Manipulating Spouses

Some spouses came across as aggressive and demanding. But Norah and Tali were different. Let’s look at two controlling women who passively managed to get their spouses to do their bidding.

Norah never learned to drive. Norm encouraged her repeatedly throughout the years of their marriage, but she said she was afraid and couldn’t learn. That didn’t stop the pair from living in the suburbs, a twenty-minute commute from Norah’s job, and a car-ride from almost every store and appointment. There was a bus that came within a few blocks of the house, but Norah was afraid of public transportation. So Norm drove Norah to work every day, then turned around and drove back, past his house, to his own job. Clearly he needed to pick her up when the work day ended as well.

Of course, Norm did all the shopping, and drove Norah to all appointments. From time to time he simply couldn’t swing it and did have her take a cab–but she was so often intimidated by the experience that it was just simpler to get in the car and retrieve her, wherever she was.

Norah also needed a lot of sleep. She said she was just not constitutionally strong, and she did seem to get colds a lot, especially, she said, if she wasn’t well-rested. So Norm kicked in for child care in a big way. When Nelly, their precious first, was born, Norah started nursing, but then said she was way too exhausted to continue, so Norm was in charge of the bottle-feeding and diaper-changing at night.  He wondered if his baby was a particularly hungry and wet one.  When he headed out to work, he sometimes felt so tired he didn’t feel safe to drive, or fell asleep during meetings.

Their third and last, Nick, didn’t sleep through the night until he was past two years old. Norm had a plan for training him that he’d read in a book–you let them cry as they got older, if it was nothing urgent, and eventually they’d learn to soothe themselves. But the crying disturbed Norah who begged Norm so pathetically to quiet the child that he gave up on the training technique and, between the three children, didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nearly four years.

After the birth of Nick, Norah declared that she was done with sex. She had never enjoyed it, and now that they had their family she felt she had fulfilled her obligation. It wasn’t long after that she had Norm move into the guest bedroom, since his snoring and tossing and turning kept her up, so she was just exhausted the next day.


The couple also couldn’t have any night social plans, as Norah needed to be in bed by 9:30. Norm from time-to-time suggested that he could take her back home and come back to the crowd, but Norah didn’t like to sleep alone in the house–she was afraid. Plus the few times he did stay out late without her, she called so repetitively, asking when he would be home, that she ruined his outing anyway. It paid to just go back, drive the babysitter home, clean up after the kids’ mess, and hope he could get a full night’s sleep before his circular commute in the morning.

Tali, our second passive controller, was sad. She sometimes couldn’t make it in to work because she couldn’t “face the day,” and she cried inexplicably.

Tim often felt he simply didn’t have an equal partner, and had mentioned, tentatively, a possible separation a couple of times–just some time apart to think about things. Tali swore she would kill herself if he left–and he didn’t dare test her.

Although Tali was home in the afternoons with the youngest two, Tim did a significant chunk of the child-care for the couple’s four young children. Tali was insistent that she didn’t believe in birth control; if the couple were given children it meant God meant for them to have them. This seemed fine to Tim for the first two, but he felt three and four were more than they could really manage, especially given Tali’s, well, sensitivities. But Tali did her best with a baby.  She bonded with babies in a special way; a bond that lessened as the children grew and asserted more independence.

Tim didn’t know quite what Tali did at home alone with the babies, but he did know she loved them and that they were safe and clean and fed–and the children were attached to her, too, fiercely. When Tali was upset with Tim she told him one day he’d come home to find her and the kids gone–and it seemed a possibility, one that haunted him if he and Tali were going through a rough patch.

Tali was sensitive; Tim had always known that. So she didn’t cotton at all to his boisterous family–not his parents or his two siblings. She refused to attend his family’s events.  She said she felt overwhelmed and panicky–and she didn’t think it was good for her children to be with that model either. It was easier not to fight with Tali about it–that led to the old threats of suicide or of running away with the kids.  So much for his family of origin, unless Tali was too sad to get out of bed for days.  Then she really didn’t have the energy to protest if he took his children off for a visit to Grandma and Grandpa. In fact, she didn’t like his friends either, said they disturbed her and made her feel off-kilter when she was around them.

As Tim’s life became more and more circumscribed, there were moments when he felt rageful inside at how Tali limited him. But when he brought up the possibility that things weren’t working out, it was the same old pattern. Tali was devastated, crying in bed, threatening suicide, asking how she could live without him, didn’t he love her? Didn’t he love the children? She did, and would certainly be willing to take them if he didn’t care enough for them.

Often these nights ended tenderly, with Tim in bed with Tali, soothing and settling her, and then making love to her. And then, because God must have meant it, there was often another baby, which cheered Tali for a time. It also inextricably tied Tim further to Tali. He began to know, deep inside himself, that he could never leave.


While here is very little overtly hostile behavior exhibited by Norah and Tali, they are controlling just the same. What type of behaviors are warning signs for this dynamic?

You may be able to come up with several more, but I would at least include the following:

  • These spouses require an inordinate amount of servicing. Norah requires so much help from Norm that he can’t live a full life, and hours are spent merely catering to her. Someone refusing to learn to drive or take public transportation, insisting you drive them, should raise your antenna immediately.
  • They’re not an equal partner. They require so much from you that your life is much harder than when you only took care of yourself–there is no reciprocity. Of course the opposite is possible, too. They may insist that they are better at managing the tasks of life, and not allow you to take care of anything. Either way your marriage ceases to be a partnership and becomes a monarchy or dictatorship.
  • The spouse controls you with threats that you live in mortal fear of. I’ll return to some more examples of these, but you can see it with Tali as she threatens both suicide and running away with the children.

Awareness of your situation is the beginning of your ability to change.


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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