Relationship Advice Tips From Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

stepping on glass 90 - Couples Communication Issues, Part 6 -Being in Control

trying to communicate with a partner often feels like stepping on glass

Do you feel like your partner cuts you off mid-sentence, or gags you just when you are about to say something that bothers you?

Maybe you find that the subject has been artfully changed so that you can’t talk about what’s really important to you.

Perhaps you feel that you don’t want to hear what your partner has to say because it is nonsense or just irrelevant.

One of the major couples communication issues that brings them into couples counseling is where one or both attempt to control the other by the way they react to each other’s efforts to get something across.

There are many ways that you and your partner exercise control over the other, but it’s more important to know what’s behind the need to control.

Imagine a scene where you are furious with your partner for spending money on a new entertainment system when you were saving for a vacation cruise. Your partner knows you are furious, and doesn’t want to be taken to task, humiliated and made to feel unworthy. The need to control you so that you won’t exhibit and communicate your rage is to control you in that moment. Your partner is doing everything possible to avoid feeling bad. Bringing the kids into the room, talking about something else or attacking you before you can attack him are all forms of control that end up becoming massive couples communication issues.


Let’s takes our couple Rachel and Byron as our example again.

Couples Communication Issues around control

1. Putting the focus on the other person to shut them up

As a man of the world Byron prided himself on being open to alternative points of view and talking into consideration his wife’s feelings. He thought of himself as a good listener, not reacting wildly to things that pushed his buttons. But when Rachel started talking visiting her parents for an anniversary party, his mind went straight to “she’s going to order me to wear a suit and tie again.” He immediately went into defense mode and instead of her being the one to control him; he was going to control her. “Nathan needs his hair cut!” he said before Rachel could finish her sentence. He put the focus on Rachel and shocked her into silence. Taken aback, she didn’t go off on her rant about Byron dressing in a certain way. Instead he exposed her shortcomings, and so controlled the communication, and saved face.

How do you think Rachel felt? Probably so angry that she wanted to get back at him. She started thinking up and rehearsing things she could say to him to make him feel ashamed. She felt much better taking back the control in her fantasy world, and fully intended to make it real when the opportunity arose. She had a whole string of things she was going to use to make him feel bad and the first one was the about the hair he left all over the bathtub and sink after he bathed and shaved. That was gross and she was going to get him back by pointing that out.

big hook769055 - Couples Communication Issues, Part 6 -Being in Control

Hooking your partner into getting what you want is a form of control

2. Pretending to be open but acting in a rigid selfish way

Bugged by Rachel to show her that he liked alone time with her, Byron asked where she wanted to go for a Saturday night dinner. She responded that she didn’t mind and that he should surprise her. Thursday night came around and Bryon told Rachel that he had been thinking of the new Italian place or the seafood one located on the cliffs with a great view of the city. Did she have a preference? “No,” she said, so he said okay we’ll go to the seafood place. Rachel then responded with “It’ll” be cold outdoors that time of night and it’s a long drive up there.”

Appearing open and giving Byron permission to choose at the start of this protracted interaction seemed like Rachel was okay with him taking charge. In fact she encouraged him to be the decision maker. But as soon as he took charge and picked the restaurant, she threw him under the bus by demeaning his choice after giving it to him, took over, and took control.

I’s a subtle ploy, playing the reasonable, easy going, generous partner and then at the last moment killing the momentum that was bringing them together – she set him up so that she could then grab control by knocking him out emotionally at the moment he was about to successfully complete the transaction.

How likely is it that Byron will plan another weekend alone time with Rachel, or want to be involved in any future arrangements by himself?

Yes, you are right. He’s going to remember being dejected and dismissed. He will take a back seat to protect himself. How will Rachel experience him then? She will criticize him for not being interested, for not caring about their marriage and not performing his duty as a romantic partner. And so the cycle continues in a destructive manner.

tripping someone up - Couples Communication Issues, Part 6 -Being in Control

tripping your partner up is a way of controlling them

3. Changing your mind in the moment, removing the rug from under your partner’s feet

At a friend’s pot luck party one evening, Rachel and Byron were part of a small group discussing a movie that they had all seen. Byron had liked it, and said after he and Rachel talked about it on the way home from the theater. Rachel shared that with the people in the group, saying, “Byron thought the music was really great, didn’t you?” she hinted, looking at him.

Annoyed that Rachel was speaking for him, he hit back with “actually I didn’t think the music suited the mood of the scene when the thief ran away from the house. It didn’t capture the tension of the moment he avoided being caught.” He went on, asserting his differences, contradicting Rachel, making her feel embarrassed. He had changed his mind in that moment, catching her off guard, by using contradiction to take control. It worked well. She shut up and for the rest of that group discussion; she was careful not to speak on his behalf.

He felt good about taking control and asserting himself and his right to his own opinions, but his way of doing it resulted in a rift between the couple. A deepening coldness between them covered up pent up anger and hatred on both parts. Bryon harbored hatred and anger towards her for speaking as if he didn’t have a mind of his own. He felt belittled, reminding him of how his mother used to say “you like sausage don’t you Byron!” proceeding to order them in diners. He loathed when his loved ones made assumptions about him, and certainly wasn’t going to let Rachel treat him the same way. His way of ensuring that no one could just assume anything about his responses, he denied their statements and took the opposite view – taking away their tongues, just as he felt had been done to him. It was a highly effective way of controlling the couples communications issues he was currently facing.

Deeply wounded by Byron showing her up in front of their friends, Rachel hated Byron for what she interpreted as ‘lying.’ She knew she had spoken the truth about his comments regarding the music in the movie, and was angry with him for making her out to be the ‘liar.’  She also hated that she had been silenced and had to go along with it so as not to start a fight in public. But later at home she gave him the cold shoulder, making snide remarks here and there to put him back in his place and wound him as he had wounded her.

Couples Counseling for Couples Communication Issues

In my therapy office I observed their hard heartedness towards one another. Speaking to them about their wounds I asked each of them to describe their hurt that led to hatred and coldness. Byron told Rachel about his intense reaction to being spoken for because of his experiences with his mother. It helped Rachel understand and in time, she realized that his ‘lying’ was not meant to demean her, but his attempt to show that he had his own tongue and mind.

Then I encouraged Rachel to explain how she felt in that situation, and why she went to a cold, mean place later on. She told Byron how she wanted to show their closeness, that speaking about his view was a way of expressing togetherness. When she was controlled and humiliated, it made her want to hurt him by withdrawing and shooting verbal barbs that stung – in other words, taking back control.

Making room for both of their wounds and pain showed them that each was trying to control the other to protect their sore spots. Now that they understood the nature and origin of the hurt, they no longer had to use control to manage their couples communication issues, but could instead remind each other of their sensitivities and have other more comforting responses from one and other.

copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2016

You might also like:

Couples communication issues – part 1 Body Language

Couples communication issues – part 2, the approach

Couples communication issues – part 3 – interaction styles

Couples communication issues – part 4 – delivery style

Couples communication issues – part 5 – standoffs!

Disclaimer: this video and article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond