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Control Freaks, Relationships, and Intimacy

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Long-term intimate relationships are created through a healthy balance of two committed people. Throw a control freak or controlling behavior into the mix and the possibility for lasting intimacy in a relationship vanishes. What is the difference between control freaks and the rest of us?

Most of us will admit that we like being right and getting our way. Many of us will confess that being right and getting our way are so important to us that we will even make special efforts by reinforcing our point with ‘facts’ and debate. But then there are those folks who go over the top with being right and aggressively pursue getting their way. Their self-worth and sense of security seem to ride on it. They say they are not controlling, but right.

Control-focused folks may insist and persist until others cave (to shut them up) or acknowledge their way as right. Blind to appropriate limits on pushing, they travel too far into others’ boundaries. These individuals are the control freaks.

When is a controlling person not just a control freak?

Despite jumping over personal boundaries, control freaks do not cross all lines with others. Many control freaks are likable and lovable with good intentions. Some controlling people are not easily dismissed from our lives due to specific circumstances, like family or job. There are also controlling people who seem impossible to leave behind because of the toxic power they possess.

These are the people who are dangerous to us because they escalate their controlling behavior with powerful threats, verbal abuse, or physical violence. This discussion does not describe these relationships.

Aggressive and dominating people who cause harm or create the fear that they may do so are not control freaks. Relationships with threatening, abusive, and violent behavior call for immediate safety actions and require professional and/or legal intervention.

Is everyone with a strong opinion a control freak?

Although many people have stubborn opinions on just about everything, they do not expect agreement from others. Not so for control freaks. For truly controlling people, having the right answers provides order. Any conversation that blends viewpoints (gray positions) leaves them unsettled in their black-and-white tinted world. They cannot listen because listening challenges their sense of order, control, and comfort. They cannot bear being wrong. Life and decisions are simple: “You are either with me or against me.”

Clearly, all highly opinionated people are not control freaks. Control freaks are not simply people who hold on to strong ideas. The act of forcing one’s opinions, values, beliefs, and ideas on another or harshly judging, ridiculing, or criticizing dissenting views are what separates control freaks and otherwise undesirable levels of controlling behavior from non-controlling people and behavior.

Can’t we express our views about what we think is right?

We all need a basic set of ideas to guide our lives, our sense of Good-Bad-Right-Wrong (GBRW). We label people, events, and things as being good or bad and right or wrong for us through a set of GBRWs – our cluster of values, opinions, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, actions, and patterns.

By adding “for us” at the end, we do not get bossy or controlling with them. GBRWs are the basis for our life decisions. We take action based on them. At another level, we have our Preferences-Likes-Dislikes (PLDs) to steer our choices. Controlling people fail to respect the unique GBRWs and PLDs of others.

Where do GBRWs and PLDs come from?

Our GBRWs and PLDs come from both our direct experiences and outside influences, like family and social environment. GBRWs/PLDs are healthy when we understand that they belong in the ‘what works for me’ category. (Marriage and parenting do allow for special influential use of our GBRW/PLDs with our spouse and children.)

We naturally attempt to influence people with our GBRWs/PLDs. Controlling people attempt to control with theirs.

We may validate or beef up support for our own system of GBRWs, for example, through government and religion. Government laws, which only apply geographically, outline a version of GBRW – legal and illegal, but application of the law is still determined in the field by law enforcement officials. Interpretation and consequence are decided later in courtrooms.

Religious beliefs and codes are another type of GBRW – moral and immoral, but moral values vary among religions. Even governmental and religious GBRWs are not set in stone. Controlling people believe theirs are the stone.

What if the controlling person in my life is my spouse?

Special problems arise when our spouse or significant other is controlling. Intrusive opinions, interrupted conversations, disrespectful criticisms, ridicule, judgments, bossiness, nagging, and overbearing presence are only part of the burdensome daily interactions in life with a control freak.

We frantically seek strategies to contain our frustrations and regain our own control. Unfortunately, we often try to control them in a desperate response to end their control. Trying to control a control freak can turn us into one. It takes one to control one. Relationship problems intensify because of controlling behavior.

What happens if I just ignore all the controlling behavior instead?

It may seem like common sense that ignoring or just tolerating controlling behavior would reduce the impact of the behavior on your relationship. After all, tolerance is a good trait. Ignoring and tolerating small or unimportant differences is a positive adjustment in most significant relationships.

However, tolerance is not a successful tool for dealing with a controlling partner or spouse. Generally, this strategy defeats keeping a balanced give-and-take in a relationship. Control freaks struggle with the giving part of give-and-take. Ignoring and tolerating become equal to giving-up and giving-in with a control freak.

All people are different, so why shouldn't I just accept my partner's controlling ways?

People can enjoy a healthy, satisfying, and intimate relationship when they are different. Going with the flow and rolling with differences are healthy skills, but only with a two-way balanced flow and roll. If you consciously choose to be tolerant, accepting, or laid back in a relationship with a control freak, after a while, the relationship quality gets busted by that one-way flowing and rolling.

When the topic of disagreement is significant (excluding how to install the toilet paper roll or whether to alphabetize the cans in the pantry), couples need to work toward more than fragile tolerance or calm acceptance. Daring to have a discussion or even a mild argument on the important differences can build understanding, cooperation, negotiation, collaboration, and compromise, which are the skills essential to a long-term, intimate relationship. These skills can seem like an impossible challenge for controlling people.

How does controlling behavior affect relationships and intimacy?

Intimacy or closeness is severely affected in a relationship dominated by controlling behavior. Typically, the controlling person smothers the other one who becomes emotionally absent, numb, defensively passive, or simply withdraws. Over time, emotions deaden due to repeated criticism, ridicule, disagreement, and simple aggravation with the controlling partner. How can anyone continue to feel intimate or close under those circumstances?

If your spouse or significant other is a control freak (or you are), ignoring, tolerating, or accepting the controlling behavior has a serious side effect: discouraging or eliminating intimacy. Too much of these passive behaviors toward a partner, especially a control freak, creates lopsidedness in the relationship. This imbalance will not satisfy the relationship needs of the tolerant, accepting, or laid-back person very well or for very long. Distance and dissatisfaction grow silently. The controlling person may not recognize it.

Bottom Line

Control freaks and their partners, who over-tolerate long-term controlling behavior from them, conspire together and can easily wipe out loving intimacy in their relationship.

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About Dr. Coach Love

  • Michael

    This article resonates with me. Unfortunately, I my daughter is involved with a control freak. Her self-esteem is so shot that she is unable to see her boyfriends controlling behaviors. She defends his over-the-top behaviors and loses all objectivity with him. It scares me to see this before my very eyes, but there is not a thing I can do about it except to hopefully be there if and when she sees the light.

  • Dr. Coach Love

    Stay on the helpful track of being there for her if/when everything crashes. Since her vision of him does not match yours,negative comments about him will increase her resistance to your influence. AND if you are heavy- handed in your ‘advice and commentary’ you become insulting and controlling—just-like-him. YOU could bring her self esteem to rock bottom. Acknowledge to her that she certainly knows things about him that you do not and your perspective gives a different slant. Trust her in all the ways you can.

  • Jane

    My problem is with my daughter who is my only child. She and I are totally opposite in nature. I am very liberal and open minded. I am also easy going. She is conservative, opinionated and rather uptight (most of the time). She is now 33, married and has a 3 year old son. During her 20’s, she would constantly find fault with me. It could be anything from I did my one eyebrow wrong (w/my makeup), to bad choice of lipstick to something I said. I always blew it off thinking it would change as she got older. When it didn’t, I asked her to quit criticizing every little thing about me. It took a couple of reminders but those types of criticism have pretty much stopped. However, now her criticisms are bigger issues. She has expressed her disapproval over the past 5 years about 3 things and these 3 things are intertwined. They are my lifestyle, that I’m sick too much, and that I sleep in too late when I am visiting her and her family (we live in different states), or when they visit me. I am 61. I became semi retired about 5 years ago after 35 years in an exciting but extremely stressful career (mergers & acquisitions) besides being a single mother. I still own a business, but only work once or twice a week. I have a wonderful assistant who is at the office every day from 9-5. I have always been an insomniac and struggled w/getting up for work all those years. When I semi retired, I decided I was going to pick my waking and sleeping hours. Since then I have pretty much become a “night owl”. When I work, I will often times go in around 7:00 p.m. and work until 7:00 a.m. I had a very active social life all throughout my younger years. But I love being home now and enjoy my own company and privacy. I found a game website about 7 years ago that I just love. I find it very relaxing to play my favorite games and have made friends with people from all over the world who I really enjoy. I also love to read our local newspaper online and read the comments to the various articles and editorials. I have always loved to write, and often write my own comments. Sometimes, it will take me a good hour just to write a paragraph b/c I have really thought out what and how I want to express my opinion and thoughts. Often times, I will go back and forth between the games and reading and writing in our newspaper until 2,3,4 or even until the sun comes up. Then I will get my sleep during the day. My brain really wakes up around 5:00 p.m. Whenever I go to my office to work in the mornings, I can’t concentrate or even think straight. This is basically my lifestyle I guess. My daughter feels like it is an unhealthy lifestyle 1) b/c I don’t exercise, and 2) b/c I shouldn’t be such a homebody and my waking and sleeping hours should be like “normal peoples”. I absolutely agree that I need to get some kind of exercise plan going and I do plan to do this. In the past when we have discussed her concern about my lifestyle, I would cave and say ok, I’ll try to change it…to no avail.

    Now this leads me to her next complaint. That I sleep in too long while I’m visiting her. As I’ve explained to her several times, my body clock needs a couple of days to adjust to a new schedule. So I need that sleep for a couple of days. And that’s all it takes.

    And her third issue is I’m sick too much. Well that came about b/c the last couple of times I planned to drive the 6 hour drive to their house, I didn’t feel well and put off my drive for a day. The reason I’m writing is b/c this just happened two days ago. I had been living w/step throat for two months and didn’t find out until a few days before I was to to visit them. The morning I was supposed to leave, I woke up with the same sore throat, body aches and fatigue. I was not up for a 6 hour drive by myself. When I called to hell my daughter, she started to cry and following are the comments she made…you’re always sick, you might as well be in a rest home; I wish you would change your lifestyle; no, I don’t want you to come tomorrow b/c you’ll just stay up tonight and leave early in the a.m. and when you get here you’ll just sleep. And I don’t want Patrick (her son/my grand child) to see that! Now, that was the first I had hear her say that she didn’t want Patrick to see me sleeping during the day. I was tired of her insults by that time and said “well I’m sorry I’m such a big disappointment…bye” and hung up.

    I went back to bed and slept all day from being sad and depressed, and not feeling well physically. I have done a lot of thinking about this whole thing and decided that I will not be going to visit them again until she and I get to the bottom of her “issues” with me and hopefully come to an understanding. I wrote her a letter in Microsoft word as an attachment to an e-mail. In my letter I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to visit again until we resolve these issues she has w/me b/c obviously they have escalated and I am writing this letter to tell her how I feel about the 3 things that are an issue for her (about me). I asked her to try to keep an open mind while reading my letter. Afterward, I would like her to respond in a letter.

    First (and for the first time in my life), I respectfully but firmly explained to her that I was happy with my lifestyle and I felt there is nothing wrong w/it if I am not hurting myself or anyone else with it. I told her that if she can’t accept me for who I am and how I choose to live, then that’s her problem, not mine. I am not going to change my lifestyle b/c she or anyone else thinks it’s wrong. The people I know that accept my choices b/c they believe in me and want me to be happy I am so grateful to. And why can’t she do that?

    I further told her that I was sorry for the disappointment I caused them by not leaving on the day we planned twice in a row due to not feeling well. But those couple of times does not mean that I am always sick. As a matter of fact, I am rarely sick. The majority of the time I am happy and healthy. I suggested that we have a change of plans from here out when I plan to come to visit them. I explained that the drive there and back by myself is getting harder and harder (it is 5/1/2 hours to 7 depending a road conditions). Whether I leave on the designated day or not in the future will totally depend on whether I’m up for the drive that very morning physically, mentally or spiritually. Thus, I would suggest from now that we leave my day of arrival open so no one endures frustration and disappointment (and I don’t have to feel guilt!). And I would suggest they not tell Patrick (my grandson) that I am coming until they know I’ve actually left so they don’t need to give him the disappointing news if I can’t make it on the designated date.

    And finally, I explained to her as I’ve done many times before about my sleeping in or napping in the daytime (which is always when Patrick is taking his nap). I asked her why that is such a big deal to her. I said, when I’m up, do we not enjoy each others company, do I not help you with anything around the house you need done, do I not play w/Patrick for hours which I love, am I ever not ready when we have to meet an appointment, do I not tend Patrick so you and Donny can have a date night? Do you and I ever not find quality time to spend together to talk? Honestly, I need to know why this is such an issue for you. And I really need to know why you don’t want Patrick to see me!!! Is sleeping in longer than your family immoral, unethical or illegal? I was quite blown away when you made that comment and I would really like to know your reasoning. Then I told her I would end there and wait for her response. I asked her to think about everything I said with an open mind and when she writes me back to be as open and honest as I have been. I wanted us to lay the cards out on the table about how we feel regarding these (or any other) issues and truthfulness while still being courteous and respectful to each other.

    I am now waiting for her response. I guess I’m writing all this here b/c I’m a little nervous whether or not I said the right things. Like I said, it’s the first time I’ve ever really stood up to her like I did and I even went so far as to tell her that if she can’t accept and love me for who I am from here on out, then we might as well part ways. Because I am not changing for her or anyone else if I don’t want to. And I don’t want to hear another word about this matter again.

    I would appreciate reading your feelings and opinion about all this. I guess I’m looking for support. I live alone and don’t confide much in friends about family matters. Thank you very much.

    P.S. I’m very sorry for the length of my comment.

  • Dr. Coach Love

    Hello,Jane,

    Thanks for reading my article and checking in.

    The family situation you describe is a common one that risks getting to a relationship cut-off—-if things do not change. You are motivated to shift the dynamic with your daughter which is a long term process and well beyond the scope of this column.
    Consider working with a professional family therapist. To locate one in your area, check with friends for a recommendation or go to the website of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists at http://www.Therapistlocator.net.

  • suemans

    i would like to write my version or my hell of alife living with a control freak , can someone confirm if there is doctor on the panel who will be able to guide me

  • drcoachlove

    Hello suemans,

    I think your story is worth telling in your own words. Try a journal approach. Do not be critical of first draft. It is most important to get it down, then edit it. You may also benefit from processing your experience with a licensed marriage and family therapist: http://www.therapistlocator.net is the site for the American Assn of Marriage and Family Therapists.

  • http://www.theramblingepicure.com/ Jonell Galloway

    I have read many articles on this topic, which concerns me personally, and I identify with everything you say. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • PattPickett

    Hello, Jonell,
    You are welcome.I appreciate you taking the time to provide your reaction to this piece.
    Everything I write, including my upcoming book,”TheMarriageWhisperer, is based on decades of professional education and experienced as a marriage and family therapist AND inspired by over 10,000 conversations with people determined to improve their lives. I am honored to share this wisdom with you. Continue your pursuit of self development and you will get there.

  • Joe Smith

    I would like to get some input about my personal situation. I have been married to the most wonderful woman for 22 years. We have 3 children and have what we thought was the “perfect” relationship. Then about 2 years ago, things changed. We weren’t getting something that was missing, but we didn’t know what. (Looking back now it was intimacy, because I am a control freak but did not realize it until about a month ago now.)
    I am reading several books about it, and have already made some changes to try and not be that way… however, as things seem to get “out of control”, I often say or do things that I wish I could take back later. I recently threatened to leave her and the kids because I could not handle the emotional overload of it all. I feel as though she still loves me (very much), but that she doesn’t “like” me… which kills me inside.
    Until about a week ago, we normally had sex on average about 3 times per week. We would have romantic, loving sex and sometimes just very playful, laughing sex. We really enjoy each other and love to be together. She made a comment a week ago that we “need to continue to have sex” and I said “I’m not sure about that, at least while we are going through all of this.”
    I would love to hear your thoughts on the sex issue… I know in relationships that die, sex is usually the first thing that goes… and neither of us want that. We are both making changes and trying to “fix” our relationship… but it’s going to take a long time.
    Any input or thoughts would be appreciated.