Under My Thumb
- Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
- 2012 21 Dec
“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.”
“No. I love her with all my heart, just as she is. No conditions.”
“Then let her be her.” I placed my thumb on his. “You have to let her out from under your thumb.”
For the first time in our conversation, he showed an emotion other than anger and frustration. He sighed, “I don’t know if that’ll help. Maybe nothing I do can offset what she feels I’ve already done. Besides, I’ll mess up. She has a lot of anger and I think the next time I say anything that she thinks might be negative, she’ll push me away even more.”
“I understand,” I replied. “When we help couples in situations such as this, we have to help them do two crucial things. First, you have to learn in a deep and profound way everything you do that leads her to feel criticized or controlled. We’ll start with the principles, but you have to have an “Aha!” moment where it all falls into place in your understanding. If that doesn’t happen, likely you’ll keep doing it without realizing that you do. Changing the habits of years typically takes some changes deep within.
“Second, she must decide to give you the opportunity to prove that you ‘get it.’ Maybe your wife hasn’t locked you out emotionally so that she no longer wishes to be in this marriage. If so, it will be easier to help the two of you build a better relationship. However, if she has reached the emotional point where she’s made the decision that you’ll never change and she must be free of you, it’s a tougher battle. It can be done, but only when she trusts you enough to try it.”
We talked for another hour. I told him stories of couples with similar situations that changed the way they interacted so that each felt equal, neither controlling the other. I pointed out that in some couples the husband controlled, but in other couples the wife. I helped him understand that his critical nature did not mean that he was a bad man, nor did it mean he was unlovable. I assured him that with our help, or the help of a good counselor, he and his wife could overcome this difficulty and make their marriage a happy and fulfilling one.
I ended with this advice.
“If you don’t do something about this, your marriage will continue to deteriorate. Hoping everything will resolve itself doesn’t work. You must take the action to fix this. If you don’t, I hope your wife does. Sometimes the controlled spouse has to make the demand to get the help to repair the marriage. If you love each other, repair this before it is too late.”
Publication date: December 21, 2012