Controlling Behavior

We hear it all the time, women date princes who turn into frogs once they commit. And just as often we hear how beautiful princesses in the romantic phase of a relationship turn into nagging beasts. The truth is that both men and women can turn into ogres once they become addicted to controlling behaviors.

So if you feel like you’ve kissed the prince/princess only to wake up with a snarling toad, it is time to understand what is underlying that behavior.

Marriage is not a license to let out the beast in us. Many people are charming in the courting stage of a relationship, and somehow manage to hide their controlling behaviors. We all like to have our way now and then, but someone who always has to have his or her way will resort to controlling behaviors that can eat away at the fabric of an otherwise good relationship. Controlling behavior is like the beast inside us. We all have a side of ourselves that I call the beast. Learning how to deal with the beast in yourself and your partner can save you a lot of unnecessary pain and snarling.

The beast is the side of ourselves that we resort to when we don't know what else to do. For some it may be nagging, whining, shouting and complaining. For others it might be shutting down or withdrawing. These are just some of the many forms of controlling behaviors when the person is feeling insecure.

Why do we do this when it creates so much misery in our lives and the lives of those we love? We don't even like ourselves when we behave this way -- how can we expect someone else to?

When our mate acts like a beast, we certainly don't feel warm and fuzzy toward them. And beastliness is contagious. If one person growls, scratches and claws, chances are the other person will catch the snarly-ness. This is how beasts quickly multiply, and as a marriage and relationship counselor, I can tell you we now have two beasts to contend with.

Here's what we need to remind ourselves:

When we act like the beast, we are not feeling powerful!

When we are confident that we can handle ourselves or a situation, we don't need to put on a beastly display of chest pounding. We don’t resort to controlling others when we are happy and feeling secure. It is when we are feeling out of control, and not feeling powerful that we turn into the monster. When we are out of control, by definition, we don't know how to get what we want, so we act monstrously.

Now, not only have we transformed into "Mr. or Ms. Hyde", (and are suffering the consequences of this grizzly transformation), but as a beast, we are even less likely to get cooperation from those around us. Controlling behaviors just create more resistance from our partner, who now feels a strong need to assert their own autonomy.

If someone around you has turned into a beast, the trick is to not get caught up in the beast's rough style. Instead of listening to the deafening growls, see if you can do this:

Identify the underlying need.

There is usually an unmet need, which is the driving force causing the outburst. Often this need is unspoken (or even unknown). If you can identify the need that is driving the controlling behavior, you can end the conflagration. Here is a snippet of a conversation in which Andy comes under Grace's fire-breathing dragon.

GRACE: Why do you always leave your little hairs all over the sink?! You're not the only person who uses that bathroom!

ANDY: I was shaving...the phone rang -- and I forgot to...

GRACE: You know it drives me crazy! I've told you I hate coming in here and seeing that?! They look like a bunch of bugs or something! Do you enjoy hearing me freak out?!

ANDY: It's just hair!

GRACE: You show me no respect! What am I? The maid?! Are you trying to make me nauseated? I never know what I'm going to see when I go into the bathroom.

ANDY: Oh, will you relax. It's no big deal!

GRACE: No big deal!! How would you like it if I left gross things all over the bathroom for you to wake up to? Huh?!

Clearly, Grace's beast is out. Her attempts to get Andy to do what she wants come across to him as controlling behavior. But it's because she feels she just can't get her way. She feels that no matter what she says, Andy will continue to leave a mess in the sink. So she escalates her angry words, and he escalates his dismissal of her needs.

Andy needs to remember to listen to the underlying message here. This argument is not about hairs on the sink. It's about respect. Grace feels that her wants -- and therefore she -- is not being honored. Andy needs to respond to this deeper need if he is going to understand the cause of her "beastly" outbursts. Look at how different this could be if Andy doesn’t get caught up in her controlling behavior, but instead listens for the deeper need she has.

GRACE: Why do you always leave your hairs all over the sink?! You're not the only one who uses that bathroom!

ANDY: I'm sorry. I was just finishing shaving when the phone rang and I forgot to clean the sink. I know my hairs bother you. I didn't mean to have you walk in and find them.

GRACE: Oh, well...okay. Next time, please remember I don't like waking up to a messy sink.

ANDY: I know. My whiskers freak you out because they look like bugs when you don't have your glasses on, right?

GRACE: Yes, thanks for understanding. Want to go out for breakfast today?”

Ahhh! Much better!

The trick is -- when you see the beast come out, don't fight with it! Don’t get tangled up with the controlling behavior style. Instead seek the perspective of understanding what your partner really wants. What is the underlying need that isn't being met? Ask yourself: "What does my partner really need right now that they feel they can't get?" Or: "What is my partner really afraid they won't get?"

Both sides will be more empowered and feel more respected by this type of communication. This is the way to reverse the cycle of controlling behavior which causes both sides to feel powerless. When we listen to our partner's real (and sometimes hidden) messages instead of their angry "fire-breathing" words, there's going to be a lot more harmony and a lot less snarling and beastly behavior in our love lives!

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