed in Wellington feeling (almost) relaxed.

Since this time, I have come to see the same wisdom applied in relationships. As a practicing therapist, I witnessed a frequent pattern where one spouse in a marriage works hard to establish control over their partner with disastrous results. For many, there is still this underlying belief that we can control those we love under the guise that “if they love me, they will do what I say.” Implicit behind their attitude is also the belief, “I know better than you and I don’t trust you to do this right.” When I look further behind their motivation, I see fear and insecurity. Fear that life would get out of control if I don’t control it or worse, fear of being controlled by others.

The saddest thing for me is to see that even when their efforts to control creates havoc and when they are faced with rebellion, the controller’s desire to command only increases. I have witnessed marriages and families implode because the controlling partner simply will not let go of their behavior. While it may take months and even years, there is a price to be paid for controlling behaviors.

Examples of what I have seen have included: Requiring a spouse to communicate where they are at any time in the day, sometimes putting tracking devices on their phone; controlling the expenditure of money down to the last cent; deciding what a spouse will wear or will look like; overplanning or resisting planning.

Controlling people use a whole range of techniques in their attempts to have these demands met. Sometimes this control is overt such as through angry outbursts and verbal and even physical demands. Overt control also shows up when a spouse withdraws something from their spouse such as sex or communication in general and then there are the ultimate threats of divorce or suicide. The silent treatment can be just as controlling as an angry tirade. When one partner seeks to discuss issues that are important to them and the other refuses to enter that discussion silence leaves no room for answers or compromise.

Other behaviors are more what I would call passive aggressive. When someone is continually late, it is as much about establishing that they are in charge as it is about poor management. Another passive aggressive example that I see often is one spouse playing the victim card. Being a victim can be a powerful position because it constantly makes everyone else responsible for their happiness. They are never responsible for anything.

What is wrong with trying to change or control someone, especially if we think it is for the better? I could say it all in four words, “It does not work!”, but I would like to add my other top five reasons. (I might add that there are even more):

  1. We are less likely to work on our own areas needing improvement: When we try to control others, we tend to take our focus away from areas where we need to improve. It’s all about them and not us. Our relationship is more one-sided and is based on obedience, not mutual sharing. Research has shown that we all make our best decisions when we are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and inputs. Seeking to control others decreases our own ability to make wise choices.

  2. We deny the other person the ability to grow and develop as we seek to make them fit our image or principles. There are many qualities and abilities that we will never see because we seek others to conform to our way.

  3. Control is the opposite of love and trust. Trust and love cannot exist in the same place as control. We miss out on a deep, meaningful relationship that requires two whole individuals to share.

  4. Controlling behavior runs directly contrary to the principle that we are each learning to be accountable for our own choices. We are divine beings who will individually face judgement before God at the end of our lives. When we attempt to control others then we deprive them of the ability to be contributing adults in our homes and in wider society. On the contrary side, when we make all the decisions, it can become burdensome as we do not allow our spouse to share the load. We can be oddly resentful of this responsibility at the same time as we continue to seek unwavering obedience to our needs and wants.

  5. The more we try to control, the more we fuel our own fears and insecurities. For those for whom controlling others is a main driver, when others don’t meet our expectations (as they are bound to do), we become increasingly frustrated and angry. Those who believe they can control others tend to increase their efforts the more that they fail. The vicious cycle increases in intensity with no more promise of being successful. Controlling behavior develops ever increasing heights of tension in the home. The ultimate end of this is that the controller is likely to lose the long-term association with those they love as they seek to escape from the expectations, tension, and anger.

What can we do about our own controlling behaviors or being on the receiving end of a demanding spouse or family member? This will be the subject of the next blog. In the meantime, fly high and let go. Have fun as you go with the flow.

We'd like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity