Is Your Need For Control Sabotaging Your Relationship? A Counselor Explains

Mental Health Counselor By Nancy L. Johnston, M.S., LPC, LSATP, MAC
Mental Health Counselor
Nancy L. Johnston, MS, LPC, LSATP, is a licensed counselor, substance abuse treatment practitioner, and mental health specialist in private practice in Lexington, Virginia, with 43 years of experience treating adolescents and adults. She has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, and she is a American Mental Health Counselors Association Diplomat and Clinical Mental Health Specialist in Substance Abuse and Co-occurring Disorders Counseling.
Are You Too Controlling In Relationships? A Therapist Explains Why It's An Issue

All of us are controlling sometimes. Perhaps we take charge of a project with a tight deadline, direct a problematic child, demand that a family member respect our wishes, or take control to ensure everyone's safety. That is understandable. But if we regularly take a controlling stance, it can cause problems in our relationships.

Insisting on having things our way is exhausting for everyone. Micromanaging every aspect of a scenario makes others feel that they must comply with our standards if we are to accept them. Perhaps they feel like there will be unpleasant consequences if they deviate from our demands or that we will reject them if they do not go along with what we want. At the same time, we drain ourselves with our need to oversee every detail and become resentful that we feel compelled to do it in the first place.

If we want happier relationships, we must understand why we have this impulse to control others and how we can overcome it. Whether this urge stems from anxiety, compulsivity, or self-righteousness, our need to regulate everything around us can cause the following problems in our relationships:

1. Lack of mutuality

When we only focus on our own wants and needs, we communicate clearly to others that theirs do not matter. For example, maybe we decide that our wish for a vacation to Mexico is more important than our partner's desire to stay home and save money—and so we book the trip for two anyway. This action communicates loud and clear that "what I want is more important than what you want." It should be no surprise that our partner is upset with us for completely disregarding their wishes. Even if we think we are trying to be helpful, we must provide space for our loved ones to communicate their wishes and make an effort to listen to their thoughts and feelings genuinely.

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2. Relationship imbalances

When we act in such autocratic ways, imbalances in how we relate to each other often take hold. If our partners discover that we will always want our way, they might withdraw completely, simply deferring to us. They stop thinking and being active participants in the relationship, instead begrudgingly or angrily going along with everything we want. As a result, we become the only ones thinking and doing in the relationship, which leaves both our partners and us feeling dissatisfied and resentful.

3. Upset feelings

We may also feel resentful because we think we should receive appreciation and cooperation for doing what we think is best for our loved ones. For example, perhaps your daughter tells you she wants a small wedding, but you decide to throw her a large and lavish one instead. When she not only does not appreciate the extra effort but also claims to feel disrespected and ignored, you might feel angry and flabbergasted. To avoid this type of scenario, we need to question our assumption that we know what's best for others and resist the urge to dismiss the things our loved ones tell us.

(Here's more on signs of controlling parents.)

4. Damaged sense of self

Controlling relationships are toxic relationships for everyone involved. The person being controlled may see themselves as inadequate, believing they are incapable of doing much. They might feel a sense of worthlessness as they fail to be considered, heard, and respected when it comes time to make decisions. And those of us who are controlling may ultimately not feel good about who we are as we become aware of our bossiness and selfishness. When our family and friends distance themselves after we try to do what we think is best for everyone, we feel rejected and insecure. For this reason, we must listen to how others are feeling about our controllingness and check in with ourselves, too, so we can shift from controlling to collaborative.

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The bottom line.

Our need to control can ruin our relationships. Even when we are just trying to make our vacation happen or improve our home, we must try to keep mutuality in mind as we make suggestions and take action. Sure, we can research that new restaurant in town and suggest we try it, but let's be open when our friend, partner, or family member responds with their own suggestion to try a new eatery that has caught their attention. Let's hear their ideas and give them the same consideration we have given to our own desires. Let's listen fully to each other and speak honestly. Doing so will likely result not only in agreeable dinner plans but in stronger and healthier relationships with the people we love.

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