When is Control Abuse?

I’d like to briefly address in this post the fine line between the controlling spouse and the abusive one. The controlling partner can, you feel, cause you to behave in ways you don’t want to avoid his/her anger, but I’d suggest that the level of fear you feel in regards to your spouse’s displeasure differs between control and abuse.

First, if you are the victim of patriarchal violence, as addressed in Part II of this series, you need to get yourself out of your situation and to a safe place immediately. If you have been hit by a man who has raised his fist to you, you must get out. This blog does not apply to you.

Second, there are of course areas in any partnership which one person controls more than another. It’s quite possible that a spouse will be controlling of a piece of the relationship and be extremely pleasant and cooperative other parts. I have a friend whose husband is hopeless with money–really out to lunch. After a few mini-disasters, and some spectacular saves on my friend’s part, she controls the finances, no exceptions made. However my friend is supportive to her husband in many ways, and he is comfortable with her control and doesn’t feel threatened by it. Really, this is more cooperation than anything else.

There are arrangements, compromises and deals all couples make to grease the wheels of their relationship. I have one couple in my practice that I find to have quite a healthy and cooperative marriage. He has a couple needs that make him relatively high maintenance, and she services those needs. But he–never one to run if he can walk–described his scurried clean-up of the house when his wife called to tell him her airplane arrived early. He ran from room to room throwing clothes down the chute, shoving dishes in the dishwasher, and, finally, separating a week’s worth of mail into 3 equal piles, placed on the dining room table–neatly–as she liked it. He definitely moved his little tail–but he wasn’t afraid of her wrath.

And that probably is the crux of the issue. If you don’t have that sickening feeling of fear when you perform tasks that affect your spouse, you’re probably out of abuse territory.

But the controlling spouse can instill a certain, lesser level of anxiety and/or fear in his/her partner, and once fear is a part of the relationship, it is a slippery slope from ‘simply’ controlling to downright abusive. Some of my comments in these posts apply to emotional abuse as well as to control.

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I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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