You don’t need to put up with the behavior of a control freak

Control: Like most things it’s not about what you think and not personal

They can be hard to live with – the constant advice, the rigid routines, schedules, times; backseat driving, the OCDish behavior where the dishwasher needs to be loaded in a certain way, where tools in the garage need to be put back on the proper hooks; where they obsess and map out every minute of Thanksgiving or Christmas weeks in advance; where they get irritable or angry when plans get disrupted or you fail to follow through on what you said you were going to do.

Here are some info into the mind of such [sic] “responsible” people:

It’s not about control, it’s about anxiety. While there are some out there who are controlling because they are into power or feel entitled and expect the world to go their way, for most controlling people it’s all about anxiety. Control is the bad solution not the problem. Often such folks grew up in chaotic environments or with anxious or abusive parents. As children they are always walking on eggshells, looking over their shoulders. They, as a way to cope, became hyper vigilant – always on alert, always anticipating problems.

Control – the planning things out, the knowing what is going to happen, the knowing what others are doing, the routines and rules – reduces the anxiety they feel, makes theenvironment emotionally safer. When you are on top of things, bad stuff can’t sneak up on you quite so easily.

Controlling people usually don’t see themselves as controlling. More often they think of it as “common sense”, “being responsible”, simple “planning ahead”, “setting priorities”, “being helpful” (especially when giving advice) “doing what’s expected”. Their frustration comes when what is so obvious and / or important to them is not so obvious and / or important to those around them.

Self criticism. The criticism they can hurl at you often replicates the same that they hurl at themselves. The needing to stay on top of things leaves ample opportunity for screw-ups which they then beat themselves up about.

Trouble with transitions. A lot of controlling people know on Monday what they are doing on Saturday. God forbid you throw them a curve ball on Saturday morning by suggesting that your brother comes over for dinner that night. They may snap at you about the brother, why does he always have to come over, but it’s more about the curve ball, getting their cemented plans derailed and they feeling emotionally rattled.

Under stress this all gets worse. Stress ramps up anxiety for most folks and for those into control with added stress comes added control – more rigidity, more frustration and micro-management, more OCD type behavior.

What to do?

Realize that it’s about their anxiety. Saying to yourself (a lot) that it’s anxiety that is the problem can help you feel less victimized, less being treated like at 10 year-old or being scolded.

Talk about anxiety. Rather than getting caught up in how ridiculous or controlling their behaviors are, ask instead about what they’re worried about. You want to sidestep that “You’re controlling” “You’re not responsible” power-to-power, who’s reality is right argument. The control is about them, their solution to anxiety, you’re helping them with their problem.

Give them a heads-up with changes. If you are thinking of having your brother over on Saturday, bring it up say, Wednesday or Thursday – throw it out there, “just think about it.” This gives the other person time to readjust his weekend plans and to emotionally settle and think about it with time to spare. Ditto if you are running late, etc.  Give as much advance warning as possible to help with expectations and transitions.

Decide on your own limits. If you partner wants you to sterilize the entire kitchen after you’ve made dinner or fold underwear in a 4 step process, decide on what you can comfortably be willing to do. The mindset again is deciding how you can be sensitive to his anxiety, rather than falling into the feeling that you are being treated like a child and living with an unreasonable parent. State them clearly and calmly.

Have straight-ahead conversations on what does bother you. Too much backseat driving, too much advice not asked for, too rigid a Saturday routine? Try to have a sane adult conversation about these issues not when you’re frustrated or she’s irritable, but when you’re not. Again avoid drama — you’re  crazy, you’re not my mother vs. you’re too sensitive, you’re not responsible, etc. Ask about what the other’s worries are, see if you can reach a plan for agreeable compromises.

Consider couple counseling. If you can’t have these sane adult conversations – if you’re too skittish to bring things up or if the conversation goes Jerry Springer – consider couple counseling even for a few sessions to help navigate these issues in a safer environment.

All this obviously is easier to say than do, but like a lot of relationship problems it’s about seeing the possible problem under the problem, choosing to react differently, being adult, all without the expectation that the other will magically change, but because you care about the other person, because you are doing the best you can do.

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© Copyright 2015 Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., All rights Reserved.
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Bob Taibbi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 40 years experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of 7 books: Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice, now in its 3rd edition, and recently translated into Chinese and Portuguese Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery Clinical Social Work Supervision: Practice & Process Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Clinical Approaches to Anxiety, Anger & Depression The Art of the First Session Brief Therapy With Couples & Families in Crisis In addition to his books, Bob writes an regular online column for Psychology Today magazine entitled Fixing Families, as well as a monthly parenting advice column for Charlottesville Family magazine. He has also published over 300 magazine and journal articles, and has contributed several book chapters including Favorite Counseling Techniques: 55 Masters Share Their Secrets which cited him among the top 100 therapists in the country. He served as teen advice columnist for Current Health, a contributing editor to Your Health and Fitness, and has received 3 national writing awards for Best Consumer Health Writing. Bob is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina, and has served as adjunct professor at several universities. He provides trainings nationally in couple therapy, family therapy, brief therapy, and clinical supervision. He is currently in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia with Lewis Weber & Associates: