A Controlling Partner often has real trouble in couples therapy…if they deign to attend at all. On the other hand, some Controlling Partners are eager to change their controlling behaviors and work hard to do so. How can we tell the difference?
Controlling Partners, in the extreme, typically have personality disorders, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. They exhibit abusive, controlling behaviors to an extreme degree, and may be inappropriate for couples therapy. The defining characteristic of a severely Controlling Partner is their wholesale hegemony over how you see the world.
If they want your opinion on something… they will tell you what it is.
The issue with this degree of control is that it shames and blames the partner who dares to differ into silent compliance.
But their abused partner may also have a constellation of passive-aggressive responses to resist their controlling behavior.
Toxic Controlling Partners fail to accept the notion of two distinct worldviews. The ability to do so is fundamental for positive outcomes in couples therapy. These toxic Controlling Partners assert their own version of events in their marriages and in couples therapy as well. Terry Real describes this emotional deficit as relational grandiosity.
Extremely Controlling Partners regularly engage in verbal aggression. In couples therapy, they will attempt to mask contempt as bluntness or honesty. It is neither. In such cases, Controlling Partners will badger, threaten, and seek to constrain their partner’s range of options.
When discussing the Controlling Partner, I’d like to draw a line between the losing strategies we’ve already discussed, and these next two more familiar examples of controlling behavior.
We all seek to be a Controlling Partner at times. It’s easy to forget this.
Two of Gottman’s 4 Horsemen are explicit bids for control of the marital conversation.
The first is Stonewalling. When a partner actively shuts down and withdraws, they are attempting to exert control by removing conversational content.
Starving your partner for your words it the essence of Stonewalling.
It’s as common a strategy as it is hurtful. It typically results in escalation, and breeds even more resentment, making it impossible to have constructive dialogue.
The next is Defensiveness. Gottman’s research tells us that Defensiveness is natural to the human condition. That’s why in my couples therapy intensives, I offer both spouses a multitude of interventions to use when defensiveness shows up.
A good couples therapist will normalize Defensiveness, and help the escalating partner to self-regulate and engage directly with their partner’s defensive response.
Stonewalling and Defensiveness are commonplace controlling behaviors. While problematic and unpleasant, these behaviors are not necessarily a reliable indication of a personality disorder.
There are times when we all seek to control, manipulation is commonplace for couples in a healthy relationship. Occasionally, controlling behaviors emerge from healthy conflict. It’s no reason to feel guilty or feel bad about the relationship.
We all do it, and I wish more couples therapists could discuss their client’s Defensiveness and Stonewalling with more patience and forbearance. Stonewalling and Defensiveness are both instinctive responses to marital stress.
However, the spouse on the receiving end of these controlling behaviors feels isolated and unheard, and often escalates in response.
Instead of pathologizing Defensiveness and Stonewalling, a good couples therapist will normalize these controlling behaviors (while explaining their impact), and offer a wide range of behavioral interventions to help partners self-regulate and co-regulate their partner’s emotions.
On the other hand, toxic Controlling Partners seek utter control 24/7.
The Controlling Partner will spend a lot of time seeking to limit their abused partner’s agency, and curb their locus of control.
As a result, the controlled person frequently withdraws from family and friends.
And the toxic Controlling Partner does not typically display Defensiveness or Stonewalling. In other words, while Defensiveness and Stonewalling are controlling behaviors, they are not the go-to behaviors of extremely toxic Controlling Partners.
Why is science-based couples therapy preoccupied with evaluating the Controlling Partner? Because partners who seek to control by extreme raging, threats, and physical violence are inappropriate for couples therapy and should be screened out as early as possible.
When a couple regularly experiences domestic violence (DV), it’s called Characterological Violence.
We do our best at CTI to screen out couples where one partner clearly demonstrates that they are a Controlling Partner with a tendency to be physically abusive.
Typically we refer the abused partner to the national domestic violence hotline.
Gottman has carefully researched these couples. He says it’s irresponsible, unethical, and in some states, even against the law to conduct couples therapy if Characterological Violence is a feature of the relationship.
Fortunately, most couples who are extremely dysregulated exhibit what Gottman Couples Therapy calls Situational Violence.
Situational Violence occurs most often with couples who lack conflict resolution skills.
The difference between Situational Violence and Characterological Violence is the emotional context. It is less about the mental health of the Controlling Partner, as the willingness to change is readily apparent.
Situational Violence elicits feelings of remorse. Both spouses are willing to unpack the pattern in couples therapy and break their escalation habit.
You can work with these couples, and they often blossom in Gottman Couples Therapy. Over 40% of all couples have had at least one incident of situational violence in their marital history.
Because of its emphasis on physiology, I find that Gottman Couples Therapy, in particular, is extremely useful for couples occasionally experiencing Situational Violence.
Gottman Couples Therapy privileges psycho-education on flooding, the Four Horsemen, conflict management, and Generative Conversations. These are a few of the core skills escalating couples acquire in good couples therapy.
While in couples therapy, it’s not unusual for a Controlling Partner to attempt to control us too.
We can be Stonewalled and Defended against as well. All-purpose therapists sometimes have an unwise tendency to take this personally. On the other hand, a skilled Couples Therapist sees an opportunity, because they know that the long-suffering controlled partner is watching.
When a Controlling Partner takes us on, We keep their spouse foremost in my mind and model the best practices for setting boundaries in a controlling relationship.
Without giving away all our magic mojo, allow me to sketch out what we do:
It looks to me like you want more from your partner. Has this controlling behavior delivered for you? Would you be open to trying something different instead?
Gottman Couples Therapy reminds us that under all controlling behaviors lurks a hidden dream.
A good Couples Therapist unpacks the dream, revealing to the Controlling Partner how their pursuit of complete control is their most significant obstacle to intimacy. Good couples therapy offers specific interventions to change controlling behaviors, and restore and heal the marriage.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.