Relationships: When control becomes abuse

Everybody needs some control over themselves and their daily environment to enable a good level of mental and emotional health: powerlessness can lead to depression. This can sometimes be easier to achieve as a single person, in terms of being able to choose how to manage your time and home environment – many people choose this or to live apart from their partners.

In relationships where partners live together, control of their circumstances becomes a more complicated issue, especially in re-constituted families where there are children and finance issues involved with ex-partners. Control then becomes a delicate balance between the needs of each individual in the relationship. When this works well and both partners are flexible and considerate of the needs of the other, the relationship can run smoothly like a well-oiled machine.

Problems arise when couples feel a need to fight each other to maintain a comfortable level of control, or one partner becomes dominant and the other is subdued or frightened into submission.

Being able to make decisions and choices for oneself – how we look, speak, dress, behave – is our right as an adult unless we are conforming to standards and regulations of a particular organisation by choice e.g. school, the workplace, military. If we don’t then we are aware there will be subsequent consequences.

To a degree, it is similar in relationships and families. What is acceptable behaviour, what is not? Who decides this? Balancing individual needs with couple or family needs can be difficult. Problems arise when one partner’s need for a certain level of control involves controlling their partner in order for them to feel comfortable. This can be very obvious, or it can be more subtle and insidious. Good communication and compromise are necessary for a relationship to succeed, especially with the pressures of children, work, time and finances to juggle. When power and control become unbalanced, they can lead to arguments, anger and abuse.

Insecurity and jealousy are often reasons why one partner will try and control the other, whether it is the way they dress, their conversation, friends or activities. Controlling behaviour can range from moods, shouting and name calling to physical violence.

The initial comfortable love, companionship and security of a relationship can gradually slip into irritability, frustration and criticism. Security within the relationship can easily transform to loss of respect and it may be many years down the line before one or both partners recognise they are no longer happy. If you feel bullied, intimidated or diminished, it points to it being time for a couple to review the relationship.

So what is reasonable control and what is not? It can be very subjective. If your behaviour is enhancing and enabling your own life whilst either doing the same for your partner, or at least not restricting or repressing your partner, then is it positive? Who controls the running of the home or who disciplines the children? Is there justice in financial accessibility and spending? Are individual, couple and family time balanced and equal? Are you able to see your family and friends without feeling guilty?

Catching unresolved issues early and resolving them is important, but fear of a partner’s negative response can be intimidating. Anxiety about the possibility of the relationship ending if control issues are raised or challenged can also be inhibiting, but ignoring excessive control or putting up with it won’t make it go away – it will continue, inexorably, to more unhappiness.

Counselling can help to explore and understand the patterns of control in a relationship in a safe environment, before the relationship becomes irretrievable – and if it has reached that point, it can help to face a different future.