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Russell Collins: Manipulation and Control in a Relationship

When the monster in the closet rears its ugly head

For 600 million years, or roughly since the sponge, animals have evolved to control other organisms around them. Human beings are no exception.

From the first moments following his birth, a child’s development is directed toward acquiring and managing the resources necessary to stay alive. For instance, an infant learns quickly that smiles and coos and eye contact are powerful tools for attracting and holding mom’s attention. Of course, he doesn’t plan or think about this in advance. Nature equips him with cries, coos, screams and tears, and a gutsy, trial-and-error attitude toward life. He grasps quickly that a variety of behaviors are applicable under varying circumstances to get mom to do just what he wants.

This is how it should be. From birth until about age 2 — until the day he gets into the cupboard and goes for the Drano — the infant is uninterruptedly rewarded for advances in manipulating his universe and those who inhabit it.

After discovering the limits of his adorableness at 2, the child’s sophistication in understanding what others want and need goes into hyperdevelopment. By age 3, many developmental experts say, he will begin to develop strategies for using the intentions, interests and beliefs of others to satisfy his needs. And by age 5 or 6, many children possess a full-blown schema of people’s intentions and motivations, which they employ with ever-increasing skill to further their own ends.

Developmental psychologist Susan Carey, author of The Origin of Concepts, puts it this way: “Selection pressures on understanding others so as to be able to manipulate them (what has been called ‘the Machiavellian mind’) may have been a driving force in the shaping of the human brain.”

So, it should come as no surprise that one of the most intractable problems between couples is the problem of feeling controlled. Men feel dominated and beaten down by their partners emotionality. Women feel manipulated by the uncaring, narcissistic demands of their husbands (and vice versa, naturally). Both feel controlled by the pouting, tantrums, criticism, stonewalling, blaming and shaming of their partner, as each tries to get his or her own way.

The problem is not so much that this occurs. Of course it occurs, given the 600 million years we took to get here. The problem is that we live in a culture that finds embarrassing and shocking the notion that we humans are out to control each other. This makes it difficult for couples to say what they want and need from each other, to talk intelligently about their conflicts, or see the patterns of emotion and behavior that maintain them in place.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Twenty years into their marriage, Cathy and Steve are having a crisis. For most of that time, their lives have been organized around Steve’s work and interests. His opinions tend to overpower hers. When there are life choices to be made, his decisiveness trumps her uncertainty. Cathy is feeling “dominated and manipulated” by Steve. Recently, Cathy has spent much of her time away from home, and now she would like to join her sister for a week in Morocco. She is growing increasingly determined, while he is increasingly resentful.

Steve: Where is that money going to come from? It’s not happening, I told you.

Cathy: You just don’t want me to go.

Steve: I want you to be happy in your marriage. Not running off to escape your responsibilities.

Cathy (to me, sighing): He doesn’t get it yet, does he? He wants to control how I feel.

Steve (coolly): Make up your mind, Cathy. Do you want a divorce? You’re making me crazy with this stuff.

The hidden subtext of Cathy and Steve’s argument is this: Steve is defending his image as cool and detached, while portraying Cathy as a little on the crazy side. He doesn’t want her to go on this trip, but he is shamed and infuriated by her characterization of him as the kind of guy who would try to control or manipulate his wife. Cathy, as usual, is feeling dominated, and escalates her accusations of domination to knock him down to size.

Here’s an alternate view of power and control.

The truth is that Steve feels not powerful, but panicked. The measures he’s using to prevent Cathy from abandoning him arise out of desperation. As Cathy fights back with criticism of his controlling behavior, he goes deeper into his shame and powerlessness, provoking even more superiority and manipulation. It seems hopeless.

Couples often do feel hopeless in the grip of these emotional cycles. But there is another way of understanding them that leads couples out of the trap, rather than deeper in.

The couple’s fears arise in conjunction with a feeling of powerlessness — of being vulnerable to forces beyond their control. This vulnerability is the driver of our struggles to dominate, and as the fears ratchet up, so do our attempts to reassert control. It’s a “runaway loop” that will probably end in an explosion or, ultimately, disengagement and divorce. Exiting the loop requires letting go of the struggle and accepting the fear.

Of course Steve wants to control his wife. Six hundred million years later, it’s built into our cells. Cathy wants to control Steve as well, if only to get him stop putting her down. Control and loss of control are major preoccupations of all conscious beings, because without control, we don’t survive and thrive — or at least it sure seems that way until you shine the light of awareness on it. Understanding this primal drive for control — accepting it and regarding it with compassion for the suffering it brings — is one of the most important tasks a couple can address, particularly as the relationship matures and our youthful sense of invulnerability fades with age.

Cathy and Steve were successful in making this transition, but not without some struggle and pain along the way. Steve had to face his fears of abandonment, and recognize how damaging his efforts to control things were to the relationship. Cathy had to put aside her struggle for equality long enough to understand and appreciate the vulnerability underlying Steve’s arrogance. Even then, it took many hours of difficult conversations and negotiations for the couple to gain peace with the compromises they both had to make.

In the end, they were able to trade in the conversation about power, domination and manipulation for a more compassionate language of human fallibility and vulnerability, and put their relationship on a positive path.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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