The Second Paradox


“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Tolstoy.

Not in my experience.

In my experience, unhappy families — especially unhappy marriages — are surprisingly similar.


~ Heather wants to marry Ian, who’s scared of commitment.  So she pressures him to propose, which scares him, so he backs away. This scares her, so she steps up the pressure (“Why won’t you marry me?”).  Which makes him back away further and faster.  And so on.

~ “He never talks to me,” is Janet’s main complaint about Kenny, who grew up in a family where no one talked to anyone about anything.  The more she begs him to talk, the more inadequate Kenny feels.  The more inadequate he feels, the more silent he becomes.  Which angers Janet, which makes her beg harder.  And so on.

~ Liz is a people pleaser who gets anxious when Mark is unhappy. So she knocks herself out putting his feelings, needs and preferences ahead of her own.  Mark – who enjoys this and doesn’t want it to stop – finds he can keep Liz motivated by remaining unhappy.  The unhappier he becomes, the harder she tries.  The harder she tries, the unhappier he becomes.  And so on.

~ Nan: “If you didn’t drink, I wouldn’t nag you.”  Olivor: “If you didn’t nag me, I wouldn’t drink.”  Rinse and repeat.

~ Patty and Ron both grew up in families that didn’t acknowledge or respect feelings.  Hungry for emotional validation, they now seek it from each other.  Unfortunately each takes the position, “I’ll validate you after you validate me.”  Since neither validates first, no one gets validated. Ever.  So their childhood deprivation continues.  Indefinitely.

Sensing a pattern?

All five examples (and the variations are infinite) illustrate the Second Paradox of Control:




This is the interpersonal version of the First Paradox of Control (“The more control you need, the less control you have”)  explained here last week.

This Second Paradox grows out of an obvious fact of human nature:  We all want control, yet we all resent being controlled by others.

That’s just what is being played out in these examples.  Each of the ten partners is trying desperately (if unconsciously) to transform the other into the partner they want.  And each of the ten is resisting being transformed as hard as they can.

Call it control addiction a deux.

Or you could use the term I sometimes use in my clinical  notes — monkeyships, meaning relationships bent out of shape by control issues.

Some of this goes on in all our relationships, because at some point we all turn monkeyish.

We all try to make the relationship and/or our partner into what we want them to be. 

It has little to do with how much we love the person we’re with. 

It has everything to do with how much control we think we need to feel safe. 

And it continues unless and until we learn alternatives to our monkeyish behaviors.


* * *

There are many signs and symptoms of controlling behavior in a relationship.

But here are just three tell-tale signs that your partner is trying to control you:

1. Your partner tells you what to think…

~ From How to tell if you’re in a controlling relationship (3:01) by Donna Marie Thompson, Ph.D. of


3 responses to “The Second Paradox

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