There’s a level of control that occurs in relatively few marriages that we would see as part of an abusive power and control dynamic. But then there’s a lower level of control that doesn’t come from an abusive spouse that can still be frustrating and lead to conflict in the marriage.
We’ve talked about the abusive kind of control before, so if you want to learn more about that kind of control feel free to go back to our previous episodes of the podcast to learn more about what that looks like.
Today, we’re talking about the annoying kind of controlling. This is not so much about the spouse’s power and dominance as the controlling spouse’s worry, fear, anxiety, and maybe even mental health issues that are driving this behavior. And sometimes the non-controlling spouse may also be acting in ways that prompt this behavior. If you’re listening to this to try to figure out your spouse, you may ask yourself what your role might be and how might you help your spouse feel less of a need to be in control.
Where Control Issues Come From
Control issues are often rooted in fear. This is the first place to look. If you’re afraid and you want to make it safer, you’re going to want to control the variables. This is quite a common response to fear.
Fear can come from a number of different places. One place fear can come from is trauma. When something very frightening or overwhelming happens, it may cause a person to install certain requirements or demands in order to preserve safety. For example, you’ve been in a late night car accident, and you now want to control all of the family travel so that there’s no late-night travel going on and no one is allowed to go out after dark. So now you’ve become “controlling.” You’ve installed requirements or demands on others in order to preserve your sense of safety and well-being, to stop the horror from repeating itself.
Another source of control is abandonment (fear of being left alone). If you were left alone at some point as a child or at a point in your marriage, that may result in the kind of controlling behavior where you don’t let your spouse do things on their own or do certain things on their own. You always have to be there, or you always have to do things together.
Betrayal may also lead to controlling relationships with certain kinds of people in order to prevent re-betrayal. For example, if in your first marriage you were sexually betrayed by your spouse, in your second marriage you may marry a faithful person, but you exert control on them to make sure that that previous betrayal doesn’t re-occur, much to the frustration of your current spouse. That can get difficult because it can cause such distress in your marriage that there’s an emotional separation, or drifting apart that occurs between you. Thus, controlling behavior can lead to further dysfunction.
In another scenario, if you’re a late teenager and you saw your father gamble away your family’s savings and eventually lose the home, job, etc., that’s a major financial betrayal. And later in life when you are a mom you may think you’re a super budgeter, but there’s actually a ton of control over where every penny goes. So, in this situation if the husband buys a chocolate bar and the wife gets upset and he may get frustrated and say “can I not even buy a chocolate bar without asking your permission?” This is clearly a higher level of control than just a healthy budgeting habit.
3. Mental Health Issues
Now that we’ve talked about a few fear-related causes of control, we’re going to move on to look at mental health. Some mental health issues can cause controlling behavior. Take personality disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Someone with BPD may say if you leave, I’ll hurt myself, or I might not be ok somehow (there’s a clinging aspect of BPD that does relate to fear of abandonment, but it is also a mental health condition and the fear piece is a part of that).
BPD is something some individuals suffer with, but it is not a common disorder. A more common mental health issue would be anxiety of various forms: generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia (we can’t go out, or we go there and I make you turn around and take me back home), etc. which may manifest as need to control/limit behaviors or activities with others in attempt to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. The other spouse may find themselves saying “why are you always controlling the time that we have to leave. Why can’t we just stay and have a good time. Or, even symptoms of OCD or relational OCD where there is an obsession over the quality of the bond between you. This is not a formally recognized diagnosis in the DSM-5, but it is fairly well documented anecdotally. With relational OCD, there’s an obsession over the quality of the bond between the two of you. One person is always checking up on how things are going, controlling all the things we’re doing together to make sure we’re ok, things are going well, we’re having conversations, etc. The other spouse may feel like “can we not just be together.” Those are experiences in the marriage that are born out of one person’s mental health struggles.
Perfectionism is another possible source of control issues. Perfectionistic people may feel the need to do things right or be seen as doing things right, as having that ideal marriage or that ideal family. This is related to a deep, often unacknowledged sense of personal shame, so they need to appear really well before others, and this may extend to their spouse as well. So, there’s a lot of control about how you both appear when you’re in public, what you both behave like when you’re in public, etc.
5. Low self-esteem
Low self-esteem is another cause for control issues. One study reported that 35% of controlling people believe they are “nobody’ and have no value unless they are in a relationship. This means that you are drawing a lot of value from being in a marriage to build up your self-esteem that you are a wanted, loveable person.
Underneath the low self-esteem, there could be a fear of being useless without their spouse or a fear their spouse will reject them if they express their true feelings. Or there may be a belief that nobody else would love them so will do anything to keep their spouse.
How to handle control issues
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6. Insecurity in your relationship
Insecurity in your relationship can also lead to control issues. You may feel insecure in the relationship so that you need to control what your spouse is doing, how they’re doing it, and who they are with. You may push away any alternatives to yourself. This may also be due to spousal bad behavior. If your husband flirts with certain kinds of women, and you don’t want to be around those kinds of women as a result and he thinks you’re controlling, he actually needs to face up to what’s going on for him. This is a situation where a spouse may be controlling things because you (as the husband) can’t reliably demonstrate the security of your marriage bond to her.
Research shows that 53% of controlling people indicated they “cling to their relationship as though their life depended on it.” They have a deep concern about not being loved enough, and may feel that they love you more than you love them.
Research shows that 54% of controlling people worry about being dumped to the point where their fear keeps them up at night. That fear/insecurity might result in controlling a lot of the things you do together, or making sure that it’s just you guys together all the time because they’re trying to still this uncertainty they are carrying around.
If you’re listening to this and your spouse is saying “you’re kind of controlling” and you say “you know I do stay up at night worried about our marriage,” that might be something to explore with a therapist. It may be an attachment issue; maybe you had a parent that was unreliably available and you had to work hard to feel some sense of connection. Now your spouse might be a reliably available person, but you can’t rest on that because of that template that was formed in you early on in your life.
You may be wondering how to tell the difference between this kind of worry about your marriage and the idea that you should go with your gut if you suspect your husband of cheating on you (as an example). This is an important distinction to make. To really understand the fear, you have to look at the evidence surrounding the source of your fear. If you’re thinking about the fear when you are in a calm moment and you think, my husband has actually never done anything that would cause me to doubt him. When I really stop and look at the evidence, I realize it’s ok, but I still have this gnawing fear. Then you want to look for evidence in your family of origin. If there’s a ton of evidence in your family of origin and none in your husband’s life then our gut is sending a warning signal, but it’s sending a warning signal based on a past template. If you grew up in a family that was always there for you and there’s clear, ongoing evidence in your husband’s behavior, then the fear is likely telling you that there may be cause for concern. In short, go for your gut, but make sure the source of the data is based on evidence.
7. Unhealthy ideas of love
Another reason a spouse might be controlling is having unhealthy ideas of love or what an ideal spouse/marriage looks like. Research shows that 47% of controlling people find themselves drawn to romantic partners who have serious personal, relationship, or psychological issues. So, if you find yourself trying to control your spouse, you might ask yourself if you came to the relationship with the person you are married to with a mentality of trying to fix their problem, or out of some belief that they would be lost without you.
Sometimes the word codependency comes up (though this has come into some disfavor in the counselling community). It may be more helpful to consider whether you draw worth from supporting, improving, or caretaking your spouse. That means that you really have to control them because they’re a very broken person and they need a lot of help, and when you help them you feel really good about who you are and your ability to make this world a better place. You’re needed and valuable. So, control really gets wrapped up into this mentality. And it’s hard for a person to make a shift from that to the idea that they have to let their spouse take ownership for their life.
Sometimes, when you take a step back, your spouse’s problems make life harder for you. This raises the question “what is legitimately in your control that you should be taking care of and what is something that your spouse needs to take care of and left to face consequences for. That can be a hard line to walk, but it can bring a great deal of freedom for you both when you walk through it carefully and thoughtfully. (Controlling behavior is tiring for the person doing the controlling as well as the person being controlled).
How to Support a Controlling Spouse
If there is a mental health issue, it’s important to seek a proper diagnosis and treatment. It can often take some time to face that challenge of figuring out what the issue is and pursuing psychiatric treatment. That requires a lot of support, compassion, care, and thoughtfulness from you as their spouse.
If you notice that your spouse is exerting controlling behavior in the moment, try to look for the fear. Speak to that fear and reassure it. Stay present and help your spouse to stay present. Voice their fears by saying things like “are you afraid of losing me here? Are you afraid that I might give more attention to these other people than you? I want you to know that I’m aware of this, and I’m going to work really hard tonight to make sure that you know that our marriage is secure, I’m here for you, and you’re my main point of interest. We’re going to go through this together. In doing this, you’re making the commitment more explicit than you may otherwise have thought you need to by verbalizing your commitment to your spouse and allowing your spouse to feel held emotionally and highly valued by you. That reassurance will likely help your spouse feel less of a need for control. If you can communicate and provide some of the safety so that they won’t feel that they have to establish that for themselves. In doing this, you can help your spouse to stay present. You are essentially saying you may fear losing me, but right now I am here, I am present with you, you are loved, you are held.
Managing Power Struggles
A crucial thing to do during a power struggle is to be firm but kind. Articulate your understanding of what is appropriate in a given situation, and what you have decided to do. Remember, you cannot control (or reverse-control) your spouse’s behavior or thoughts. It’s important to focus on your own actions, but in the interest of the marriage bond, not just self-interest.
Sometimes, this can also come back to power struggles. There may be a point where you need to be firm but kind as well. We would encourage spouses to try the more compassionate approach that we’ve just suggested first, and work with that for a while, but there may be other times where you need to articulate your understanding of what’s appropriate in a given situation and what you have decided to do. For example, if your wife doesn’t want you to go to a business meeting with other women, you may say “I have to have this business meeting even though there will be women in the room. I need to have the meeting or I will lose my job” (this is assuming there has been no betrayal, but your spouse has a fear or insecurity). You may need to set a boundary and go to the meeting, but you can ask your wife what she needs in order to feel reassured (e.g. I can check in with you before and after the meeting). Focus on your own actions rather than your spouse’s. You want to act in the interest of the marriage bond as well, not just self-interest. So, rather than saying “I’m going to do this whether you like it or not,” you could say “I’m going to take care of our marriage and I need to do what’s required for my work.” So, it’s marriage interest, not just self-interest that’s motivating this discussion.
Sometimes, you will need to exercise your own power to choose what you will do. Then you can step out of the power struggle and leave your spouse free to decide what they will do. For example, if you’re supposed to go out to dinner at a friend’s house, your spouse’s anxiety sets in, and 30 minutes before going your spouse says “our family isn’t going. We’re staying home.” You may say “I want you to know that I love you, I’m here for you, but these people have put a lot of effort into this, I’m going to go out for dinner. What do you want me to tell them about why you’re not coming? I don’t want to throw you under the bus, but I do need to go.” In this way, you’re setting a boundary by keeping your commitment, but also giving your spouse the freedom to decide whether or not they will go.
In some situations, you can concede and work through the issue later, but other times you need to do what you’ve committed to do, so you’re striving to preserve the integrity of your marriage without allowing it to become the defining feature of your relationship. This can be tough to navigate, and you want to choose carefully where you’re going to exercise your own power to choose, but sometimes you do need to compassionately step out of the power struggle and encourage your spouse to face their fears.
 Kristina Randle, “Anxiety & Control Issues,” PsychCentral (blog), 2018, https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/12/06/anxiety-control-issues/.
 “GoodTherapy,” GoodTherapy (blog), n.d., https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/control-
 Ilona Jerabek, “Fragile Ego-Trip – New Study Reveals Factors Behind Control Issues in Relationships,” Cision (blog),
 Richard Kop, “It Just Takes One: Resolving Power Struggles in Love and Marriage” 63, no. 3 (2007), https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.student.twu.ca/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=8631e5dc-ffae-474a-a42e-e7c7c77bba9f%40sdc-v-sessmgr01.