You desire for your marriage to be a partnership-
- one in which your thoughts, needs, opinions, desires, and goals are taken into account.
- one in which you have freedom to do the things you manage your way.
- one in which you feel seen, heard, and valued.
If you are married to a controller, likely you have felt all of the above being stifled. You have felt the agony of feeling more like a puppet or a machine in the relationship than a person. You can’t change or reform another person. If that’s why you’re here, I’m sorry. You will be disappointed. However, if you want to know better how to love and connect with your spouse, as well as have the boundaries you need to be yourself, then read on.
Is My Spouse A Controller?
If you could hear your spouse saying many of the following, he/she probably has the controller love style:
- Someone close to me threatened, intimidated, or was violent with me when I was a kid.
- As a kid, I relied on myself. No one protected me.
- I know how to take charge and get things done.
- As I grew up, people learned not to mess with me. Some family members were afraid of me.
- I left home early.
- I’ve had my share of problems in life, and I carry around more stress than most.
- I dislike authority. When people tell me what to do, I either ignore it or feel angry.
- My spouse and kids don’t listen when I ask them to do things. (Their perception)
- My spouse and kids do things behind my back, and that makes me angry. (This is them mind-reading- not necessarily you intentionally doing things behind their back. And if you feel you have to do normal things, like get groceries or other necessities behind their back, then likely you are in a financially abusive situation and your need to hide is on them, not you).
- My spouse does things to make me jealous. (Remember, these are the ways they might interpret a situation- not the way it necessarily is).
- I know my family doesn’t like it when I lose my temper, but they shouldn’t make me so angry. (Notice the blame shifting here? It is NEVER your fault or your job to hide truth or dance on eggshells just to prevent a person becoming angry. You can’t control their emotions- they are the one responsible for that. It’s not part of your job.)
- I’ve changed jobs frequently.
- I can’t stand when people interrupt me or invalidate me.
- I have yelled at my spouse and/or kids, and believe sometimes that is necessary to get my point across.
- I have hit, slapped, or pushed my spouse or kids, or I have come close to it.
- I tend to escape through playing video games, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, doing pornography, gambling, or overspending. These help me feel better at least for a little bit, especially when I’m really stressed out.
(Information adapted from How We Love Workbook p.56 and other resources from Milan and Kay Yerkovich)
Your Spouse Needs Compassion
If your spouse is a controller, he or she will need your compassion and understanding. Your spouse feels a deep need to be valued and seen, heard, and respected by you. Under the surface is a tremendous amount of hurt, powerlessness, pain, fear, grief, and shame that they have never processed or resolved. He or she fights sometimes overwhelming whispers of the enemy: control or be controlled. It’s not your job to teach them this or make them change- but having an awareness of where they might be coming from can help you have compassion as you set boundaries. Boundaries are essential, because:
You Need Compassion
When you feel the push and pull of control, then you can take a step back, take a deep breath, and offer yourself some compassion. If your friend were hurting or in a difficult situation, you likely wouldn’t counsel them to stuff their feelings, suck it up, and not be such a baby. But do you ever treat yourself like that? A simple definition of what Kristin Neff defines as self-compassion is,
“Self-compassion is treating yourself like someone you care about, with support,
encouragement and warmth.”
It’s not your fault if your spouse is unhappy or angry when you don’t do everything they want or the way they want it. As equal partners in a relationship, you are responsible for the you part. Your thoughts, needs, desires, attitudes, perspectives, dreams, and goals are all important part of the marriage. They ought to be equally represented in your marriage. You are responsible to live your life. Yes, you are in partnership and must work together, but if you find yourself always drawing the short end of the stick and shrugging it off or internalizing it into resentment, then you likely need to set some boundaries.
Please note, relationships with a controller are rarely safe and nurturing. They are often destructive and dangerous (Milan and Kay Yerkovich, How We Love Workbook, p67). If you experience psychological, verbal, emotional, financial, sexual, or physical abuse in your relationship, it’s time to take steps to set healthy boundaries and create safety for yourself and children. That is beyond the scope of this blog, but if this is you, begin getting safe community and support to help you as you learn how to do this. Healing takes place in a safe nurturing environment. You may have been isolated through the years, buy you will need safe community from caring people to heal.
- Look up the nearest domestic violence shelter and see what services they offer. They may offer you and your children a place to get safe while your spouse chooses whether or not to get safe. They may also offer outpatient services, like our local Harmony House that offers relationship training, which is like amazing educational coaching to help you know what boundaries you might need and how to set them, how to relate to others, and how to be whole and healthy yourself.
- Check out 12 step groups such as Celebrate Recovery. Addictions are often a part of a controller or victim’s life (whether you or someone else is addicted), and groups like this offer support to both the addicted and those who love them. And the support can be amazing. If you visit one 2-3 times and it doesn’t seem like a good fit, try a few weeks at another. Each community has a different feel.
- If you are in an violent or physically abusive situation, call 911.
Whatever the case, if you are experiencing control from others, be sure to take a self-compassion break.
Take a Self-Compassion Break
- Notice that this is a moment of pain for you. You can tell yourself, “This hurts.”
- Recognize you aren’t alone: “I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
- Physically show kindness: Close your eyes and place your hands over your heart.
- Verbally show kindness: Ask yourself what you really need to hear right now. Talk to yourself like a friend.
Written version: https://self-compassion.org/exercise-2-self-compassion-break/
Find Out How They Got Here
If you are in a healthy place in which you feel you can be yourself and represent you in the relationship, and if you feel safe, you can take steps toward understanding your spouse better (not to fix them, but to help you have perspective).
Try to picture your spouse as a child. What do you know about their childhood? Do you know their stories about distressing moments in their childhood? If not, talk through these memories kindly with your spouse, sincerely seeking to understand the root of their fear, anger, intimidation, rejection, and hurt. What experiences grooved pain into their soul?
Why Your Spouse is So Reactive
Much of your spouse’s strong reactivity is fueled by childhood pain and emotional injury. They experienced distress and trauma and weren’t able to talk about it or find comfort for it in any human relationship. If they turned to an addiction to cope (drugs, perfectionism, alcohol, workaholism, pornography, other sexual addiction, overeating, or any other form of using a substance or activity to cope in a way that controls them), they are receiving illegitimate comfort. What they end up with is temporary relief (so it seems) that leaves them craving a larger does of whatever their substance is and likely a heavy load of whipped shame and sprinkled guilt on top.
How Can You Help?
You aren’t able to feed your spouse the control they are addicted to by giving up yourself and the life God called you to live. Helping does not look like walking on eggshells or dancing around their anger. In fact, this is just a codependent approach that leaves your spouse worse off than before. (Again, if there is physical violence or fear of it, rally your support system and get in a safe place to set boundaries. If that is you, you are walking on eggshells for your own safety.)
Unless your spouse has been working toward becoming a secure connector, he or she likely doesn’t know how feelings of anger and loss from childhood trauma, neglect, abuse, rejection, and fear affect them. A focus on these feelings can possibly even make them feel uncomfortable at first, especially since your spouse likely doesn’t even realize they are there. Milan and Kay Yerkovich in their book How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage explain that you will need to seek God for guidance and apply these suggestions slowly, over time, one at a time. The following suggestions are gleaned from their book:
The Antidote To Anger: Grief
Anger may be the only emotion that was expressed or safe to express in their home of origin. Beneath the anger are more vulnerable emotions, such as fear, shame, guilt, disappointment, loss, and grief. If their dad violently beat them with a wooden kitchen spoon, you talking to them with a wooden spoon in your hand might just trigger an angry response that is much larger than the moment. If their mom asked questions primarily for control and manipulation’s sake, your kind, loving questions about their day or what they did might result in an eruption you can’t understand. If you feel safe to, helping them explore their unacknowledged pain and hurt, especially with a trained counselor, and be healing at getting to the root of the anger and diffusing some of it. Helping your spouse feel seen, heard, and valued is important- while setting boundaries you need.
Communicate That You’d Like to Understand Their Past
Remember that this reactivity is rooted in pain. Ask your spouse to talk about times they felt intimidated, threatened, unworthy, unprotected, unlovable, controlled, manipulated, under stress, raged at, or in an unsafe situation due to a parent’s addition or destructive choices.
Your spouse is likely unaware of the deep pain grooved on their souls. Pull up pictures from their childhood and ask them if they can remember what they were feeling when they were that age or in that picture. Reflect back what they are saying to show you are hearing them (without interrupting),
- “It sounds like you felt ___________”
- “It seems like that memory was a really bad one, and it makes you very sad to think about it”
- “That must have been so hard. I hear a lot of hurt and grief when you talk about…”
Draw Out Hidden Emotions
The memories that led to their reactivity are burying other emotions. Controllers often allow anger to override feelings of fear, shame, sadness and rejection. Help to draw this out of your spouse.
Hold and comfort your spouse as they work through these emotions. Milan and Kay recommend cradling your spouse or holding their head in your lap and maintaining eye contact while they share with you.
When your spouse shares a memory or their feelings with you, tell your spouse regularly,
That matters to me.
When their feelings matter to you, they feel more secure and can begin to let their feelings matter to themselves as well. Other options may include:
- “It means a lot to me that you shared that with me.”
- “Thank you for the honor of telling me that memory.”
- “I feel really close to you when you tell me memories like this. Thank you for letting me in.”
- “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know it’s hard to talk about. It helps me know and understand you better, and I want to know you well, because I love you.”
Helping your spouse recognize and be comforted for those sad feelings can be very healing. It will build trust and reduce anger.
Your spouse must begin to feel sadness to be able to overcome anger. This applies to times of conflict between you as well.
Refuse To Talk Until There is Zero Yelling or Insulting
Learn the following phrase and repeat it whenever anger erupts. Milan and Kay say on page 78 of the How We Love Workbook, “Calmly make eye contact, and in a soft, caring voice say,
“I can see how upset you are. I want to listen. But it will be easier for me to listen if you stop yelling.”
If the yelling or any form of verbal abuse continues, end the converstation and leave the area with,
I am willing to listen when you can stop yelling (or insert verbal abuse technique they are using). Let me know when you are ready.”
Follow through by not listening until they are speaking to you respectfully.
Encourage them when they are managing conversations respectfully.
Explain how much easier it is for you to listen and stay engaged when the tone of voice is soft and vulnerable instead of harsh and insulting”
Don’t Avoid or Appease
It can be tempting to appease, try to fix, or be dishonest with a controller. After all, showing up as a whole person with your own feelings, wants, needs, dreams, and goals might be scary to them at first. You learning to maintain your dignity and respect will be helpful- for both of you.
Speak the Truth in Love
You may be a pleaser or avoider or victim, seeing to appease or get away from the angry attacks. Don’t every lie to agree with or appease them. Tell them the truth. Do so in love. Don’t avoid the confrontation. Wade into the conflict with them and learn to face it together in love.
Choose to calmly, lovingly express the effect of your spouse’s anger and how it makes you feel.
When you___________. I feel ___________________. Next time, I need you to______________.
Ask for your spouse’s input on how to make the relationship better:
What can we do to speak to one another in calmer, nonreactive ways?”
Again, If you are in a situation in which you are facing verbal or emotional abuse, seek outside help from a trained counselor and people from your church who understand how to help abuse victims. Go ahead and check what those words mean just in case: What is Verbal Abuse? What is emotional abuse? I personally had no idea until I looked them up.
If Your Spouse Won’t Hear You
If your spouse responds to your vulnerable expression of your pain caused by their anger with a counter argument against you, calmly and kindly tell them,
I love you and will listen to what has hurt you after you have acknowledged your hurt to me. I know you love me. I need to you recognize what you have done and how I feel as a result. I need you to apologize to me first.
Controllers find it very hard to apologize or admit wrong. They feel they must control or be controlled.
Henry Cloud has great resources at Boundaries.me which can help you develop and hold boundaries that can help you to be or become whole and fully yourself rather than lose yourself in this relationship (again, I’m not an affiliate, but these are seriously extraordinary resources). As are his books Boundaries, Boundaries in Dating, and Boundaries in Marriage.
Controller rarely if ever received Blessing from another person. They rarely felt seen and heard and respected for who they are. They did not receive praise or encouragement. If you are able, telling them often why you love them, what you respect about them, and the strengths they have could be a healing gift to them.
When the Conflict Involves the Kids
When the parent is reactionary with the kids, it can be verbally abusive. You cannot allow or support this. Instead, Milan and Kay suggest in their book, How We Love Our Kids: The Five Love Styles of Parenting. How to End the Struggles and Tension saying,
“I will support what you need to say to the kids when you are not so angry. I know you don’t want to hurt the kids and your anger is upsetting.
If they won’t stop, Milan and Kay suggest leading the kids away and telling them,
“Mom has some important things to say. We will listen when she is not so angry.”
You may need to have a back-up plan always ready. Have a go bag in the car with everything you and the kids would need for a night away. Have some friends whom you could call if you needed to step out with the kids for the night.
How Can You Parent With a Controller?
A Controller often:
- frustrates easily and has poor coping skills
- Exibits rage, outbursts of anger, and violent behavior toward the child
- is understructured or overly rigid
- is addiction prone and preoccupied with things “more important” than the baby
- draws wrong conclusions about or attributes negative traits to their baby or children from people in the past and saysthings like, “The baby hates me,” or ,’SHe’s a little manipulator
- has a trancelike response or frightening reaction triggered by the baby’s crying or helplessness.
- makes poor choses and neglects the baby when overwhlemed or preoccupied
Show compassion. Realize trauma is at the root of the problem. And set boundaries to keep your kids safe.
Realize your spouse might tend to
- have no concern for the child’s needs; lacks awareness of age-appropriate expectations
- be intrusive; imposes unreasonable demands on the child to conform
- yell, disrespect, and mock the child, or threaten violence
- be moody and unpredictable; nonchalant about things that matter
- tease or bully the child and then say, “I’m just kidding”
- expect child to conform with their timetable with little sensitivity to the developmental capacities of the child.
On top of normal developmental stages that must be considered, each child has his/her own personality, physiology, and style that must be taken into account when parenting. Controllers aren’t aware of any of this. “If it’s time to eat, the child must be hungry. If its time to leave, the kids was done playing. If mommy needs rest and quiet, then little Susie must feel like staying in her room and whispering to her dollies to be quiet for Mommy.
The adult gets to say not just what the child gets to do, but also what the child wants to do. Babies and toddlers are not at a stage on development in which they can comply to an adult dictating what they need and when. Since they cannot developmentally comply, but the controller does not understand developmental ages and stages, the controller gets angry at the child when the child doesn’t feel or do what the controller expects.
The difference between the controller parent and the other love styles as parents is that all the love styles- except controllers- can protect their children. As Milan and Kay explain,
“The controller is the source of danger who brings ‘fright without solution.'”
They give an example of two parents who brought their teenage son in for counseling. When the counselor asked the boy a question, but the dad answered for him ferociously with all his frustrations with his son. His son sank down into his chair and his mom glanced frantically at him with fear and compassion. It became quickly apparent that the issue was not the son, but his angry controller dad and the dysfunction he brought to his marriage that spilled out onto the son. After four years of couples therapy for Mom and Dad, that boy had two parents in a much healthier relationship, and he was fine, too.
In parenting, controlling parents are looking for:
- Respect for disrespect
- Obedience to irrational demands
- Everyone to fall in line to an out-of-line approach
Unable to Mature Emotionally
This causes trauma in the children, who must repress their own feelings to manage Mom or Dad’s feelings. To prevent more chaos, threats, and scary behavior by the controller parent, the children learn not to feel the normal feelings that come in abusive situations (anger, grief, frustration, desperation, rage, depression). Thus, the trauma freezes children developmentally, allowing them to grow physically while unable to mature emotionally and relationally.
A Child’s Response to a Controller
Milan and Kay explain that a controller’s child is constantly asking,
“Who is Dad/Mom right now?”
- The scary one?
- The tired one?
- The drunk one?
- The sad one?
- The apologetic one?
Based on that, the child can then determine:
“Who am I right now?”
- The bad one?
- The invisible one?
- The hated one?
- The good one?
- The parent to my parent?
As They Grow Up Physically
Instead of growing up in maturity emotionally and relationally, the child of a controller is subconsciously deciding,
Will I control or be controlled in my adult life?
So What Can I Do?
If you don’t stand up for your kids and seek to protect them and reduce the chaos, who will? We absolutely know God is doing that all the time. Relying on Him, though, what other adult would provide that for your children? It is important for you to be healthy and do all you can to create a healthy environment for your children. Find out more about how their approach affects the kids by reading Transformational Parenting for the Controller. You will need to:
- Talk with your spouse about how you feel and your concerns.
- Encourage your spouse by recognizing the benefits their style brings to the home (fun, spontaneous, passionate, engaged).
- Ask your spouse to work with you to make a list of strengths you both bring to the table in parenting. Discuss that list in a non-heated time.
- Notice when your spouse is safely engaged with the kids and let them know you love the way they were just enjoying and engaged with the kids.
- Follow the above guidelines when they become reactive.
Make sure you are stable and seek to establish clear guidelines you both agree on for how, when, and to what extent discipline should be implemented. Write them down, and bring them up often as you seek to implement them consistently together. Get help from a mentor couple or take a parenting class to get some help on how to develop a solid parenting discipline structure.
Be sure you are taking an authoritative not authoritarian approach with your children. If you aren’t sure the difference, find out. The Great Courses class Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive has a great lesson on parenting styles that covers that well.
Comfort For You
As you seek to extend love and comfort to your spouse, be sure that you are taking care of yourself. You need to be practicing good self-care in all areas.
- Get good sleep
- Eat well
- Exercise regularly
- Be part of supportive and enjoyable groups (Bible studies, support groups, hobby groups, book clubs- whatever you enjoy that is fun to you)
- Get counseling (as needed)
- Relax and regularly participate in hobbies or other activities that are fun for you
- Develop friendships
One aspect of this is ensuring you have safe, healthy relationships with friends and family in which you are both giving and receiving comfort and love. This means communicating your needs in a gentle, respectful, clear way to friends and family that love you. You can invite your spouse to love you in ways that communicate love to you.
Parenting with a controller can be frustrating at times. Ask your spouse to consider taking a parenting class with you or working with a mentor couple with you through a parenting book. This could help facilitate discussion and a team-mindset. Set out boundaries together for your children and develop an authoritative plan together. Talk often about how you are applying the plan and encourage your spouse as they hold firm to boundaries you’ve set together and flex their no muscle.
Look out for Addictions
You may be leaning on addictions to “deal with” your pain. You may feel completely out of control to them and unable to get free. Milan and Kay put it this way:
“Addictions are the most common method of finding relief. The constant torment they once endured on the outside has traveled inside to become their closest “friend”: a familiar place of pain with no apparent escape.”
You may tend to tend to escape through playing video games, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, doing pornography, gambling, or overspending. You may believe these help you feel better at least for a little bit, especially when you’re really stressed out. But they leave you isolated and full of regret and shame that keep you in the shadows and out of the strong, vibrant relationships you could be having with those most important to you.
Get the help you need to get free of your addictions. Do whatever it takes. You are pouring out all the best parts of you in relationship to this addiction- not to your spouse or children. Don’t lose their hearts or their presence in your life. Check out resources like Celebrate Recovery and find a counselor through Focus on the Family’s Free Counseling Session and help finding a counselor.
You may be reading this because someone dear to you is a controller. I pray that God blesses you as you seek His face for your situation.
Want To Know More?
Milan and Kay Yerkovich wrote a great book called How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage. The workbook quoted and drawn from in this post is very helpful and practical for taking steps toward growth. They have a whole series for singles, couples, counselors, etc at How We Love. (note, I’m not an affiliate or anything. I just have benefited from these resources and want to share).
I’ll be addressing the victim love style in future posts.
More Posts In the Series:
If you’d like to know more about love styles, check out the Entire Love Style Series.
- Do You Have A Destructive Love Style? Take This Quiz
- First Lessons in Love
- The Controller Love Style
- Transformational Parenting for the Controller
The key teachings of this post are consolidated from Milan and Kay Yerkovich’s excellent resources. I highly encourage you to find out more from them directly:
- Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love: Discover Your Love Style Enhance Your Marriage. Christian Audio.
- Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage. Waterbrook: 2017.
- Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Our Kids: The Five Love Styles of Parenting. How to End the Struggles and Tension. The Crown Publishing Group: 2011.
Copyright © 2021 Angela Edmonds. All rights reserved.