I Control You Because I Can’t Control Me

One of the top triggers people with substance use disorders cite as threatening their abstinence or causing relapse is problems with relationships. Because of attachment issues, insufficient self-care and self-love, and other emotional challenges, some people suffering from addiction begin or stay in relationships that don’t help them with a fundamental of sobriety: feeling better about ourselves. Simply put, we need to leave, but don’t. Laurel Sindewald has done extensive research on the subject and synthesizes her findings for us and adds her own insights in this post. Thank you, Laurel!

– Anne


I Control You Because I Can’t Control Me
by Laurel Sindewald

“I put a spell on you… Because you’re MINE!” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins belts chillingly out from my speakers.

He is not the first to think of love as possession or as a permission slip to control another person. What makes me feel the need to control you, my love? It certainly isn’t something you’ve done, though I may have told you so when I was angry or scared.

controlabuse“People who can’t control themselves control the people around them. When you rely on someone for a positive reflected sense of self, you invariably try to control him or her.” says Dr. David Schnarch in his book Intimacy & Desire. Dr. Schnarch is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of several other books. He has found that the need to control others stems from a fundamental lack of ability to regulate one’s emotions.

The “control freak” is depending on others for a sense of self-worth and for emotional stability. In the face of uncontrollable depression or anxiety, it is unsurprising that she is constantly afraid to lose those she has come to need. She seeks to shape and determine their behaviors, their opinion of her, who they can see, and even how they feel. She is terrified that if her loved ones develop autonomy that they will not choose to be with her, perhaps because she would not choose herself.

People, like me, feel the need to control other people out of just such a desire for self-preservation. What began as an evolutionarily beneficial capacity to shape and control my environment for survival has become a coping mechanism for managing my unmanageable emotions.

I might self-deprecate and break down in tears, begging for your help. I might lose my temper and yell at the slightest scent of another argument. I lie and manipulate you, anything I can do to keep you here to keep me stable. I might not even be aware that my actions are trapping you, but my hyper-sensitivity becomes your prison nonetheless.

. . . . .

Control may be a deep human need, but it need not extend to the lives of the people around us. Whether you have a tendency to control, be controlled, or both, it’s important to be able to recognize when caring has tipped over into disrespectful restriction. This helpful list covers some of the many ways in which controlling behaviors can manifest. Other warning signs can be found here.

Examples of exerting control over others:

  • Micromanagement
  • Keeping a person from seeing or talking to loved ones or friends
  • Gaslighting
  • Dishonesty
  • Over-protective or helicopter parenting
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, bullying, or taunting

People who are subject to any of these, or other abusive and controlling behaviors, may not recognize the trap they’re in. Victims of abuse may come to believe they deserve such treatment or that this is as good as it gets. They may have, in turn, lost a sense of control over themselves, and may even begin to mirror some of the same controlling behaviors in an attempt to satisfy their own needs for control. The same vulnerable people who control others for a healthy self-image may be the people at risk for becoming the victim of someone who is abusive or controlling.

. . . . .

Ultimately the spell is a dance that takes two: a controller and someone who is willing to be controlled… or simply unable to leave.

In the face of cycles and spirals of control and abuse, it can be difficult to break the spell and leave if we need to. We feel lost, we victims and perpetrators of controlling behaviors. We struggle and shift our need for control from one person to the next, from one habit to the next, from one substance to the next. We look for any way to manage the unbearable sense of helplessness and terror at our cores.

Examples of controlling self or environment:

  • Disordered eating
  • Complusive exercising
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive arranging, tidying, or cleaning

Dr. Schnarch states that the only way for any person to have healthy relationships is to develop emotional autonomy. As he puts it,”one of the kindest things you can do for the people you love is to develop more emotional autonomy. Managing your own emotions, anxieties, and feelings of self-worth gives other people back their lives.”

. . . . .

This doesn’t leave us farther apart, as you might expect. If anything, emotional autonomy is the only way you and I can have enough stability together to develop healthy interdependence. “We might fall in love but we don’t fall towards each other – we choose to stand tall by each other,” Anne told me once.

Emotion regulation is the practice of moderating and modulating our emotions so that they don’t come to control our actions (or others!). Healthy emotion regulation techniques are ways of recognizing overpowering emotions and modulating them according to how we wish to live and behave. They all begin with higher awareness of emotions as they come.

Control freaks control others partly because they are unable to tolerate negative emotions such as shame, fear, or rejection. In order to change the controlling behaviors that follow from this they must learn to cope with or moderate these negative emotions.

I need to accept even that my worst fears might come true. My controlling behaviors may have destroyed whatever precious excitement, love, and attraction might have existed in our relationship. We both may need space to heal before we can pick up relationship our again. You may need to leave to find yourself again.

If I can become emotionally autonomous, I can learn to trust myself. There is no need to fear my loved one’s actions or even mistakes as long as I trust that I can manage my own self and my own emotions. My need to control vanishes. I can leave if I want to.

The spell that keeps us dancing, focused minutely on the other person’s slightest changes of mood, focused ever intently on whatever he wants us to be doing, is broken as soon as we turn our focus back inward.

Take a deep breath, dear self. You’re wounded and that’s okay. We need some time and space to heal, but this isn’t the last time we’ll find love.

Post and image by Laurel Sindewald

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