She could not look people in the eye as they greeted her. Head down, shoulders slumped; she headed to the nearest open seat and quietly slid into it. Her husband was a study in contrast. Confident, gregarious, he firmly shook hands and made polite small talk before striding over to sit beside his wife.

Years before she had been a decorated officer in the military. A leader of men and women. Shrinking violets do not earn those positions, so it was obvious the woman in that seat was only a shell of the woman she used to be.

When anyone tried talking with her, she clasped her purse to her chest with both arms, glancing up only occasionally. If asked a question, she spoke briefly and timidly.

Abused?

Yes, but perhaps not in the way you think.

Her husband had never hit her or used his physical presence to intimidate her. No spousal rape or sexual domination. In fact, he had no idea that he abused her at all. He considered himself a good man that would never be so evil as to harm a woman. In fact, he was the type that would go to the defense of any woman being threatened physically.

More than that, he seemed not to notice his wife’s public timidity. His view was that she could hold her own and gave as well, if not better, than she got when they clashed. When she argued with him via email, she was forceful, angry, and articulate. She did the same aloud when they were alone. He held that perception of her to the degree that the behavior others saw seemed not to register with him. He saw a brawling, selfish witch. Others saw a frightened woman drowning in her own lack of confidence and esteem.

When the subject of controlling relationships came up, he was quick to tell how controlling his wife was. Not unusual: Often the person who is the most controlling is the one who feels the most controlled.

When he finally understood that the bulk of their problem was his behavior, he reacted first with anger, then regret, and finally genuine change. Their relationship changed in a matter of three days and the change is still in effect nearly three years later.

What is Control?

People crave respect. They want to be accepted for who they are in reality rather than having to pretend to meet someone else’s criteria. When treated as an inferior, they react badly. When they feel they have to pretend, living as a picture of what another wants rather than as the person they actually are, they slowly dissolve their own identity. Some become lost and never rediscover who they were. Others deteriorate for a while, but eventually hit a point of frustration that leads to defiance, anger, and rebellion. Yet others live between those extremes.

Picture the lion or tiger in a cage snarling and slapping at the tamer making them jump through hoops and put on a show. They show their anger, but ultimately comply because they do not wish to receive punishment, and they enjoy receiving reward. The award is not equal to the freedom they once had, but over time they submit themselves to captivity and the morsels handed by the one who controls them. The whip hurts; the morsels are tasty; compliance results. At least for some of the big cats. Others likely never yield to the control of the tamer. Maybe others do for a while, but finally have enough and fight back.

Though the illustration may miss the mark a place or two in actual lion taming, the idea makes clear how some marriages or relationships work. One person (man or woman) tries to make the other do, think, or feel a certain way, rather than accepting the natural differences that exist in individuals.

If their partner does not act as they wish, they bring about some type of punishment. It does not have to be physical. It can be emotional, mental, financial, sexual, or more. When the other person complies, a morsel of enjoyment comes their way, perhaps by the opposite of the method used to punish. For example, a woman may try to control her husband by withholding sexual favor when he does not do as she wishes, and giving him sexual pleasure when he does. A man may try to control his wife by controlling the finances in the home, punishing and rewarding based on whether she ignores or complies with his wishes.