Saturday, August 14, 2010

Toxic Effects of Spousal Control

There are Two Faces Of Spousal Control In A Marriage

Given the assumption that there has to be a controlling power in marriage, provided, supported and enforced by a patriarchal tradition, we can see two main types of controlling behavior in a marriage relationship. Accepting there needs to be control, you can have aggressive control, which is outward and overt and then there is passive control which is more covert and hidden. Both are inhumane and end up destroying the autonomy and self-esteem of the controlled partner.

Let’s tackle the aggressive, active control first. It can be either spouse doing the control. What are the typical ways someone can actively try to control one’s spouse?

There is the immediate authority used to do decision-making unilaterally; there is the last word proffered on any issue, that doesn't accept challenges; there is the rightful indignation about anything decided or executed without his/her control;

These are the behaviors that support and confirm that control is firmly in the hands of one person over the other. The fact that we have taken that power imbalance for granted, "as a natural part of life" for so long, says volumes about the survival of this ideology of male power.

Lately, social pressures against open display of controlling behaviors, which can escalate to spousal violence have brought some limits. It's not acceptable now that a husband can beat, scream or otherwise control the wife by aggressive behavior; this is illegal behavior.

Then, what is left is the second variety: the passive aggression.

Passive anger commonly referred to as “passive aggressive” behavior can be just as destructive as overt anger. Let watch an interaction between partners more closely:

Jim was rejected by all his family when he tried to control his family based on his male power. Asserting his decision-making power would not bring him the obedience and respect he felt he needed; Sue insisted on being an equal partner in the family. What can Jim do to still get his way?

He knew that every time he would withdraw in a discussion it would drive Sue up the wall. He knew that not following through on commitments infuriated her. He knew that breaking promises pushed Sue’s hottest button. So, here is the way he can still control her behavior!

The more passive Jim would behave, the more aggressive Sue would become. It was a lose-lose situation, where the conflict escalation is taking the relationship down. They feel that they need to control the other, or defend strongly against control, and thus they end up developing ways of driving the other emotionally crazy. The wife can learn ways of controlling the husband by nagging, demeaning and criticizing him in public at each opportunity.

How can this cycle of controlling behavior be broken? Since you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge the first step is getting both spouse to see and acknowledge their behaviors. Although it is the truth that set’s us free, it is the truth about ourselves not the truth in general.

After Sue and Jim each saw their own behaviors in this light, they were ready for the next step.

The next step was for each of them to come up with baby steps that would eliminate their individual controlling behaviors.

Sue set a goal to give herself a timeout when she first started feeling angry. She also started jogging which helped her release a lot of the stress in her life.

Jim started journaling his feelings. This was a safe way for Jim to start feeling his feelings and expressing his feelings. He shared a lot of his journal with Sue. Jim learned how to confront Sue when she tried to control him with her anger by speaking up and saying “I don’t deserve to be spoken to this way”. She learned how to assert herself in front of his passive aggression, making her needs known and claiming his attention to having her included in every decision.

There are many steps that couples can take in learning how to stop trying to control each other, once they recognize that control of one over the other is a destructive influence in their marriage.

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