At the heart of a woman’s (and for that matter, a man’s) need to control is fear.

At the heart of a woman’s (and for that matter, a man’s) need to control is fearIn the film Leap Year, the main character Anna (played by Amy Adams) is a complete control freak. Toward the end of the film, Declan, Anna’s love interest, says to her, “Why don’t you stop trying to control everything in the known universe? It’s dinner. Have a little faith that it will all work out.”

“I’ve heard that one before,” says Anna.

She then launches into the reason why she’s the way she is: because her father couldn’t hold a job, which led to constant financial instability—including her family home getting repossessed. When Declan responds to this information with genuine compassion, one detects in Anna a moment of vulnerability. But then she resumes her controlling ways.

Women who need to control their environment, as well as the people in it, live in a state of fear. We all suffered from disappointments in our youth, and the result is that people can be on their guard.

If you’re a child of divorce, for instance, you learned that love is fleeting and that people can’t be counted on to keep their promises. If you’re the child of an alcoholic, or if there was high conflict in your home, you don’t really know what it means to be emotionally safe. If one (or both) of your parents was physically or emotionally unavailable, you learned not to expect much from people. Or if, like Anna in Leap Year, you grew up in a home where money was a constant source of strife, you probably became determined to make your own way in life and to never allow yourself to depend on others.

All of these scenarios can, and usually do, result in controlling behavior.

Are you controlling? Here’s a great quiz you can take to find out. If the answer is yes (although you probably already know the answer), the next question is, so what? What’s wrong with being controlling? Nothing—if you live alone. But if you want to be successfully married, or find lasting love, being controlling won’t get you there.

To have love in your life, you have to give up control.

It’s a tall order, I know. But it can be done. I know it can because I did it. A great way to start is the use of mantras, which you’ll need to repeat over and over again, hundreds of times per day, in order to redirect your brain. Let’s say you want to slow down more and not move so fast. So you come up with a short, easy phrase that represents the change you want to make—such as, “I choose to slow down”—and you repeat that phrase every chance you get throughout the day. You can say it while you’re driving in a car or when you’re in the bathroom. You can say it when you’re doing the dishes, taking a walk, or waiting in line. On any given day, there are a myriad of opportunities to repeat a simple phrase in your head. Over time, your brain will reset itself. In this case, slowing down will become more natural.

To be less controlling, then, you might say to yourself “I choose to say nothing” when your husband says something with which you disagree. Choose the behavior you think has the most potential for conflict and talk yourself into doing the opposite of that behavior by creating a mantra that pushes you in that direction. It’s all about forming new habits. The research says it’s extremely difficult to get rid of a bad habit. But if you develop a new habit, it will eventually replace the old one.

There are so many ways I used to be controlling, though I never thought of it as such. When I would talk on my husband’s behalf, for instance, I was just trying to help him be clearer with his message since he has a tendency to ramble. He’ll start off great, but sometimes he veers down a different path and winds up in a ditch. When he’s finished talking, people will get a look on their face that says, “What did he just say?”

But imagine if someone talked on your behalf. Even if you knew you had a tendency to ramble, you wouldn’t want someone to point it out. While I was trying to help my husband get his point across, and may have been successful in doing so, I was also creating a rift between us. He would chalk those instances up as disrespect and hold that feeling inside. Then it would emerge later, usually in some random fashion, and I’d be stuck trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

In a futile attempt to stop my behavior, I’d let my husband know in a different way that he wasn’t making sense. If his story started to go south, I’d give him The Look. The poor man got so used to The Look that even when I eventually stopped, I’d notice his eyes turn toward me in anticipation of The Look—which was hardly an improvement.

One thing I don’t do, but I see a lot of wives do, is identify their husbands’ shortcomings in public. They’ll point something out they know their husbands feel insecure about—say he’s short, or he doesn’t make as much money as he’d like, or he has a nervous tick. (My husband feels inadequate about not being handy.) Never point out your husband’s Achilles heel in the company of others. If you do, it will come back to bite you in the ass. Besides, it’s just mean.

A great way to determine if you’re too controlling is to ask yourself if your relationship feels competitive rather than complementary. Is there a lot of needless bickering or a desire to be right? If so, the only option you have as a wife, the only genuine control you do have to improve your marriage, is to change yourself. Change the way you approach marriage, and you will get a different result.

At the heart of your need to control is fear, or an inability to trust. You must learn to trust if you’re going to establish a better relationship with your husband. There’s no other way.

To be sure, this has never been harder for women to do. Not only do they have their own personal demons, they’ve been raised in a culture that teaches women to be distrustful of men. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

It can.

Begin by rejecting the idea that listening to your husband or depending on him in any way means you’re weak. By conflating weakness with vulnerability, you create a barrier. You have to be vulnerable to have love in your life. Without vulnerability, there can be no trust. And without trust, there can be no intimacy. And without intimacy, well, you get the idea.

So decide today, right now, to face your fears. What are you afraid of that makes you feel the need to take control? What happened in your past that made you skeptical of love? If you’re in danger of being hurt, that’s one thing. But unfounded fear, or fear that’s not a result of anything your husband has done, undermines love. No relationship can last if one person is mentally preparing him or herself to get burned by the other.

Here’s a test you can try to see if what I’m saying is true: For one week, do everything opposite of the way you would normally do it. When your husband says something with which you disagree, say something like, “That’s interesting.” When you would normally interject your opinion, don’t. When you would normally complain, say something positive. When you would normally instruct, ask—preferably with a please or a thank you. When you would normally say no, say yes. You get the idea.

Then, sit back and watch what happens. You’ll be amazed.

Suzanne Venker

Suzanne is an author, columnist and relationship coach committed to helping women let go of cultural beliefs that undermine their happiness in life and in love.
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