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Who’s in control in your relationship?

·       Do you get frustrated because your partner avoids talking with you about things that you care about? 
·       Or do you sometimes feel overloaded by your partner? 
·       Do you get frustrated because you frequently disagree, even over seemingly small (or not so small) things?
·       Or does one of you tend to take charge, while the other is more prone to acquiesce? 
·       Do you have too much difficulty getting your way about the things that are important to you? 
·       Do you know couples who have drifted apart, so that they don’t have much in common anymore? 

Each of these are common signs of underlying conflict and control issues. All can be managed -- IF you understand them. They won't go away on their own. Left unattended, they can endanger otherwise strong relationships over time.

Consider all the areas of life where there are sure to be some conflicts between even the most ‘compatible’ partners: neatness vs. messiness, caution and thrift vs. expansiveness and risk-taking, promptness vs. tardiness, more vs. less sociability, different career demands, to name just a few (without even getting into the big disageement areas--sex, in-laws, kids, etc.). It isn’t very surprising that conflict and control can be one of the most puzzling and difficult aspects of relationship facing many couples.

Since all couples--even those who have been happily married for years--have five to seven areas of unresolvable difference, how couples handle deciding whose approach will prevail is critical to marriage success. Managing control issues is one of the principal challenges of married life (and other committed relationships).

Skill-based programs (like MST) can help most couples to understand control issues and to develop new communication and conflict resolution strategies that can enable them to take a healthy, intentional and constructive approach to conflict.

Failure to take a positive, proactive approach to conflict and control can result in two general kinds of problems: Too much conflict will drive up relationship negativity, on the one hand. Or, on the other, conflict may be avoided though compliance or disengagement by one or both partners, depriving the relationship of essential mutuality. Each can put a relationship at risk over the long run.

This second problem contributes to the most common destructive pattern in male-female relationships: the pursue-withdraw syndrome, where one partner (usually the woman) keeps approaching the other about an important need or problem, while the other becomes overloaded and withdraws or superficially complies. The pursuing partner becomes more and more frustrated leading her to increase the pressure, while the withdrawer becomes more and more overwhelmed by it, resorting to flight or fight to escape. Both partners feel caught in a terrible script that just keeps replaying.

When these problems are chronic and entrenched--seem to always follow the same repeating script--they can cause serious trouble. Partners who enter marriage with a need to have their own way on most decisions and, especially those who need to have their partner’s (at least apparent) agreement on most things, can be headed for trouble. Partners who manage conflict by always avoiding or giving-in are also putting their relationship at risk.

When control is a problem, it’s usually because one or both partners have difficulty finding the middle ground: relinquishing some control or asserting their own needs. Often these tendencies result from early upbringing and are more or less automatic--not something we necessarily understand very well about ourselves.

Compliant partners need to learn to stand up for their needs in a relationship. Most often this means learning to tolerate their own feelings about their partner’s reactions. A certain amount of self-support and self-validation is required.

Of course, it’s when you are disagreeing that you can’t expect validation to come from your partner. So if you don’t have an alternate source of support, you’re more likely to give in when you shouldn’t.

Control-oriented partner(s) need to accept more influence from their partner. Marriage research finds that accepting influence from your partner is highly correlated with marriage success for men. For women, moderating the ways that you seek to influence your partner (to make them more positive) is the other side of this finding.

A chronic need to be in control and have your way on most things is often related to underlying insecurities that sometimes have origins deep in our early childhood experiences. Likewise, always giving in can reflect a different response to similar issues.

Paradoxically, for the control-oriented person learning to give up some control can be the key to getting more of what we want and need in relationships. The paradox for the compliant is that becoming more assertive can lead to more enduring relationships. If you have difficulty modifying chronic compliant or controlling behavior, you may find individual counseling helpful in exploring and resolving underlying insecurities.

Sometimes, one or both partners need to learn to tolerate differences that cannot be resolved (at least for now). This means putting such differences aside for a time, once efforts to arrive at a compromise have been exhausted. Couples can’t always agree on every issue.

Many theorists (notably David Schnarch) describe marriage as a people-growing relationship because over time it forces all of us to ‘grow up’ and come to more realistic terms with our needs. Marriage works best for people who find ways to support themselves adequately when they and their spouse can’t agree. This means tolerating some of your differences without an absolute need to change your partner.

Relationship experts (Paul and Paul) have identified four common problem patterns that result from couples’ control issues:
The control-compliance pattern is present when one partner usually defers to the wishes of the dominant partner, even if that’s what they wish to do. In the long run, this strategy is unlikely to succeed for either partner. Their happiness will be undermined ultimately by the lack of fulfillment experienced by the compliant partner who will usually become depressed and/or resentful as a result of not having their needs met over the long term.

Even the ‘winning’ partner may sense that the vitality of the relationship has been drained by this pattern and become disenchanted.

This doesn’t mean that one partner should never give-in to the preferences of the other. Far from it. It’s important to compromise and accommodate the wishes of your partner on occasion. Each partner should do so from time to time. It’s only a problem when it’s always a particular partner who is doing the giving-in or compromising without reciprocity. Compromise, of course, means concessions from each partner. When compliance becomes a one-sided approach (one partner always giving in), though, it’s not a successful strategy.

It’s worth noting that people commonly undervalue the frequency and importance of their partner’s compromises. Naturally, they notice their own sacrifices more than those of their partner.

Power Struggle
In the control-control (or power struggle) problem pattern, neither partner is willing to give much ground. This is a particularly destructive approach because it drives up the negativity in the relationship as partners vie for control. This is a common pattern for couples with a hostile engaged relationship style.

In the control-indifference (and/or control-resistance) pattern, one partner has given up on having much influence in the relationship. This pattern can be related to the pursue-withdraw relationship pattern that can be such a problem for many couples. 

The indifference-indifference pattern is usually not seen until later in unsuccessful relationships. It is associated with a hostile disengaged relationship style. Both partners have given up on the relationship. They may stay together, but are not fulfilled.

While these patterns show up in most relationships from time to time, chronic reliance on one or more of these control syndromes is a warning sign of a relationship on the wrong track. Corrective action is needed to preserve the long-term vitality and even viability of the relationship.

Consider skill-based marriage prep to help you steer clear of destructive conflict and control problems.