Under My Thumb (X): Taking Back Control (4)

So by now you know to pick small battles and win them, to stay away from heated arguments, to plan for change-back moves, and to share your suffering with somebody close to you. What else can you do to crawl out from under the thumb of control?  Start by being cautious of what you tell your partner you’ll do to re-assert your independence, for you must be ready to go through with what you threaten.

Imagine a hard-working couple in their early 40’s. They’ve been through a lot together, particularly with a special needs child. He is usually supportive of her, which he should be, since she makes more than half the money.  However, he has a way of putting her down, really more like grinding her down, when she misplaces the cell phone, forgets to walk the dog, burns the dinner, etc. She acknowledges that her forgetfulness must be frustrating for him–but the amount of berating that he does puts him in the realm of the controlling spouse. And, worse yet, he’ll do it in public.

They were out with two couples, old friends, when the husband began telling the story of his wife’s losing the last car key, how irresponsible she was in general, how difficult and expensive it was for him to replace, and how this was a pattern of hers. The monologue went on until all were uncomfortable. She asked her husband twice to stop, and, after that, asked him, “Would you like to take the car home, or shall I?”

Her husband actually laughed, creating more tension among the party, when his wife got up, put on her coat, hat, and gloves slowly, all eyes on her, and proceeded to walk home–5 miles, in the dark. During her lonely but triumphant walk, her husband rang and rang her cell phone, which she turned off when she saw his number.

Years later the phrase, “Would you like to take the car home or shall I?” continues to result in immediate cessation of hostilities on her husband’s part.  He knows she is willing to go through with it again.

That’s the key, here: that readiness to ‘walk,’ both literally, as in this case, and metaphorically.


And this next one is so very crucial, and would have helped the aforementioned hiker: Never be somewhere without your own cash, a credit card, and a cell phone. This includes vacations. Never leave yourself without an ‘out.’  

Then, if your spouse’s controlling behavior becomes unbearable, you are free to–and should, if you threaten that you will–leave, and go where you feel safe and un-threatened. I recall one woman who was not making much headway in asserting herself with her emotionally abusive husband. The day he finally lifted a hand against her eldest child she got in the car and just drove. She had no wallet (he holds on to her wallet, I can’t really think of any rational explanation why), which meant no driver’s license, no cash, and no credit cards. Ever secretive, she had told no one of her situation, and wanted nothing more than to go to a hotel–she feared he’d search for her at her family’s–and hide out there until she had gathered herself together. Penniless, that option did not exist, and she eventually wound up at her brother’s, where her husband sniffed her out within the day, and convinced her all would be well now. Back home she was under her husband’s thumb once again.

My guess is that some of you will ask, in these cases: Isn’t there ever room for forgiveness?

Surely the berating husband was quite sorry as he frantically called his wife, trudging home 5 miles in the dark, and, in the last case, the husband in fact couldn’t express enough times his sorrow at his own physical behavior. It’s an interesting question, and one I’d like to start with in the next entry.

In fact, I may like the question even more than most, as its answer is inextricably connected to my son.


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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