Controlling Behaviors in Marriage

Attempting to control one’s spouse – whether purposely or unintentionally – is a sure way to erode affection in the relationship and eventually destroy it. Unfortunately, it is a very common phenomenon. In fact, research reveals that controlling behavior is the top reason why marriages become dissatisfying and ultimately end – accounting for 20% of all divorces.

Yet often couples inexplicably do this very thing. Many partners unwittingly manipulate in order to get their spouse to comply with their own wishes. But, in the process they lose their mate’s heart as he/she becomes resentful and emotionally distant. Nothing good can come of seeking to have this kind of power over one’s partner.

Most people have little insight regarding their propensity to be a controller. There are several attitudes and behaviors adopted by many that are aimed at controlling one’s mate – whether they realize it or not. Often controlling behavior is unidentified or uncontested in a relationship until it is too late.

Below is a partial list of common ways that spouses use in an attempt to control each other. It is suggested that you read each description and evaluate your personal attitude and conduct. Examine your intentions very closely and commit yourself to cease any controlling tendencies you may discover.

Persistence generally takes the form of repeatedly begging, insisting, expressing one’s expectations or demands. The objective is to wear down one’s spouse until they give in. This can play out similar to a child who repeatedly his parent until he gets what he wants.

Nagging is making demands in a griping or complaining fashion. It is similar to persistence with the added characteristic that it virtually always takes a very negative tone. The goal is also to wear one’s partner down – but it does so specifically by annoying or irritating until he/she finally caves.

Avoidance usually takes the form of physical or emotional distance. This can include withdrawing one’s self by refusing meaningful communication, being emotionally unavailable, or even physically evading one’s mate. A common form of avoidance is utilizing the silent treatment.

Passive-aggression is similar to avoidance in many ways. However, it is generally marked by specific behaviors including: apathy, procrastinating, stubbornness, creating chaos, sulking, obstructing reconciliation, and so forth. All of these are marked by negative yet passive, disavowed resistance to interpersonal situations in the relationship.

Punishment typically takes two forms. The first is withholding something that one’s spouse needs or upon which they have come to depend. This can include sex, fulfilling duties/responsibilities (i.e. household chores), favors, and so forth. The second form is inflicting something negative or hurtful upon one’s mate. This can include intentionally arranging circumstances to make their life more difficult, and so forth.

Withholding love can be a form of punishment. This takes place when a spouse denies affection, intimacy, closeness, kindness, and so forth. It deserves special mention because it is a particularly destructive. Affection is a genuine need that we have as human beings. When it is withheld this can put extreme pressure on a person to conform to the wishes – but at a terrible cost to the relationship.

Rewarding generally takes the form of providing gifts and favors in an effort to control. Of course, there is nothing wrong with gifts and favors. These are a positive thing if done with the right motivation. Rewarding, however, becomes a form of control if the intent is to manipulate. Sometimes rewarding is done as a type of appeasement in conjunction with intimidation, punishment, or other methods of control.

Intimidation is the use of fear to force someone into compliance. Examples include angry outbursts, threats, or related means. A partner who is intimidated may comply out of sense of safety for themselves or for the marriage. It is critical to note that any form of anger and/or intimidation that devolves into physical force or aggressions is absolutely intolerable by any standard. Even the risk of violence is completely unacceptable and should never be endured.

Threatening separation is a common form of intimidation. It involves threats to end the relationship or suggestions of leaving or divorce. A partner may comply out of a fear of loss, out of concern for the relationship, out of commitment to the institution of marriage, and so forth. In any event, threatening separation is a lamentable tactic that may seem to work in the short term but often backfires at some point.

Financial regulation involves assuming power over someone by controlling their access to money or resources. In healthy marriages couples jointly decide on budgetary matters and how money should be spent. In problematic marriages both partners make unilateral financial decisions without consulting one another. In toxic relationships one person dominates all financial decisions and uses money as leverage to control his/her spouse.

Isolation occurs when one tries to restrict or forbid the outside relationships of his/her partner. Trying to set limits on the communication or contact with ones parents or other family members is one form of isolation. Obstructing friendships through seeking to regulate the contact with or time spent with friends is another form. Attempting to limit one’s interpersonal interactions with others is a type of psychological domination because it removes the critical social support that is a necessary part of life.

Guilt is another form of controlling others of which many people are culpable without even realizing it. Guilt attempts to make someone else feel responsible for one’s own welfare – as if their personal freedom is injurious to you or to the relationship. Questioning the integrity of one’s partner is a common method. For example, questioning a spouse’s love, caring, commitment, and so forth are subtle forms of guilt that attempt to control the way one’s mate feels or behaves.

Revisiting the past is closely connected to guilt. Bringing up past mistakes, incidents, or other events that were supposed to have been resolved or forgiven is an attempt to invoke guilt. This type of control endeavors to shame one’s partner for leverage or gain. The spouse being blamed with past wrongs is in a position of powerlessness because he/she is continually being charged with a debt that cannot be repaid.

Playing the victim (or martyr) is also linked to guilt. Specifically, this type of behavior focuses on how much one has sacrificed, given, been taken for granted, hurt, or otherwise suffered for the sake of the relationship. This is generally greatly exaggerated in an effort to evoke sympathy or shame. There is nothing wrong with setting appropriate boundaries if one has truly been taken advantage of in some way. But, playing the victim is merely a selfish attempt to get one’s own way.

Scorekeeping is maintaining a mental (or sometimes literal) record of events or deeds to be used as leverage to get what one wants. One keeps score of their own favors or sacrifices with the intention of cashing in on them later. Or, one keeps score of a partner’s indiscretions with the intention of holding them against him/her in the future. However this tactic is employed it will eventually lead to resentment in the relationship.

Each of these may vary in intensity and even in the manner in which they are manifested in the relationship. But the point remains the same. Efforts to control one’s partner are based on selfishness and should be avoided at all costs. Regardless of one’s intentions, the only healthy marriages that stand the test of time are those based on respecting and valuing one another.

Kirk VanOoteghem serves as Executive Pastor of River of Life in Muncie, Indiana.  He has many years of experience as a marriage counselor and educator and is the founder of – an online ministry dedicated to protecting and strengthening marriages.

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