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Can I Change a Controlling Spouse?

  • Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
  • 2013 15 Feb
Can I Change a Controlling Spouse?

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a 3-part series on controlling and dominating spouses. Today's article discusses how a controlling spouse might change, and what to do if he or she does not. To read part 1 (how to identify such a spouse) click here. To read part 2 (how the actions of a such a spouse affect the family) click here.

“You are worth standing up for! Your partner will not learn to respect you until you learn to respect yourself! If you find yourself constantly having to defend your husband to friends and family, or if you often feel scared in your own home, please admit that there is a problem and seek help!”

A 29-year-old woman wrote those words of advice to anyone living in a situation of control or domination.

She was one of several people who responded to an online survey about controlling or dominating spouses. I presented their responses to several questions in the two previous articles on this subject. In part one, we examined ways that one spouse dominates or controls the other. In part two we shared responses from spouses that revealed how being dominated or controlled affected them personally.

In this last article of the series, we discuss how to deal with a controlling or dominating spouse. However, before going further I must stress that if your spouse is physically violent, or if you have any fear for your safety, you should skip this article and call the Domestic Abuse Hotline for information about how to be safe. 1-888-7HELPLINE (US & Canada). Do not attempt to change your spouse’s behaviors, or confront him or her in any way, unless you know you are completely safe to do so.

SEE ALSO: How Has Your Spouse’s Domination or Control Affected You?

You Change Yourself, Not the Other Person

At the outset, please understand that you cannot change your spouse. While changing yourself may lead to changes in your spouse, it will not make your spouse change.

A respondent said it succinctly, “Don't allow anyone treat you badly. The only one that can make changes is you, so do it.” Since I began working with marriages in 1994, I stress this message. Your spouse will do what you allow him or her to do. Rather than focusing on changing him or her, work on yourself. Start with the commitment to yourself that you will not tolerate bad, selfish, demeaning, or destructive behavior from either of you. Then begin your own growth. (I suggest you read about the PIES in my book The Art of Falling in Love.)

One woman finally came to understand this. “Even after the divorce, I kept hoping and praying that something would change…but I know you can't change another person.”

SEE ALSO: Identifying a Controlling or Dominating Spouse

Stop taking responsibility for your spouse’s behavior and concentrate on your own.

The survey we placed online sought responses from men and women alike. However, only women responded in the brief time of survey availability. Though the words below are all from women, we know that women can be just as controlling as men can.

In the survey, we asked the following question: 

If Your Spouse Ceased Dominating or Controlling, What Changed?

SEE ALSO: Under My Thumb

Responses fell into the following categories.

Believed in Myself and Stood Up For Myself

One woman wrote, “He began to change when I began to respect and, subsequently, stand up for myself (and my children).”

Another pointed out that standing up for oneself sometimes involves no longer fearing what others think. “Part of why I continued to deal with it all those years was fear of losing important relationships, and being ostracized by the church. Finally, I just fell back on God. I stopped caring about what people at church may or may not do. I stopped being scared. When he would rant, I would just look at him and not cower. When he would threaten to tell everyone who knew me things that were private that I didn't want everyone to know, I finally got to the point that I didn't care. So, I stopped letting him intimidate me.”

SEE ALSO: Choosing Between Spouse and Lover: What If It's Love?

A woman said of her former husband, “He told everyone that I had an affair, though I did not. Of course, he never mentioned his affairs to our friends and neighbors. I decided to stand up for myself and put him out even if the neighbors thought I was the bad person. Interestingly, he still visits my next-door neighbor, plays tennis in my neighborhood, and attends parties where he thinks I will be. It's annoying, but what can I do? I no longer let his trying to destroy my reputation control me. So, I show up, genuinely smile, and have fun. I know who I am. I will not allow him to win his cruel game.”

Got Help

Help included intensive marriage workshops such as our Marriage Helper 911 weekends, counseling, mentoring from pastors, and working through marriage materials together.

One respondent noted, “He still does many controlling things, but he is getting better after meeting with our pastor every other week. He also reads a lot of self-help type books and listens to marriage speakers. He has the greatest improvement when he reads the Bible consistently.”

Another woman said, “A turning point came when he gained a sort of self-acceptance that allowed him to be honest with himself and with others about the things he had done right and wrong. We are also in counseling together now which is helping to address issues past and present.”

A wife reported, “I attempted to get us into marriage counseling. He went under pressure for only one session. Recently I purchased The Art of Falling in Love book and the LovePath DVD that goes with it, and asked him to watch the DVD with me. He was angry with me after viewing the DVD but I think some of it sunk in, especially a story on the DVD about a woman who left her husband because he was telling her how to think and feel (disrespect). He is starting to understand and is trying to let go of his controlling ways.”

When nothing else seems to work: Divorce

We believe that every marriage can be saved if both people stop doing the things destroying their marriage and start doing those things that cause love to grow. However, some of our respondents said that their controlling spouses would not stop the devastating behavior. Finally, they divorced.

One woman stated, “Divorce. Whew. It was very difficult - my very straight hair is now curly from stress (yes, really) still 7 years later - and we still struggle with control over kids. He dumps them, I pick up the pieces, and he has to pay for it. Thank the Lord that I now have a wonderful new husband who is the complete opposite. He is a great mediator even though my ex blames him for everything.”

Another wife shared, “I came to realize that he was trying to set me up in a situation where he could justify divorcing me. We were in a male-dominated church that traditionally is very controlling. He was constantly accusing me of cheating, and constantly telling me that I was a bad wife because I was not submissive. In a fit of rage, he actually screamed that he wished I would cheat on him, leave him, or just disappear. That was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me. I stopped taking in all his criticism. I was just really matter of fact that I was his wife and I was doing everything I could. Eventually, he told me, ‘There is nothing you can do, I want you out of my house by the end of summer.’”

One simply stated, “Freedom could only be realized by completely leaving the relationship geographically and emotionally.”

Toward the end of the survey, we asked the following question:

What advice do you offer people who are controlled or dominated by their spouses?

A woman gave her counsel from a spiritual perspective, “A God centered relationship is the most important thing a couple can have. You have to be able to love yourself so you can love your spouse the way that God intended you to do.  Let your spouse be your best friend and really listen to what is in their heart.  Love, cherish, and respect your spouse.  If you do everything possible to be the best you can be in that relationship, then your spouse will most likely do the same.  If you are in a relationship where your spouse is controlling, manipulative, or dominating I think the most important thing to do is to stand up for yourself too and not allow them to mistreat you.  Accept love and compassion, not control”

Another woman shared a similar view, “Get help. Go to a good, Christian counselor who specializes in domestic abuse so they can help you see what is happening. In my case, I had no idea I was being abused. Read the Bible and soak in God's Word. Especially meditate on the verses where God promises his love and care, how special and unique you are to Him. Remember, Psalms 139:14

A woman wrote, “If you wish to stay with them, offer unconditional love and acceptance. Listen to them to find out where the behavior is coming from. See a therapist for training on becoming more assertive etc. Don't allow them to pull you into their anger.”

Another said, “I had training on becoming more assertive. I explained that his anger was the problem and introduced effective communication into our conversations. Also explained how it was making me feel. I don't allow him to pull me into his anger anymore.”

A woman, somewhat angry about the way she had been treated, responded, “If a man tried to assault you, you'd fight him. If a man is trying to assault you mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, don't lie down and take it. Fight him and don't let him near you again.”

One respondent summed it well, “There is life after control. You can stand up to it. Leave if you must.”

If You Feel Abused…

If you feel safe, suggest marriage counseling or other therapy if needed. If you wish a faster route to changing your spouse’s behavior, consider a “marriage intensive” such as our three-day workshop for marriages facing difficulties.

If you feel that you may be dominated or controlled but are not sure, take a free assessment. Reach it by clicking this link.

Joe Beam founded Marriage Helper, an organization that provides marriage help to hurting couples. For more information on getting help for your marriage, click here.

Publication date: February 15, 2013