by Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC

The phrase “control freak” can mean a lot of things in relationships. It might mean that a partner has a particular way that they prefer the laundry folded or a certain way of handling finances. It could mean that things get tense between a couple when one partner is a neatnik and the other is, shall we say, less so. These are examples of the lighter side of control that are often components of healthy, happy marriages.

There is, however, a darker meaning to control in some relationships. Controlling relationships are characterized by an unhealthy need in one partner to control the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the other. These relationships are often very troubled, and can be verbally, emotionally, or even physically abusive.

Does your spouse or partner:

  • Insist on knowing where you are at all times and check up on you when you are out?
  • Get angry when you are late or not exactly where he/she expects you to be?
  • Disapprove of your friends and get angry when you want to get together with friends, without him/her?
  • Isolate you from family members?
  • Minimize your emotions and criticize your feelings and thoughts?
  • Interfere with or criticize your dreams or plans for your life or career?
  • Try to dictate what you do, what you wear, how you act?
  • Get angry at you when others show an interest in you or when you enjoy speaking to others?

If any of these describe your relationship, you should seek help without delay. If your partner has ever been physically abusive to you, seek individual counseling first and foremost. Marriage counseling is not always appropriate when there is domestic violence and could put the victim at even greater risk.

If your relationship does not involve physical violence, but does include some of the characteristics of a controlling relationship, individual counseling could help you to determine whether you wish to remain in the relationship with support or to end the relationship.

The hard reality about marriages and relationships that involve a highly controlling spouse is that these dynamics are extremely difficult to change and require a high level of commitment to counseling on the part of both parties.

Very often in controlling relationships, the controlling partner does not see that his/her behavior is inappropriate. Indeed, it is often explained as a natural expression of their love. This is not love. This is control, and it damages people and relationships. Love nurtures and supports. Control abuses and stifles. Love is giving and generous. Control is selfish and demanding.

If your controlling partner is able to see that his/her behavior is destructive and is willing to work to change, marriage counseling can be helpful. If your partner, however, is not able to see that his/her behavior is contributing to the problems in the marriage, then unfortunately there is probably little hope for change. In this situation, individual therapy is recommended.

It is difficult to leave a controlling relationship. The extreme characteristics of the control  often leave the non-controlling partner believing that he/she has an obligation to do as their partner wants, whether it is good for them or not. Individual counseling can help the individual to understand that their only obligation is to themselves and can support them in making the change they need in order to move forward, fully in charge of their own lives.

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.