The Illusion of Control and the Downside of Submission

Some things are not the way they seem on the surface. Relationships that are about control and submission frequently fall into this category. What you see is not necessarily the whole story.

There are many forms of control in relationships. Control is the opposite of flexibility and choice, it means that one person expects the other person to do things his/her way, or the environment to conform to the image he has inside of how things should be (a way of getting the “outside” world to completely match the “inside” world). In my experience, controlling behavior is usually a way to decrease anxiety. It’s a way of trying to “make sure” that things are predictable, that nothing goes wrong, that pain gets avoided. A parent who is afraid of things going wrong may try to prevent a child from taking healthy risks (ex: crossing the street, going to a friend’s house, baking a cake). A partner who is afraid of abandonment may try to control the other person’s love (through jealous behavior, or invading privacy, constant questions, or trying to force the other person to communicate when he/she withdraws). A child who is afraid of making a mistake may try to control all of his actions with perfectionism, constant checking to make sure that everything is always perfect. We might try to control things that we think are hurting the other person, for example, if a husband eats too much “junk food” and the wife hides it…or if a child is in a relationship with someone who is hurting him/her and the parent interferes.

But this discussion is really about the downside of giving in to control. And the reason there is a downside, is because giving in/submission does not actually work to decrease anxiety, but actually increases it, and leads to a need for more and more control. Sometimes we are afraid not to submit, we feel bullied or coerced or afraid to stand up for ourselves. We think this is our only option, we think that giving in is going to solve the problem…but it never does. Because reality equals uncertainty. There are many things we cannot control (this is not to negate situations in which it is healthy to control, for example, to solve a problem that can reasonably solved), and all of us know this deep down. We may not admit it to ourselves, but we have all lived life enough to know that things can happen that we don’t like, and that this possibility is beyond our control. So, when we try to hide this from ourselves by controlling, that nagging voice deep down inside of us gives us no rest…it keeps the anxiety going, and reminds us that there is always more to try to control, there is always something that can go wrong…and even if we feel a few moments of illusory calm or relief, it is always short-lived.

This is especially true in relationships. Trying to control the other person doesn’t work because we all know deep down that another person cannot be controlled perfectly. Even babies have a mind of their own and can find ways of asserting their independence, let alone adults! So the more we control the other person, and the more the other person gives in, the harder that voice deep down has to work to come up with other possibilities of what could go wrong, especially because the other person can always do something sneaky or hidden to thwart our attempts at control. And the more we try to control things on the outside, the sneakier they will have to be to get around us, so the less we trust what we see and this leads to more and more suspiciousness. Not a recipe for a healthy relationship!