| Family Reflections |

Under Control

Is my husband controlling? Is my wife demanding? It all depends on the bottom line


Controlling or demanding behavior in a marriage can destroy the relationship. Therefore, it’s important to understand what controlling or demanding behavior is, and with this clarity, avoid becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of these behaviors.

The Controlling Spouse

“Controlling” refers to exerting power. If, for example, a husband is in charge of the family finances, he controls expenses and income. His wife may be totally fine with this arrangement, happy to hand him the headache and the stress of making ends meet. In this case, although the husband controls the finances, she is a full partner in creating and maintaining that division of labor in their marriage. The husband is not “controlling” just because he’s in control of the money.

The situation is completely different when the wife in the above scenario is not in agreement with the husband’s directive role in their finances but is powerless to prevent it. In that case, he can be considered to be controlling.

The Demanding Spouse

A person might want to be controlling, but may be unable to exert the necessary control. For example, a mother may control how many cookies her small child gets to eat. The child may wish to control that issue but can’t since he can’t reach the cookie jar. Nonetheless, he can insist on having cookies all day long. He is “demanding,” but not controlling. Similarly, a spouse can be demanding. For example, a wife doesn’t like her husband’s beard and tells him to shave it off. He refuses to do so. She can’t make him do it; she’s demanding but unable to be controlling.

Demanding partners may be annoying, but they’re powerless, as opposed to controlling spouses, who have real power that they exert over their partners.

It’s important to note the difference between requesting and demanding. When a spouse asks his or her partner to do something, that person isn’t necessarily being demanding. That person may just be expressing a preference, as in, “I really like colored dresses — do you think you could wear one sometimes?” Asking once and letting it go after receiving a negative answer is totally fine. However, if the spouse asks the partner to make numerous changes in his or her behavior, then that person is likely “demanding.” Similarly, having a tantrum or withdrawing coldly for a long time when receiving a “no” might be an expression of demanding behavior.

The Rigid Spouse

We’ve seen that a controlling person imposes his or her will on others. We’ve seen that a demanding person tries to do the same, but doesn’t have the power to do so. And we’ve seen that issuing an infrequent request for change can be a normal and healthy part of family relationships. Now let’s look at another factor in relationships.

“My husband is very into doing things his own way. If I ask him to speak to our son differently, he’ll tell me, ‘Let me do it my way.’ If I ask him to wear a clean shirt to my parents’ house, he’ll tell me, ‘Don’t tell me how to dress.’ I know his mom was very controlling when he was young, but now he feels controlled whenever I ask him to do anything. It makes me feel helpless and uncared for.”

Rigidity is a problem behavior in relationships in which a person’s focus on his own wishes overrides the focus on the other person and on the relationship. This self-focus is inconsistent with marital happiness.

A Healthy Balance

Healthy relationships are characterized by flexibility, negotiation, and caring. Whether you are in a position to exert control, or you insist on having things your way, or you resist change when others request it, it’s all a matter of balance. We take control, but not to an extreme; we ask for change, but not too often — and we back down when change isn’t forthcoming; and we’re willing to make changes, even if when it’s very difficult for us, when we know it will mean a lot to our loved one.

In marriage, it’s not about having to do what one’s spouse asks; it’s about wanting to. It’s not about making things happen one’s own way, but about finding the way that works for one goal: marital happiness.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 666)

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