Under My Thumb–Controlling Spouses, Part I

Posted on December 21, 2011 by

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Throughout my years in practice, I have been surprised by the number of people I have seen–almost always individuals, the other spouse firmly against therapy–who have been involved with controlling partners. Although, when you read the case histories, you may feel that the men and women in these roles may be in hopeless situations, if at least one spouse was willing to do the work, we often made great strides.

The stories of the controlling partners are as alive to me today as they were when I saw the couples in practice, some many, many years ago.

Janice was unsuccessful in her attempts to quit smoking. Jake makes almost no restrictions on Janice–quite the opposite–but gets migraines from the smell of the cigarettes that lingers in the house. Every time Janice wants a cigarette, she insists Jake take a walk with her. If he refuses, she reasons aloud, then she will just be stuck smoking inside.

Kyle makes the money, as he repeatedly asserts in his refrain. Karen, he reasons, is responsible for everything–and he means everything–else. Sometimes Karen wonders, in her rebellious moments, if she is expected to pre-chew his food. But she isn’t really–she just needs to: shop and cook and clean, buy the cars, furniture, and houses, as they steadily outsize, hire and fire any help needed in the house or for repairs, manage the finances, schedule all his appointments, arrange the vacations and college scouting trips, organize social events, car-pool, do nine-tenths of the parenting–she wouldn’t like to list any more of her obligations. It scares her. But if she mentions her sense of overwhelm to Kyle he simply reminds her: I make the money. Sometimes, for innovation, he adds that she’s lucky to have it so good.

In the midst of moving and sending two children off to school, Karen felt on edge. Kyle had a “Philosophy of Service.” That was, he explained, why he yelled at waiters who didn’t bring their meals quickly enough, didn’t give the Christmas bonus to the newspaper man if his paper had come wet or late throughout the year, and, of course, why he should be fully and constantly serviced by Karen.

Between re-scheduling air-fare for the daughter with mono who would miss her flight back to Princeton, packing up her son, who watched her from his bed, in full protest against going to Ann Arbor, and supervising the packing of the crystal, she had responded to Kyle’s requests for an apple (peeled), a Diet Coke (with ice), and his reading glasses (by his bedside), when she responded with an uncharacteristic burst of anger that he would have to get his own magazine (in the bathroom).

“Oh, isn’t that lovely?” he sneered. “So now you’re so independent. So now you’re a feminist. So now you want a divorce.”

Her son rolled over on the bed. A crystal glass broke. Karen got the magazine. Because, really, Kyle made the money. She was lucky to have it so good.

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As you peruse these case histories, think what some of the warning signs might be of a controlling spouse. I will share a list at the end of the posts in the topic, but what can we see as we go along?

Be wary of:

  • Somebody who insists on an inequitable split of family responsibilities, and repeatedly justifies this inequality by maintaining the unparalleled primacy of their contribution.
  •  A person who can only go along with something important to you if you accommodate them in some extreme fashion.
  •  A spouse who demands unusual amounts of being catered to, to the point where you begin to feel like a personal servant.

If any of these scenarios or signs is familiar to you from your own life, I encourage you to keep reading.