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Taking Back Control: What Am I Afraid Of?

Having acknowledged in the past post that simply forgiving your spouse’s controlling behaviors, and sweeping your own anger under the rug, is not a way to either improve your situation or achieve self-respect, let us return to steps you should take in the process of taking back control.

This next one is less of a practical step than the previous ones, but must be dealt with if you are ready to catalyze your process of crawling out from under your spouse’s thumb.

Ask yourself: What am I so afraid of?

Most controlled spouses tip-toe around their partners, ever anxious that they will displease the controller. There are valid reasons that people feel afraid, but until you realize what yours are, and problem-solve your fears one-by-one, your anxiety may prevent any forward motion.

The two biggest fears I encounter are:

1. My partner will be upset with me, and his anger is scary. This is a good place to start, since it’s a very common fear in controlling marriages. I have a couple suggestions for starting to deal with this fear, and I find them almost universally helpful.

a. Find and work honestly with a counselor/life coach experienced in this area. Let them help you explore your fears, and what their origin is. If you can’t come into the office for any reason, I’ve found phone work to be quite effective here, so no excuses.

b. Ask yourself if you are repeating a pattern of control/abuse from your family of origin. Your counselor can help you explore this, but you must convince yourself that your husband is not your father, your basketball coach, your teacher, your sibling.

Remember back to Don and Diane. Don had had childhood asthma–this in the days before steroid inhalers–and his mother, probably, in fairness, out of her own fear, had berated Don for days until his lungs eventually cleared. During a bad episode, she had implied he was a bother, said she couldn’t stand his asthmatic ‘hacking,’ and had left him alone in the house for hours while she went out running errands or lunching with friends. It seemed little surprise to me, then, first, that Don had chosen a woman so un-nurturing, and, second, that he put up with her mistreatment of him. Was it that childhood fear of being left, as he had been when he was a young child? Was that why he made no demands on Diane, when he was laid low? It seemed a serious possibility.

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2. I’m afraid my spouse will leave me. This is a fear that pervades almost all interactions between the controller and the controlled. Despite how bad the situation in the relationship may be, the controlled spouse often lives in fear of being abandoned.

This, too, should be worked through individually with a counselor, but I have two contributions  to make on the topic. First, in my years of experience in working with controlling spouses, I have found that the controlling spouse almost never leaves. Although they seem, in their dominance, to have infinite confidence and self-esteem, they almost always live with a core of self-doubt, one that they feel is silenced by their masterful control of their marital situation. Although you may, in the end, be better off with a separation, the odds are against your spouse actually packing up and leaving when you begin to re-assert control.

And if you’ll forgive another digression back to my son, Eli: he was a co-author on a 2005 paper in Interaction Studies [again I’m going to give you the link, more out of my old academic training that I should cite my sources, I assure you, than out of any sense of family self-promotion, despite how suspicious this may look].

The paper, “Self-processes in Interdependent Relationships,” addresses how ideally partners work to assist their partners in creating their ‘ideal self,’ often simply by seeing that best self within them. This turns out to be good not just for the individual partner, but for couples as well. The authors write, “. . .[W]e suggest that individuals and relationships are most likely to flourish when partners effectively elicit and nurture one another’s ideal selves; individuals and relationships stagnate and languish when partners block or inhibit one another’s movement toward the ideal self.” Thus, Karen’s allowing Kyle to see her as a personal servant doesn’t just ruin Karen’s sense of self; it additionally prevents the entire relationship itself from growing and flourishing.

In short, your fears, when they see the light of day, may be holding you back, when they are nothing more than being afraid of the bogeyman. Once these fears are dealt with, your path out from under your spouse’s thumb might just be fully clear.

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