Resentment over Issues of
Control, Dependency and Identity
Introduction: I have read hundreds of letters from husbands whose wives have left them over issues of control, dependency and identity. But, so far, none of the letters I've read have presented the problem exactly the way I know it exists. That's because so many of those who write are very confused about the whole thing.
So, I've decided to take the bull by the horns. Instead of waiting months for just the right letters, this week I decided to write my own fictionalized letters for Greg and Sally. Even though they are not letters from real people, I think they accurately reflect the facts and emotional expressions I have witnessed time and time again over the years.
I am tackling some very sensitive but important issues this week, the issues of control, dependency and identity. Because these issues are so sensitive, and there are such strong opinions about them, I am treading on dangerous ground. You may very well take issue with my approach to the problem, and if you do, be sure to write me about it. My analysis of the problem is still developing. But the issues are too important not to address, and there are thousands of couples that need solutions as soon as possible, or their marriages will not survive. For more on my perspective regarding these important issues, read my Q&A columns entitled, "You Believe What?"
Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife, Sally, and I have been married for 15 years and are blessed with 3 wonderful children (ages 12, 8 and 5). Sally and I met in college, and we dated two years before we were married. Our first child came unexpectedly, but I think we adjusted well to her arrival. We have a better than average lifestyle, since I am vice-president of a rapidly growing company. Sally also works full-time as an executive assistant for another company.
After the arrival of our first child, we decided that Sally should quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom. To compensate for her loss of income, I worked longer hours. But when I was home, I did my best to give her and our daughter all of my attention. My wife and children have always been the most important part of my life, and I cannot imagine being without them.
Five years ago, after Sally had our third child, she became very depressed, and couldn't seem to shake it. She a saw counselor who recommended that she try going back to work to see if that would make her feel better. After she found a job, her depression lifted, but our relationship began a long downhill spiral. Right from the start she refused to share her income with me, as if everything she earned was "hers," and everything I earned was "ours." I made quite a bit more money than she, and was well able to pay the household expenses, but her attitude about her money hurt my feelings. If she had asked me, I would have agreed to let her spend her income as she pleased, but she never asked. Instead, she informed me one day that none of her money would be going into our joint account and that was that.
I also felt that her career objectives were preventing her from caring for me and our children, but whenever I brought up the subject we would end up fighting about it. After she started working, she developed friendships with people at her job, and spent very little time with me or the children. Baby sitters were hired to do most of the child care and our sexual relationship became almost non-existent.
As I tried to reason with her about the direction we seemed to be going, she was either completely withdrawn, or very angry with me that I would not try to support her more. Everything I did or said seemed to annoy her.
Then, last month, Sally moved out of our house and into her own apartment. While she claims she is not planning to divorce me, I cannot imagine any other outcome. I thought, at first, that she was having an affair, but there seems to be no evidence for that at all.
I have not a clue as to what her problem is, or what I can do to bring us back together again. In desperation last night, I asked her to please do just one thing for me. I asked her to write you a letter explaining why she is doing this. If she writes you, maybe you can give me some advice as to how to reach out to her, and bring her back home to me and our children.
Dear Dr. Harley,
My husband, Greg, has asked me to write you about my separation from him, so here it is. I hope it will help you get through to him. Nothing I've said so far has seemed to work.
I was raised in a very traditional home. My mother stayed home with us children and my father supported the family. But he did much more than that. He CONTROLLED the family. His word was law, and none of us could do anything without his permission, including my mother. Both of my parents are alive today, and my father is the same controlling man he was when I was a child. I feel very sorry for my mother, but there is nothing she can do now to escape her situation.
When I first married Greg, I committed myself to care for him the very best way I knew. I read books on men and what they needed, and tried to be everything he wanted in a woman. In those days I was absolutely crazy about the man, and rarely denied him anything. He was the absolute center of my life, so much so that I completely forgot about what I needed.
However, instead of appreciating all that I did for him, he could always find the fly in the ointment. He always wanted something more. The house wasn't quite clean enough, I wasn't quite thin enough, we didn't make love quite often enough. Once in a while, he would fly into a rage, and lecture me on some mistake he thought I made.
Then, I made the mistake of my life (in Greg's opinion) -- I got pregnant. A baby wasn't in his plans, apparently, and many nights I went to sleep crying. I even considered an abortion just to make Greg happy.
After Ellen arrived, Greg decided that I should quit my job and raise our daughter, which I agreed to do. I must say that I was very happy in that role, even though I remembered how it trapped my mother. As soon as my mother had children, she became completely dependent on my father, and that gave him control over her, control he has wielded right up to this very day. When our second child arrived, I had already adjusted to being a mom, so one more child didn't change my life that much. Greg was doing well at his job, and I figured that things were turning out okay for us. But I kept thinking about my mother, and how I was falling into the same trap she was in.
When my third child arrived, I became very depressed. After the birth of my other two children, I had been depressed for the first few weeks because I felt so trapped. But I eventually snapped out of it both of those times. This time, however I was depressed for three months, and there didn't seem to be any end in sight. With three children, I felt completely dependent and without any control of my life. I felt my identity slipping away. So I began counseling to help me understand my depression, and to do something to overcome it.
The counselor and I spent a few sessions going over my past, particularly the roles played by each member of my family. We talked about how I had fallen into the same role as my mother, and how my husband had gained control over me, the same way my father had control over my mother. The more I talked about it, the more terrified I became.
I also became aware of my growing loss of identity. I had rarely thought of myself or my needs. I had no goals or ambitions, except to raise my children and try to keep my husband from getting upset about something. Over the course of a few sessions with my counselor, however, I was seeing my situation clearly. My marriage had almost killed my spirit, but not quite. Within a few weeks, I had a whole new perspective on life, one that opened up opportunities that I had not allowed myself to think about. Once that happened, I made immediate plans to break out of Greg's control of my life.
My counselor suggested that I go back to work to escape Greg's financial control over me. She explained to me that control of money was the key to gaining control over the rest of my life. Until then, I had to come to Greg for every penny I spent, and he insisted that I account for every one of them. My performance as a "good" wife usually determined my allowance. I often felt like a prostitute. But after I found a job, however, the money I earned was mine to spend on what I needed. I even opened my own checking account and got my own credit cards. I no longer had to cater to Greg's whims or try to meet his unreasonable demands. Within a few weeks, my depression was completely gone. I was cured!
I missed my children while I was at work, but I found good child care for them. Most important, however, was that my daughters had a mom they would never have to feel sorry for. I was breaking a tradition of male dominance, and I feel that my example will spare them from the pain my mother went through, and that I almost went through myself.
Once I was freed from Greg's financial control, he went ballistic. He did everything he could do to try to get me back into his trap, but I resisted his efforts. He criticized my care of the children the most, and even told them that my job was more important to me than they were. But the more demanding he became, the more convinced I was that I had made the right decision to break free.
Over the past five years, Greg has become increasingly disrespectful of me. At first, I argued with him, but lately I have given up trying. I moved out because I am a better person when he's not around. When I am away from him I can think clearly, I have less anxiety, and feel in control of myself. When I'm with him, however, I am tense, confused and I feel that I'm losing control again. And yet, for some reason I don't quite understand, I really don't want a divorce. All I want is for Greg to respect my boundaries, and stop trying to control me. If you could teach him how to do that, I might be willing to return to him again.
Dear Greg and Sally,
Nobody I know likes to be controlled by someone else. I don't like to be controlled, and my wife Joyce doesn't like to be controlled. But as much as I am opposed to any human controlling any other human, once in a while Joyce will let me know that she thinks I'm trying to control her. When she says that, what does she mean? I'm not trying to control her, but she still feels that I am.
To some extent, the feeling of being controlled once in a while may be inevitable in any marriage. But I believe there are appropriate ways to minimize that feeling when it is not intended. And when it is intended, there are ways to identify the monster for what it is -- a >Love Buster that can destroy your marriage.
Most of my letter will focus on why Sally feels controlled. Greg, I want you to understand what it is you do that causes her to feel so upset that she cannot live with you. Then, I will give you some advice that will help her overcome her resentment, and help you rebuild your marriage.
First, let's start with vocabulary. The first word I would like to discuss is dependence.
If I were to mail you a check for $1000 a month asking for nothing in return, at first you would be extremely grateful and pleased. You would most certainly like me, and you would regard me as a very generous person. You might put at least some of the money into savings, since it would give you more than you were used to spending. But if you are like most people, after a few months, the extra income would be absorbed into an improved quality of life. When that would happen you would become dependent on me for that check. In fact, you might already have spent it a week before the check would have arrived.
If my gift is one-sided, where I give you something, but you do nothing for me in return, you would find yourself truly dependent. In other words, you are dependent when what you receive is not balanced by what you give in return. Generosity and a willingness to sacrifice are usually the motives behind such one-sided giving, motives we all value. But because there is no reciprocity, it creates dependency.
Now I'll introduce another word, control.
At this point in my illustration, you might be a little nervous about your growing dependence on that monthly check I would be sending you. What if I stopped sending it? How would you compensate for the lost income? But in spite of some fears, you would still be grateful for the gift as long as I kept sending it.
Let's suppose I were to tell you there was something you could do for me to earn that check. Wait a minute, you might think. I thought this was a gift! What is this about "earning" the check? As alarmed as you might be, you might feebly ask what it was I wanted. Suppose I wanted you to mow my lawn once a week, and you had to do it yourself -- you couldn't hire someone to do it. How would you feel about mowing my lawn for $250 a week? That's a lot of money to mow a lawn, but compared to the original deal, $1000 a month for doing nothing, you might start to feel controlled by me. As you would be out mowing my lawn, you might be wondering what little tasks I would be thinking of next.
You probably would have wanted to do something for me anyway, after receiving my $1000 checks for a few months. But you would have wanted it to be a gift, not an assignment. If you are like most people, you would probably feel that I tricked you. You would think I gave you the money to make you dependent on me. And, once you were dependent, I would try to control you. Before long, I might have you completely enslaved, all for $1000/month!
Dependence and control go hand-in-hand. Once you reach a point where you depend on someone, he or she is in a position to control you. But even when control is not intended, you may still feel controlled. That's because you may feel obligated to meet any request because you may feel you "owe" the other person something that's been unspecified.
A third word we will discuss is interdependence. It refers to a relationship where two people have come to depend on each other equally. It's not the same as the dependence we have just discussed, because there are no gifts involved. One person meets a need in exchange for the other person meeting their need. For that reason, there is less risk of control.
It's like buying groceries. I pay $50 and get groceries in return. True, I may depend on the grocer for my food, but he depends on me for my money. In that situation, even though we both depend on each other, neither of us feel dependent. We don't feel controlled, either, because the exchange we make is fair. If the grocer decides to change the rules, there are other grocers eager to sell me the same groceries for $50. For that reason, he doesn't control me, because the $50 I have been paying him is fair. Similarly, I can't offer him $45 and expect to get the same groceries from him, because no one would sell me those groceries for $45. Neither of us feel controlled by each other because we are interdependent. In an interdependent relationship, we meet each other's needs in an even exchange.
Notice that either of us could try to control the other. The grocer could try to raise prices unilaterally, and I could try to lower what I am willing to pay. But because our relationship is interdependent, our attempts at controlling each other would not succeed. Since we both need what the other person has, neither of us can gain the upper hand, and so we continue to do business under terms that are fair. Neither of us feel controlled by the other as a result.
Now I will apply all of this to marriage. I believe that our most important emotional needs in life cannot be met adequately by ourselves -- they must be met by others. These include affection, conversation, sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, and admiration. When someone meets these important emotional needs, we fall in love with that person, and want to be with them for the rest of life so that our needs can be continually met. In other words, we come to depend on the person to meet our needs. We marry for that reason.
When two people depend on each other to meet their most important emotional needs, they are interdependent. As long as the terms are fair to both individuals ("I will meet your needs for affection, conversation, and financial support if you meet my needs for sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship and admiration") and promises are kept, no one feels controlled.
But hardly anyone marries with that kind of clear understanding. Most marriages seem to be more like my $1000 a month offer. "I will meet all of your needs and expect nothing in return." That's what love does to our reasoning capacity -- it makes us pure Givers, and our Givers think only of others, never of ourselves. The marriage vow is a Giver's vow -- selfless and self-sacrificing. We all do it, but it sets us up for dependency and feeling controlled.
Who are the ones most likely to make that unrealistic offer? Men. In most cases, they do the asking, and they don't offer an interdependent deal. They offer unconditional love -- a BIG mistake! And predictably, they get blamed the most for being controlling.
Sally, when you married Greg, what did you understand the terms to be? Did you agree to meet his emotional needs in return for his meeting yours? I doubt it. You probably didn't even know what your emotional needs were. You married because you loved Greg and you thought he loved you. You didn't give much thought to how you got to feel that way.
So when Greg started meeting your needs, you simply felt that he was following through on what he had promised. Greg, on the other hand, had his own set of expectations that had never been clearly expressed to you. He wanted you to keep the house clean, stay thin and trim, and have sex with him as often as he wanted. When you failed to meet his needs the way he expected them to be met, he would complain about it in the form of criticism.
You were deeply offended by Greg's criticism because you did not consider your care of him to be responsibilities, you saw it as gifts. Your unconditional gifts to him -- housework, attractiveness, and sex -- and he had the nerve to criticize you for not giving him more, the ungrateful wretch!
Because you depended on him to provide for your emotional needs (financial support, among other things), you felt trapped. You had to try to meet his demands, or he might stop meeting your needs. When you married, you did not make your expectations clear. Instead of forming an interdependent relationship, you formed a dependent relationship. That, in turn, led to your feeling controlled, and the more controlled you felt, the more depressed you became.
Sometimes the person we depend on doesn't understand how our refusal to meet their request affects him or her. In your case, Greg, whenever Sally refused to make love to you, Sally felt that you gave her less money to spend. That may have been the case, even if you don't remember the connection. It may have been unintentional on your part to link love-making with her allowance, but she saw the relationship, and regarded it as control.
But, Sally, if the tables had been turned, maybe you could have seen what Greg was up against. Suppose that the only way you would enjoy making love is for Greg to first spend an hour meeting your needs for affection and conversation. Without either, you just wouldn't enjoy the experience. So you explain to him that he must meet your emotional needs in order for you to meet his. Is that control?
It depends. Suppose that talking to you and being affectionate is extremely painful to Greg. After spending two miserable hours with you, he finally gets to have sex. Would he feel controlled by you. You bet!
But, if his conversation and affection turns out to be a pleasant way for him to enjoy the evening with you, and it is capped off with sex, control will be the farthest thing from his mind. We only feel controlled, manipulated or used when what we do for someone else is forced upon us.
Sally, you felt controlled partly because you didn't enjoy meeting Greg's needs, at least under his conditions. You felt you could not say "no" to him without fear of his withholding financial support from you. Withholding sex may have affected Greg in other ways too. Perhaps, without sex he would be more emotionally distant, more argumentative, or, in general, more unpleasant. With sex, however, you might have found him to be much easier to live with.
Greg, you may not have fully understood the control you had over Sally, and may have intended to give Sally the right to express her opinions, and refuse your requests. But because she didn't understand your intentions, for her, each request you made was a demand that she had no right to refuse.
In an effort to avoid feelings of insecurity, she made every effort to remove the risk of losing your financial support. She did this by trying to do whatever she could to make you happy so that you would not threaten her. But nothing she did worked. The harder she tried, the higher your standards became. In her effort to reach those higher standards she completely lost sight of her own opinions, feelings and needs, and found herself losing her identity.
Remembering the experience of her mother, and with the help of a counselor, she snapped herself out of her anxiety and depression by overcoming her dependence on your financial support. She got a job so that she could support herself and her final act of independence was to actually move away into her own apartment.
She feels much better now than she did when she was living with you. That's because breaking out of her dependent relationship with you was one solution to her problem. Once independent, she no longer felt controlled by you. She regained her identity.
If she were to come back to live with you again, what could you do to prevent a recurrence of your control over her. How could she avoid feeling depression and anxiety all over again?
There are two solutions to Sally's problem. We've already discussed the first, break out of her dependent relationship with you so she would no longer feel controlled by you. But there is another solution that would free her of your control, and keep your marriage together at the same time. That solution is to create an interdependent relationship. I'll use the rest of this letter to explain to you how that can be achieved.
To quickly review, an interdependent relationship is one where you negotiate with your spouse to get what you need in marriage, and you give what your spouse needs in return. Negotiations begin with nothing assumed, except that you will try to meet each other's needs if it can be done in a mutually enjoyable way. No demands or intimidation are permitted, because it's through respectful and thoughtful negotiation that an interdependent relationship is created.
Sally, you feel out of control in your marriage because you and Greg don't negotiate with each other. Instead, you either sacrifice (giving whatever the other wants even when you would prefer not to), or you demand (forcing the other person to give you what you want). Those are the strategies of the Giver and Taker, and those strategies have caused you to feel controlled.
I suggest that you and Greg abandon those worthless strategies for resolving marital conflict. Instead, enter into thoughtful negotiations, where neither of you make any demands or sacrifices. Make your needs known to each other, and then work together to meet those needs in ways that are comfortable for you.
Use the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse) to guide you. Avoid compromises that do not meet with your mutually enthusiastic agreement. That way, every decision you make will hold up over time, and will help you create a compatible relationship.
Once you and Greg have decided to try to negotiate respectfully, you may need some help in learning how to go about it. My book, Fall in Love, Stay in Love includes a section that explains how to negotiate for interdependence. Here are some of the basic steps I suggest you take whenever you are in conflict with each other:
1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.
Before you start to negotiate, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.
2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.
Be able to state each other's position regarding your conflict before you go on to find a solution. Be sure you don't argue with each other, just get to know how you both feel regarding the issue.
3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.
Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to do that during the fourth step. Write down every suggestion. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex its muscle, you will have a long list of possible solutions.
4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.
From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.
When you use the Policy of Joint Agreement to resolve your conflicts, neither of you will feel controlled by the other, because you are not being forced to do anything for each other. The only restrictions you will feel are those that prevent you from gaining at each other's expense. And that's not control, that's thoughtfulness.
Try living together under the Policy of Joint Agreement for just a week. As you learn to negotiate with each other's feelings in mind, you will find yourselves put into place a lifestyle where you will both be looking forward to your future together. Your personal identities will be firmly in place, and you will reach agreements that will benefit both of you.
Then as the weeks go by, you will find yourselves becoming increasingly interdependent. Dependency, control and the resentment they create will be gone, and in their place will be compatibility and love for each other.