By Vicki Tidwell Palmer LCSW, CSAT, SEP
Relinquishing inappropriate control is the third of the Six Intimacy Skills (SIS), and is one of the most difficult of the SIS to practice.
Relinquishing control requires the consistent ability to refrain from habitual, ingrained and often unconscious communication patterns, as well as confronting the fear that often fuels attempts to control. Relinquishing control is vital to creating and maintaining a peaceful, respectful, and intimate relationship.
To relinquish means to:
voluntarily cease to keep or claim; give up.
And control is:
the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.
Why is relinquishing control vital to creating intimacy?
When we attempt to control what another adult thinks, says, or does, we have left our circle of control and entered into the other person’s circle, under the mistaken assumption that we have power over things we have no power over.
In control-mode, we send the message that the other person doesn’t have a right to their own thoughts, emotions, or actions.
Control assumes we know what is best and right for the other person. Imagine how you might feel if someone you loved sent you the message — directly or indirectly — that they knew what was right for you and you should do what they wanted you to do? Ouch!
Here’s a shortlist of hidden ways women sometimes attempt to control their spouse or boyfriend:
You might think, “I’m just trying to be helpful,” but if you’re honest with yourself you will likely have to acknowledge that there are some strong desires attached to your “help.” The receiver of help disguised as control often senses the control seeping (or flooding!) through, which creates more disconnection.
There are a number of harmful consequences of attempting to control another person:
First, it is simply disrespectful to send a message to another person that you know better than they do what choices are right for them.
Second, because control is inherently disrespectful, it is also damaging to connection and intimacy.
Third, as difficult as it is to accept, none of us knows what is best for another person.
Even when you see a person headed down a path of self-destruction, you cannot know if that is the wrong path for them. The sad truth is that the “wrong path” may actually be the exact right path for them to experience the consequences required to make better choices in the future. Every person has a right to make mistakes and to be wrong.
Fourth, attempting to control another person almost always has the unintended consequence of driving a wedge between the control-er and the control-ee.
It’s no fun to be with someone who is controlling. When we feel unaccepted, a natural human response is to want to protect (hide) ourselves from the person trying to control us so that we can avoid the painful feelings of disapproval or rejection. And while lying and deception are always the responsibility of the person who is lying or deceiving, this intimacy-destroying behavior is often fueled by a desire to avoid another person’s controlling behavior.
Does this mean we should accept another person’s behavior even when it’s painful or damaging? Absolutely not! But control is not the best means to protect yourself.
Control sometimes offers short-term wins, but it never provides a long-term solution or intimacy.
Taking care of yourself in the face of painful behavior on the part of a loved one is best accomplished through your dedicated practice of self-care and creating limits, usually in the form of making requests, expressing desires, and creating boundaries.
Difficulty with relinquishing control means you are struggling with fear: fear that you will be disappointed, fear of losing control, fear of being rejected, or fear of losing a relationship.
Relinquishing control takes a tremendous amount of effort, and when you begin the intimacy-building practice of relinquishing control you may find that you don’t have much to say!
When I first began making a serious effort at relinquishing control, the first thing I noticed was how often I was tempted to exert control, usually in subtle, indirect ways. I also noticed that I was much more controlling than I realized. And while it was difficult at first, it has now become more second nature and has offered many unexpected gifts, including a more relaxed atmosphere in my marriage and more accountability from my partner.
One of the gifts of relinquishing control is that it opens a space for your partner to demonstrate greater responsibility and accountability.
Relinquishing control also frees up your time so that you can focus on taking care of you through better self-care, identifying and expressing your desires, and engaging in pursuits and activities that light you up and bring you joy.