Under My Thumb–Controlling Spouses, Part VII: Taking Back Control #1

At one end of the relationship gradation is patriarchal violence [and, as I’ve mentioned before, if you are in a physically abusive relationship in which you are beaten to the point of physical harm, this blog is not for you. In that case you need to get out of your house to a safe place, and institute emergency measures.], and at the other end is living on your own, without a significant relationship, and with no ties that bind. Your life is clearly your own.

Between these two extremes is a world of relationships that are managed in an infinite complexity of ways. Kyle, in the first post on this topic, was controlling Karen with his assertion that he earned the money, and thus Karen was responsible for everything else that went on in the couple’s life.

Let’s look at another couple with a similar financial set-up–wife retired and husband, a doctor, earning a good salary–where, again, the wife was in charge of an inordinate number of household affairs. Aside from shopping and cooking, she ran all the errands–that included picking up the doctor’s glasses, framing his photograph collection, running to Fed-Ex to drop off his packages–arranged social engagements, packed up the doctor for his vacations–in fact, she even laid out his clothes.

But three crucial components distinguish this marriage from a controlling one:

1. There was no element of fear. She wanted to please him and to make his life easier, but she did not perform her role out of a sense of anxiety that she might make her husband angry. In fact, as the years went by, the wife began to forget more errands she was supposed to run for her husband, and he never once berated her or took her to task. Rather, he simply kicked in and took over more of his own self-care–and I can’t help but think it was good for him.

2. The wife felt herself an equal partner with the husband. When I would ask her if she resented all the tasks that fell on her plate, she consistently answered that their marriage was a partnership, and each had their role. She enjoyed the life-style the doctor provided through his financial success, and understood that he was busy and she had more time. She felt they had a fair arrangement, and did not feel in the slightest put-upon.

3. The doctor never stated, as did Kyle, that he made the money and thus his wife was responsible for everything else. Rather, over the years after his wife’s retirement, as the doctor worked long, hard hours, and had a nasty commute downtown and back, this system had evolved–it was not a philosophy that his wife was responsible for personal service, since he made the money.

And so the doctor and his wife represent a relationship which, in others’ hands, might have been a controlling one, but lacking the fear and demands and the depersonalization inherent in controlling relationships, it was merely an old-fashioned marriage, which worked for both partners.


But let’s say you’ve read the case histories, looked at the warning signs, and you’ve thought about it, and decided that you are, in fact, in a controlling relationship. The time has come to break free of it–and now. It is good for your children, and it actually serves the controlling spouse well, too, contradictory as that may sound. But it is life-affirming for you.

Let me start with a story about animal-training. That may sound a bit gauche, but I ask you to suspend dis-belief and hang in there with me through this short vignette.

There is a couple I’ve recently started to see to help them deal with their challenging children, and they’ve made significant progress, but Lisa will always be the more soft-spoken and somewhat self-effacing of the pair. Thus it was that the children were clever enough to work on Lisa to get her approval for the purchase of a baby terrier–which, as is always the case, the children swore they’d walk and care for–and have her broach the topic with Lyle.

Turns out Lyle had had a hankering in his heart for a dog for a while, but had feared the whole burden of the pet’s care would fall on Lisa. Now that the children were old enough to care for the animal, he was full-steam ahead. So the family took a trip up to Upper Michigan and purchased a feisty little Airedale, who managed to both urinate and defecate in the car on the way home– an inauspicious beginning.

Lyle was supportive that the children would have to play a significant role in the dog’s care, but the first visits to the vet had to be done by a driver: I can’t say I was surprised when the role fell into Lisa’s hands. Lyle did one trip–and took the dog for a few ‘practice rides’ to try to erase the fear and trembling exhibited by baby Lou as he rode, convinced nothing good would meet him at the other end, but the other three trips were Lisa’s. And fast as you can say, “Where are my dog-walkers?,” Lou started snarling at Lisa when she would go to get him out of the car.

Distressed, Lisa called Lyle. Lyle had made partner early on at his firm, and was known as being something of a pitbull in the courthouse. So it was no surprise that Lou never snarled at him, but I was impressed with his advice to Lisa.

“Hon, here’s how you play it,” he told her. “So you’re home. And you get out of the car and go around to get little Lou. And he snarls at you, right? You march yourself right in the door, get yourself a drink, put your feet up and watch yourself some TV.”

“What about Lou?” fretted Lisa. “Won’t he be cold?”

“If he is,” answered Lyle, “that’s just too bad. And I’d guess there won’t be a problem again. So, after about 20 minutes, you go out to get Lou. He snarls? You’re back inside with your martini and TV. Play this game all day, if necessary, but he doesn’t get to come in that house with you until he cuts out that nonsense, got it, babe?”

“I don’t know. I’ll try,” was Lisa’s tepid response.

Back at the car, Lou snarled at Lisa. Guiltily she went inside, where she peered out the window for about 5 minutes, making sure the dog was ok. 10 minutes later she was outside again, greeted by a snarl. So she set the timer for 20 minutes, called her sister–who could talk for hours; this timer idea was brilliant when speaking to her, she should have thought of it long before–and was back out at the car door, where a very cowed Lou was wriggling in excitement to see her, snarl-less.

Because if you let anyone–and now I don’t mean a dog, I mean any person–control you, you become part of that dynamic, and lose a little bit more of yours self-hood each time the roles play out.

I have a number of suggestions for controlled spouses and how to get out from ‘under the thumb’ of the controller, but I’d like to start my next post with what important lessons we can learn just from the story of Lou.


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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