Although I desperately missed my husband, LeRoy, I intentionally answered his phone call with an icy tone. My statements were brief and laced with verbiage that let him know how much I hated our lives and his job.
You see, LeRoy had taken a job with my father’s company that kept him out several nights a week. I knew the job was a necessity, but I didn’t want to listen to the facts; I just wanted my husband to come home and have the life I believed God had planned for us.
Looking back, I now realize that I could’ve chosen to release my expectations and accept that this was for the best during that season of our lives, showing him support and encouragement. I might have conveyed, in a gracious way, that I was concerned that this particular job could be harmful to our marriage. Instead, I allowed my emotions to lead and found myself attempting to manipulate my husband.
This was not the first time, or the last, I attempted to assert my will over my husband. I thought I was helping LeRoy, not trying to control him. I really believed I was doing a good deed when I pressured him to do things my way, when I insisted on a different approach to parenting and when I told him how to drive.
The human desire for control is part of our fallen nature. In Genesis 3, the very first couple rejected God’s authority, which resulted in humanity’s tendency to try to function independently from God and to call the shots in our lives and in the lives of others.
And wives aren’t the only ones guilty of this tendency. Men can be just as eager to control their spouse. Although LeRoy has never attempted to control me, I’ve counseled plenty of women who have suffered under a domineering husband. I’ve seen men abuse and manipulate Scripture, demanding their wife “submit” to their sinful passions — from requiring her to view porn to controlling where she goes, whom she has as friends and even how she dresses.
When husbands or wives attempt to control their spouse, they are placing themselves in the position of God, squelching freedom and creativity, and sending the message that their husband or wife can do nothing right. Rather than serving as a partner in life, they’ve become their spouse’s parent, boss, instructor … or worse.
If you’re wondering whether you may be guilty of controlling behavior in your marriage, consider these suggestions:
Assess the atmosphere
Is your relationship filled with strife as you and your spouse posture for control? Or perhaps the dynamic is one in which your spouse has already acquiesced. Some good questions to ask yourself may include:
- If things don’t go as I’d planned, do I get stressed and respond in hurtful ways?
- Do I function as though I believe my way of functioning is superior to that of my spouse?
- Do I find it extremely difficult to defer to my spouse?
- Who calls the shots most of the time?
- Do my spouse and I equally contribute when big decisions need to be made?
- Does my spouse feel safe providing an alternate idea or plan?
- Do I receive input from my spouse and demonstrate appreciation for that input?
If your answers suggest a pattern of controlling behavior, it’s time to take action to change the relational dynamic. The first step in reversing this unhealthy pattern is to have an honest and humble conversation about it.
Let it go
Have you ever played Frisbee with a dog? If he’s able to clench that plastic disc with his teeth, you can’t wrench it from his death grip, no matter how hard you pull. That’s similar to the tendency of a controlling spouse. When you get something in your head, is it impossible for you to budge — no matter how hard your spouse tries?
Instead, let go of the little stuff. Learn the difference between preferences and truth-worth-going-to-battle-for issues. If both of you are vying for your own way, remember that humility is the way of Christ.
As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve learned that my way isn’t always right or best. Once I realized there could be more than one good option for consideration — that my husband’s suggestions could actually turn out better than my planned agenda or that trying something different could be a learning experience — I found a new freedom. I didn’t have to always make sure things went the way I thought they should, and that realization brought peace to my heart and to my marriage.
Don’t kill your spouse’s spirit
When I relished sitting in the seat of control, I was unaware that forcing my plans on LeRoy and continually challenging his decisions was actually devaluing him. Then one day I watched as my criticism of a decision he had made crushed him, and it hit me: Getting my way in this moment is not worth killing his spirit as a man. The cumulative effect of my picking away at his every attempt to lead resulted in LeRoy crawling into a cave of passivity and leaving me to rule the home. This proved to be a lonely and unbiblical dynamic for a husband and wife, and it took years of intentional effort to reverse the pattern in our relationship.
Acknowledge who should be in control
There is a beautiful harmony and deep unity that results when both spouses have yielded personal control to God — the One who alone deserves to rule their lives. Releasing control to unite under the clear directives of Scripture, being led together by the Spirit and demonstrating humility help to forge a relationship of mutual respect and enjoyment.
Scripture challenges us to demonstrate genuine love by honoring one another, rather than attempting to control each other: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
There is real freedom and joy in accepting differences and working to understand where our spouse is coming from. As loving our partner becomes a higher priority than our agenda, preferences or perceived “rightness,” our marriage can become the life-giving relationship that God originally intended.
Fierce Women, Fearful Men
Husbands and wives can easily fall into an unhealthy cycle of control and passivity. LeRoy and Kimberly Wagner reveal the relational dynamics that fuel this cycle and explain how they stopped this dysfunction in their own marriage.
The flip side of the woman’s calling to be a helper is the curse of controlling. We want to control our husbands. The good stuff God put in us, which makes us beautifully fierce women and effective helpers, gets twisted into this dangerous tool of domination.
At the same time, most men have a dangerous component that actually provides fuel for the woman’s ability to emasculate him. That dangerous component has a name: passivity. A destructive cycle forms as the wife exerts her dominance and the husband caves: the “fierce woman/fearful man” cycle. A couple can live in the black hole of this cycle their entire marriage.
We’ve discovered that the fierce woman/fearful man cycle is fueled by three basic heart issues: pride, ingratitude and fear. Men and women are both plagued by those three issues — they just express them differently. With women, all three of those components work together and erupt in the desire to control the man. For men, those three issues can result in developing a lifestyle of relating to their wife in two extremes: passivity or domination.
Even though my wife is strong and we were in the grips of the destructive fierce woman/fearful man cycle for years, we now enjoy a unified complementary relationship in which mutual respect, tenderness, compassion, humility and loving-kindness are the norm. We are both quick to admit when we’ve wronged the other and quick to offer (or ask for) forgiveness. Those components are huge in developing a relationship that is beneficial and enjoyable — and most importantly, one that glorifies God.