Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas Into Discoveries – Dealing With An Over-Controlling Partner
How does your garden grow? Here, finding the right balance of attachment, equality and autonomy in your relationship.
Q. I’m married to a man who likes to have control over almost everything in our coupledom. He’s outgoing, smart and extremely capable. I’m more of an introvert, much slower at doing things than he is, but I too am quite capable. The problem is he doesn’t want me to take on anything by myself and wants to be involved in everything. For example, I want to design a small garden in front of our house and he’s essentially told me there’s no way I could do it on my own and he insists on being involved. He’s also a lot busier than I am which means I’m always waiting for him to find time. I’d like to take ownership of a project or two on my own.
A. This isn’t a project issue, it’s a relationship issue. This would-be garden is a symptom of something bigger. According to London, Ont.-based clinical psychologist and author Dr. Guy Grenier, there are three functions that have to be “assiduously attended to” in every relationship. The first is attachment (you gotta have love, trust and respect). The second is equality (both equally benefiting from the relationship) and the third is autonomy (each of you is still entitled to your own thoughts, attitudes, needs, and desires).
In your case, this last function is where “the rubber hits the road,” as Dr. Grenier puts it. “This man may want to rule the roost, but if he doesn’t respect his wife’s autonomy in wanting to do the garden alone – and she’s perfectly entitled to want that – then resentment is going to build.” People who lack autonomy in their relationships, adds Dr. Grenier, “often feel lost and alone despite their partner being present. They often harbour lingering resentments towards their partner for lost opportunities and can feel second-class, minimized, and taken for granted.”
He advises you to do two things: first, insist you’re doing the garden as your project. Secondly, get on to the bigger issue and tackle the autonomy issue more broadly. But stay clear of accusatory language. In other words, don’t say what he is; say how you feel. That means not accusing him of being controlling, but instead explaining how you ‘feel controlled.’ If you don’t take this on – and every time you want to do something on your own you have to fight for it – you’re just going to stop wanting things. This is the standard coping mechanism, according to Dr. Grenier. And it only works for so long.
“When resentment builds, it becomes death by a thousand cuts.” It may not be as blatantly destructive as infidelity, sexual incompatibility or hiding excessive debt, but Dr. Grenier warns it can be just as caustic to a relationship. So here’s to hoping you get started on that garden soon – on your own and unimpeded – and dare I say encouraged.
Send Diane a brief description of your dilemma, along with your first name and where you live, to [email protected]
A professional journalist for more than 25 years, Diane Sewell has written for some of the top newspapers and magazines in Canada and is a baby boomer herself. Her new blog “Boomerangst, Turning Dilemmas into Discoveries” is interactive with readers and focuses on life issues – like aging, dating, second marriages, sex, death, family and fashion. Diane will use her expertise to find the right expert to help solve your predicament, unearthing kernels of truth and quickly getting to the heart of the issue.