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Power and Control

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Make Up to Break Up

Love is letting go of fear.
-Gerald Jampolsky

Bridge-Builder’s Tip
Love, patience, and kindness soothe the fear that sabotages your relationships.

Today, she’s my very best friend in the whole wide world. But it didn’t just happen--no indeed, we both have the emotional scars to prove that. Anyway, we were getting together for the first time in a couple of years. The funny thing was, it seemed as if it had only been a couple of weeks rather than years.

That’s the way it had always been for Carly and me. Carly was part of the gang in high school, but to me, she was more than just a friend. We’ve always made it a point to do more than just check in from time to time. We make time to be with each other, to reconnect, most importantly to celebrate what our lives have become.

Although today we care very deeply about each other, it wasn’t always easy for Carly and me. That took time, patience, and an awful lot of understanding. As we were talking on the ride home from the airport, I couldn’t help but think back to the old days when our friendship was more like pulling teeth than anything else.

Things didn’t just fall into place all at once for us. We didn’t always get it, get what came between us, get what made it hard for her to let me be her friend. No, that understanding came with a lot of tears, a lot of anger, and sadly a lot of time spent apart.

Thankfully, after awhile, the pieces did begin to fit. But initially, I had no understanding of her, her fears, no understanding of how my wanting to be her friend activated those fears. Looking back, it’s easy to see how so much of what went on between us in those early years was her testing me every way she could think of. But back then, all I could understand was there was always drama, conflict; there was always us coming together and pulling apart.

In those days it was open season, everything was
tested--the genuineness of my feelings, the loyalty I felt towards her. She tested me by seeing just how unlovable she could make herself, waiting and watching, checking out my  reaction. Would I stay or would I go?

Now, don’t get me wrong. In the beginning, I flunked more of those tests than I passed. But once I caught on, I was better able to understand her fears rather than react to her behavior. I began to see how fragile she could become. This enabled me to stop judging how she behaved. Finally, I began to understand how her expressed feelings and actions were tools of self-protection rather than weapons of mass destruction. Gratefully, I began to see the choices I could exercise--react or respond, personalize her actions and expressed feelings or put them in their appropriate context.

Eventually, disengaging from Carly’s behavior became a little easier for me to do. I began to play this game in my mind--was the conflict we were having me-based or fear-based. If the argument was me-based, I knew there was some action I could take to shift my behavior. If the argument was fear-based, I knew I needed to be patient and accepting of where Carly was at emotionally. 

The more I was able to disengage from the swirl of chaos, the better able I could see what her fears were. One thing was very clear to me--Carly was absolutely unwilling  to build a friendship with me based upon me meeting her emotional needs.

That may sound odd. Why wouldn’t someone want another person to be there for them, to care about them? Why would it be so painful for Carly to let me in? Why would she turn the offer of my unconditional love into a raging battlefield?

Little by little I learned that she had good reasons for doing so. The details of her life aren’t as important as the impact those details had on her willingness to create a close relationship with me.

For her, it just made more sense to put her efforts into pushing me away, discouraging my efforts at trying to get close, pulling the plug on our connection when it became too intense. I came to accept that she wasn’t rejecting me, she was protecting herself. She was protecting herself from being vulnerable. She was protecting herself from being hurt one more time. Carly was only making her world a safe place for her to be.

You see, my efforts at wanting to befriend her merely activated many of the fears she had about human friendship. And at the core of those fears, were her fears about needing another human being. To make a long story short, the early lessons she learned about how safe it was to need another person would move any of us to protect ourselves rather than invite someone into our world.

The shame she felt when she would look to her parents for love and acceptance only to receive ridicule or anger or even worse than that--indifference.

The confusion she would feel everytime she asked for help, only to be made to feel like she was a burden.

The fear she would feel everytime she saw her mother ridiculed by her father for being human.

The terror that would fill her body every time she saw her father explode at her mother for being too demanding.

The trepidation she would feel at not knowing whether her mother was in her gentle persona or if she had arisen in her terminator persona on any particular day.

The self-doubt and inadequacy that would fill her when she couldn’t come up with an explanation other than she just wasn’t worth taking the time to be parented, to be guided, to be directed in her life.

No, these were not the lessons that would make anybody conclude that needing another person was a rewarding experience. There was no basis for her to feel safe entrusting anybody with the vulnerable parts of who she was.

And so she did what any of us would do. She controlled. She fought. She pushed away. She tested. She stomped. She kicked. She screamed. She tried to run the show all by herself. Carly would do battle with anybody who dared to get close. She would come and go, but mostly just go.

At the time we initially crossed paths, we did battle more often than not. But as time moved on, we were able to find a different emotional space other than her fear, mistrust, and emotional unavailability to build a relationship that we will both value till the day we die.

From the surface, it looks familiar. Two people trapped in a dance of chaos. The cause is seemingly noble--wanting to connect, to be close. But invariably, all efforts fall short. Their words say that they want to connect. But their behavior reveals a much more fundamental truth about what’s bubbling beneath the surface. Fear. Trepidation. Uncertainty. Ambivalence.

And so it is that the diversionary tactics begin. The arguments. The times spent apart. The coming together. The pledges that we’ll never be this stupid again. But a day later, a week later, a month later, it’s back in your face again. The same patterns, the same methods of avoidance, the same hurt and sorrow.

For how many of you is this true? How many of you feel like you get swallowed up in a cycle of non-specific fears, undeniable dread, explanations of why you should go your separate ways, explanations you barely believe yourself? For how many of you is the appearance of this dread and discomfort the precursor to arguments, chaos, separating and coming back together again? For how many of you does the uncomfortable feelings, the resultant chaos to distract you from those feelings send you into survival mode?

Do you know what I mean by survival mode? The behaviors may vary but the goal is always the same--to be in control. It may be as obvious as breaking up with your partner or taking a hiatus from the relationship. It could be more subtle such as giving your partner the silent treatment. Whatever the means, whatever the style, the goal is undeniably the same--to control access, to limit one’s ability to reach you, to lessen the demands for emotional intimacy that you fear are being placed upon you.

Let’s be clear. The need to protect yourself is your highest calling. No person, no thing will ever be placed above that need. Let’s also be clear that many battles are needlessly waged in the name of self-protection.

Why are these battles needlessly waged? I hope the answer to that question is obvious to you by now. Because you stay focused on the circumstances without talking about the underlying relationship issue.

Can you see how many of the fears you have about needing another person get transformed into the conflicts you create to keep that very person away? Can you see how the inevitable fears we all have about emotional intimacy get masked by the chaos and conflicts that divert our attention from expressing those underlying fears.

No, it’s much safer to moralize about our partner’s controlling behavior than it is to have an honest discussion about the fears that get activated when two people get close to one another. It’s much safer to invest our emotional and intellectual energy into creating solutions to the diversionary conflict we create, than building bridges that are based upon our emotional needs and vulnerabilities.

The chaos we create on the surface masks the struggle waged beneath the surface. We can call our partner names. We can label them as controlling or power hungry. The choice is always there to get sucked into the struggle. You can always escalate the battle with your own assertion of control and power.

But that’s not a solution, it’s a reaction. We all kid ourselves that a reaction will get us what we want. You know the truth by now. In order to get what you want, you   have to hitch your wagon to a horse other than the one we call control.

The horse I’m referring to has been talked about throughout this book in various forms. Acceptance. Understanding. Patience. Kindness. Secure connections. Emotional safety. You have to dive beneath the chaos. Dig underneath the power struggles. Look within your partner for what they are so afraid of. Examine within yourself how well your demanding ways work.

It takes two people to create a power struggle. It takes only one person to act in a kind, understanding fashion towards somebody else. You see, it really is as simple as what you choose to do with what appears in your life.

Let’s get practical for a moment. I’ve tried to illuminate for you throughout this book the necessary shifts that would be helpful for you to make. Any shift you make is always predicated upon one thing--being able to identify the options you have.

It’s no different here. You have the option of seeing much of your conflict as based upon power and control or based on somebody’s fears that are provoked when they get close to another person.

Let’s first examine some of the vulnerabilities you may feel as you get close to another person. Perhaps it’s discomfort with needing somebody, or fear that you’ll be abandoned if you let someone into your life. Maybe you feel uncomfortable having to be accountable to another person. Whatever your fears are, take some time and write down what they are.

The next step is becoming more aware of how these fears appear in your relationship. They may be as obvious as breaking off the relationship. You may provoke arguments with your partner to shift the focus away from what you’re feeling. You may experience yourself not being as connected to your partner. You may call less frequently. You may limit how long you talk on the phone. You may start screening your calls. Whatever it is you do, let’s see if there’s a connection between how you begin to control the relationship and the fears you have about getting close to your partner.

The last step should be obvious by now. You need to begin talking to your partner about your fears and how your fears appear in your relationship. The reason is simple. Talking about these issues lessens the power they hold on you. When you take ownership of your fears and the way those fears appear in your relationship, you’ll be able to work with your partner rather than against your partner.

At the same time, take things slow. My ol’ prescription of one part patience and one part kindness applies here more so than anywhere else. This is big stuff that doesn’t go away with one exercise in a book. It goes away over time when love and kindness replace fear and the many different ways we mask our fears.

Simply keep in mind that wherever there’s behavior that you experience as controlling, there’s fear right below the surface. You have a choice to respond to the controlling behavior or the array of emotions beneath the surface. I hope you learn to respond to what’s going on beneath the surface. I’ll settle for the time when you do a little of each rather than merely reacting to the behavior on the surface. 



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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