“Your counselor told her that I have her right under my thumb.” He pushed his coffee cup aside and ground his thumb into the table. I could not tell if he agreed with the analysis his wife claimed she heard from Terri, the head of our counseling unit, or if he resented it.

“Do you have her under your thumb?” I asked.

He glared at me for a moment and then sighed, “That’s the way my wife describes it.”

“She feels you control her?”

“Yeah, I hear that word a lot. Says I do it by constantly criticizing her. Told me that she’s happiest when I’m out of town. That’s the only time she can be herself.”

“Do you criticize her?”

“I point out things that I think she could do better, but I don’t mean to make her feel bad about it. She didn’t used to react like that. Changed in the last couple years. It’s gotten to the point now that I can’t say anything. Like the other day when I told her that I’m tired of having burgers so often, she huffed of the kitchen. Can’t a man tell his wife he would like more variety? Is it controlling to say you want something other than a burger?”

“Sounds like she’s reached a point where she reacts to the slightest hint of criticism.” Because we are friends, I decided to cut straight to the core issue. “Is she super sensitive because of some personal problem, or is it because she’s built up resentment from how you’ve treated her? You said she wasn’t like this until a couple years ago. That fits the pattern of a person who feels controlled. They may tolerate control and criticism for months or even years, but finally they reach a point where they can’t take it. From then on, you never know when they’ll shrug off what they perceive as criticism or control, and when they’ll explode.”

“I do not control her,” he stated flatly.

“Actually, you mean you do not intend to control her. You’re comparing yourself to people who control others by threats of physical violence or dire consequences. Because you don’t do terrible things like that, and because you don’t think in terms of having her under your thumb, you think you don’t control. In your mind, your motives are good; you give constructive criticism and actually believe you help by your observations. But it isn’t our motives that affect other people; it’s our actions. More specifically, the way they interpret our actions.

“Think about it before you answer. How does your wife interpret your comments? How does she interpret your tone of voice? How does she interpret your acceptance of her; who she is and what she does?”

He sat deep in thought. When he raised his eyes to look at me, I drove my point home.

“Conditional love occurs when a person feels that she has to meet certain criteria to receive love and affection. Unconditional love occurs when a person feels loved no matter what; she doesn’t have to do or be anything to receive clear and undeniable demonstrations of love and affection.

“People loved conditionally don’t feel truly loved. They believe they have to earn love and because no one can do that perfectly, they eventually wonder whether they are loveable. They build deep resentment toward the one who loves them conditionally.

“We all crave unconditional love. We love with all our hearts the people who love us unconditionally. We bask in it. We trust it. We never want to let it go.

“If I asked your wife if you love her conditionally or unconditionally, what would she say?”

“She’d say that I love her conditionally.”

“Do you?”

“No. I love her with all my heart, just as she is. No conditions.”