What to Do with a Controlling Husband
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have been married 20 years to a wife who thinks I am controlling her. We have been
in counseling for months and she has become increasingly abusive. To try to get things
under control, we have started seeing two counselors separately.
I don't believe that I have tried to prevent my wife from developing independently of me.
I like watching her blossom, but she seems to resent me regardless of what I do. I have
tried to be patient listening to her abuse, but I find myself becoming increasingly
defensive. To be completely honest, I am becoming increasingly unhappy with her. I
want my marriage to work, but my wife is not on board. If this goes on much longer, I will
not be able to tolerate the pain. Any ideas?
Perspective is everything in marriage, and you and your wife see the world through very
different eyes. Unfortunately, you can't see your wife's perspectives very well because she
laces it with the Love Busters, selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, and angry outbursts. Love Busters distort communication so much that
spouses that use them cannot possibly understand each other. You are probably using
them yourself whenever you try to explain your perspective.
Your wife agreed to counseling because she was unhappy with her marriage with you.
Since counseling began, she has probably been increasingly convinced that you are a
controlling person, and she has tried to defend her position. Apparently, you don't agree
with it, and she has become increasingly frustrated with her inability to reach you.
From your letter alone, I cannot judge whether you have been controlling or not, but
something you're doing is certainly upsetting your wife, and you need to get to the bottom
Your wife's Love Busters, selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, and angry outbursts have created a defensive state of mind
for you too (I call it the state of conflict). You may feel
that if you yield to her verbal abuse, you would become a helpless wimp, an eternal
"pleaser." In response to her abusive behavior, and in defense of your pride, I'm almost
certain that you have also dished it out, just to prove to her that she can't get away with it.
That's why your counselor suggested separate counseling sessions, because you would get
into fights whenever you were together.
Control is in the mind of the beholder. Technically, unless you are physically imprisoned,
control is very difficult to achieve. Even in our prisons, the jailers have limited control
over the inmates.
If your wife is telling you that she thinks you are trying to control her, ask her what she
means by that, without trying to defend yourself. Don't argue with her at all, but rather
make an attempt to find the root of her concern. What do you do that makes her feel the
way she does, and how long has she been feeling this way. It generally boils down to your
making decisions that don't take her feelings into account, but there may be other
explanations, too. She may be simply responding to an uneasy feeling that she is too
dependent on you for her survival, or she may want to make decisions that do not take
your feelings into account, and you won't let her.
Let's look at each of these three possibilities one at a time.
The uneasy feeling that she has lost control of her life
and has become too dependent on you.
This is a real feeling and an important problem to some people. They simply do not trust
other people enough to be dependent, and marriage creates terrible conflicts for them. On
the one hand they want their emotional needs met,
but on the other hand they feel that as soon as they let go, they lose control over their will.
Granted, it's a little paranoid to feel that way, but there are a lot of very successful people
out there who are a little paranoid. And there are many people who have suffered enough
abuse in their background to be very sensitive to being dependent on a potential abuser.
These people who are afraid of losing control are often wrapped up in books and
magazine articles about issues of co-dependency and
male dominance. They are offered a barrage of illustrations about men who meet a
woman's every need until they have them trapped by love, and then they switch to become
mean and self-centered, turning these poor women into slaves. I've known both men and
women who try to do that to each other, but if you look at the facts, the strategy doesn't
work very well or very long. Love doesn't last when people are being abused, and if love
is the hook, abuse is the release of power because it eliminates love. In other words, men
who bait and switch with women discover that the women don't stick around very long.
But what about marriages where abuse has been almost completely absent. And yet, the
wife is still afraid of being controlled. I've found that these cases almost always require
professional help, because the root of the problem is an irrational fear. If this is what your
problem turns out to be, perhaps the therapist working with your wife now is aware of it,
and trying to help her overcome it.
She may want to make decisions that do not take your
feelings into account, and you won't let her.
This is a more common reason than the first for women to feel they are being controlled
by their husbands. It's what most people don't like about the Policy of Joint Agreement. It's great when someone else
considers our feeling before making a decision, but when we are asked to do the same,
many of us think they're attempting to control our lives.
As often as I've witnessed it, I'm still amazed by people who want their spouses to let them
do anything they want. "If he really loved me, he would know how much it means to me,
and he'd want me to enjoy myself. After all, I'd do the same for him!"
Let's think that through. What she is saying is that if he loved her, he would be willing to
suffer so that she could be happy. He explains that what she wants to do would make him
unhappy, but she wants to do it anyway. And she appeals to his love for her to get her
way. But what about her love for him? If she loved him, would she want to engage in
activities that cause him to suffer? The truth is, whenever someone wants to gain at
someone else's expense, they are being self-centered and uncaring.
Why use the argument, "If you loved me you would suffer for me?" Because it works. Our
Takers know a good thing when they see it and use
that argument to gain sympathy. But it sure doesn't make any sense for people who really
do care about each other.
Your wife may want to do whatever she pleases without having to consider your feelings
first. She may interpret the defense of your interests as "controlling," and doesn't want you
to keep her from engaging in inconsiderate behavior. She may want you to consider her
feelings, and avoid behavior that is upsetting to her, but she may not want to return the
If that's what you're up against, I suggest that you set an example to her of what it means
to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement. Make sure you always consider her feelings
whenever you make a decision, and ask, but don't demand, that she consider your feelings
whenever she makes a decision. Let her do whatever she wants (to prevent her from doing
so would be a Love Buster), but also let her know
how much it is hurting you.
Your wife may eventually come to realize that your relationship depends on your mutual
consideration of feelings. But even if she doesn't come to that realization, you will be
depositing love units, and avoiding their withdrawal,
which will change her state of mind eventually. As soon as you have deposited enough
love units for her to enter the state of intimacy, her thoughtfulness of your feelings will
be instinctive to her.
You are making decisions
that don't take her feelings into account
This is far and away the most common reason that women feel they are being controlled
by their husbands, and the most likely reason your wife is upset with you. I've offered two
other possibilities to you, but this is the most likely candidate. Your wife probably isn't
paranoid, and she probably doesn't expect to do anything she pleases without regard for
Instead, she has probably spent years trying to adjust to doing things your way. Whenever
she tells you how she feels, you may often treat her suggestions with contempt or you may
ignore them altogether. She may have finally come to a point where she simply cannot live
under your dictatorship one second longer, and her counselor has given her permission
to express the depth of her resentment to you.
If that's the reason your wife feels you've controlled her, The Policy of Joint Agreement will solve your problem.
You must promise her that from this day forward you will not even brush your teeth
unless it meets with her enthusiastic agreement. Express your willingness to completely
change your lifestyle together so that she can enjoy it with you. Make her an equal partner
in your marriage so that she can live a life full of hope for the future.
You may need help learning to negotiate with your wife, because up until now, you may
never have made your decisions based on her feelings. You may not know how to discuss
issues safely and enjoyably with her. If that's the case, read my book, Fall in Love, Stay in Love, together to learn how it is to
At first, she may not believe you have changed, so you may suggest having a joint
counseling meeting to prove that you will not argue with her anymore. In the safety of
another counselor, she can see for herself if you have learned to treat her with care and
consideration. If you do it right, she will not lose her temper or say abusive things to you.
She will have nothing to be upset about because you will be considering her feelings in
what you say to her.
The first step in resolving any marital conflict is to understand what the conflict is all
about. Once you have taken that step, without being defensive during your investigation,
the solutions become much more apparent. In the final analysis, though, your wife wants
proof that you really care about her feelings, and you are willing to make your decisions
with them in mind. If you learn to do that, it will be the most important lesson you'll ever
learn on your road back to marital reconciliation.