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Power and Control

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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What’s All the Fighting About?

The feeling we have that we deserve to have everything just the way we want it ends up destroying spontaneity.
-Linda Weltner

“I don’t need no shrink to tell me what the problem is. I understand only too well. What she needs is a good hobby or even to go back to work.”

“The problem is your wife isn’t busy enough?” I asked, trying to understand his read on the situation.

“That’s all it boils down to. She just has too much time on her hands. When she starts to thinking, she starts making herself unhappy.”

“Your wife’s unhappy because she thinks unhappy thoughts?” I asked.

“Well, now you’re making it too simplified. I know that it’s more than that. But, honestly, Doc, what’s all this mumbo jumbo about ‘my needs, my needs?’”

“Your wife’s needs are mumbo jumbo?” I asked.

“Now Doc, come on, don’t go making me out to be the bad guy here. You’re starting to confuse me. What I mean to say is, what’s so all fire important about her needs? You never hear me complaining about my emotional needs do you?”

“You question the importance of what your wife wants from you?” I asked.

“You know, Doc, why is it that when you say it, I feel like such a heel? Of course what she wants from me is important, I guess. It’s just that, well, you don’t know how my wife is. You gotta be firm with her. You can’t give in. You gotta hold the line.”

“Your marriage is a competitive game like football, where you have to have a strategy for everything?” I asked.

“Now, Doc, I swear you’re putting words into my mouth. I didn’t say any such thing. It’s just that, if you give her an inch, she’ll take a mile. You know what I mean?”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” I replied.

“Well, listen then. I know exactly what will happen. It starts out with wanting to be hugged. Everytime I see her, she gets this funny look in her eyes. And I know there ain’t no just doing it once.

“It doesn’t start and end with just one hug. Then she wants me to start kissing her when I come home at night. Can’t you see what I’m getting at?”

“You don’t know how to say ‘no’ once you say ‘yes?’” I guessed.

“Well no, that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is, if it was just the hugging and the kissing, I could put up with that, I suppose. But you know where this all is heading, don’t you?”

“I must admit, you’re ahead of me on this, why don’t you tell me,” I replied.

“Look. I could put up with the occasional peck on the cheek. The hug, well, we all have to make compromises. But then the thing that comes next, the thing I hate worse than anything.

“Next, she’ll want us to start having talks. Like going for a walk or sitting on the patio after dinner.

“No way. No how. Not in this lifetime.

“I mean I’ve got a life too, you know. That’s what I’m saying to you, Doc. If you don’t draw the line in the beginning, she’ll just keep taking and taking and taking. And what happens to me in all of this?

“How will I have time for myself? How will I be able to do the things I want to do, if we start paying so much attention to what she wants all the time?

“Why can’t she be like me? I ask very little of the world. Hey, life’s tough, but you just gotta learn to be there for yourself. There’s no sense counting on anybody else.”

"You would like it if she just held her breath?” I asked.

“Now, there you go again. You didn’t hear me say that, did you? It’s just, why doesn’t she learn to tough things out? That’s what works best for me.”

I looked at him with a hint of resignation in my eyes and said, “I don’t know. Your solution to just say no seems to me to be a prescription for disaster rather than a means to be involved with your partner.”

Is my friend in the story merely selfish, self-centered, insensitive, and uncaring? Perhaps so, but what value is there in thinking of him that way? If we relate to him only on that basis, we have guaranteed ourselves a neverending struggle based on name calling and justifying one’s behavior.

No, I prefer to think of my friend as merely frightened. Maybe he could express that more clearly, but I think it’s undeniable that beneath all of his insensitivities beats the heart of somebody who’s terrified of what will happen to him anytime he gives in to his wife.

It’s clear that he sees the only way to take care of himself is to dig his heels in, to withhold what his wife wants from him. It’s easy to see the inevitable disaster that comes when the ways he protects himself denies his partner at the same time.

But this is the issue over which much of the conflict is waged in our relationships. Power and control. Two of the dirtiest words in any relationship. “You’re so controlling.” “All he wants is to be in control.” It’s like waving a red cape in front of a bull. Bring on power and control and let the games begin.

Power and control. Them are fighting words. Power and control. These two words can take any aspect of a relationship and escalate conflict to its highest pitched frenzy. Power and control. These energies hide so much of what’s buried beneath the surface of any relationship.

But have you stopped to think about this? Have you stopped to think about the fact that controlling behavior serves to mask something deeper within? Can you see how controlling behavior masks your fears? Does it make sense to you that the vortex created by the battles waged over power and control are merely the means to bury the fears that live beneath the surface of any relationship?

Our fears are many. We need some manner to quell them. Think about my friend in the previous story. Think about what he may be so frightened of. Can you see how frightened he is to allow himself to get close to his wife? Just imagine how frightening it is for him to have someone be vulnerable with him. Do you get the sense that he believes that the only way to insure his autonomy is by resisting? Can you see how his sense of independence becomes threatened by the mere suggestion that he go along with what his wife would like him to do?

If you listen hard enough, it’s easy to hear how  overwhelmed he is by his own needs and vulnerabilities. And so he needs a way to disconnect from what he’s feeling. He needs a way to turn down the intensity. He needs a way to insure that he doesn’t have to experience what frightens him so much. Bring on the control--turn up the power.

It saddens me when I watch him stir up chaos in order to deny his own humanness. That’s what he’s really denying. His emotional needs, he being the sustenance for his wife’s needs, his desire to protect his autonomy, his fear of not being able to influence his life, these are all part of being human. However, these aspects of being human--depending upon somebody else, needing somebody else, working cooperatively with somebody else--are all too often viewed as being an expression of being weak, insecure, and fragile.

So my friend goes through life cut off from much of his humanity. He suffers for it. His partner suffers for it. Ultimately, his relationship suffers for it, as well. 

That’s what much of what the drama is about. The endless tug-of-wars. The pushing, the pulling. Digging your heels in. Defiance. Entrenched positions. Inflexibility.

What’s going on beneath the surface? What self-protective mode are we in when we find ourselves part of an endless arm wrestling match with our partner?

Wanting things our way. Trying to hold on to what we have. Believing the only way to keep what we’ve got is to never let go. Frightened that if we do let go, we’ll suffer forever.

Wanting to have a say in our destiny. Always having to believe we can influence the uninfluenceable. Without question, the drama is important to understand for what it expresses about what’s going on beneath the surface.

There’s much churning beneath the struggle, beneath the need to control, beneath the need to distance ourselves from our sense of vulnerability. In the next two chapters we’ll examine more closely two crucial issues that are the underbelly of much of the surface behaviors associated with power and control. These two issues are the fears provoked by emotional intimacy and the fears provoked by our loss of   autonomy as we begin to blend our lives with another person.



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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