This is the second of two posts about covert controlling. (You can read the first post here.)
3. It’s Just What I Do
Dennis keeps logging onto his wife’s computer to view porn. “And she keeps asking you not to,” I say. “Right.” “And she can always tell when you’ve done it.” “Always.” “And afterwards you two always have huge arguments.” “Yes,” he says sadly. “So why…” “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’m an idiot. I don’t know why I do it. It’s just what I do.”
Ellie just lunched with two friends, and she’s seething. “I hate them. They only talk to each other. Me they totally ignore. It’s like I’m not there. If I try to break into the conversation they look at me like I’m some annoying little sister. It’s always like this. I get so upset I have to go to the bathroom to cry.” This lunch, she adds, is a monthly ritual that’s been going for years. “Years?” I ask. “Why keep going? Why not just avoid them?” She shrugs helplessly. “They’d be angry,” she says. “But you don’t like them.” “Not much,” she admits. “But I can’t say no. It’s just what I…”
Frank’s wife makes all decisions for the both of them. “Everything from dinner to where to vacation to when to have sex,” he tells me. “Don’t you guys ever discuss things?” I ask. “Not really,” he says. “She tells me what she wants, then says, ‘Okay?'” “And you agree.” “Yeah.” “Ever disagree?” “Once or twice, when we were first married.” “What happened?” “She’s better at arguing than me. She gets loud, and I get nervous. So I give in. It’s easier.” “Is it really?” He sighs. “Maybe not,” he concedes. “But we’re married eight years now. Agreeing has become a habit. It’s just….”
Welcome to It’s Just What I Do.
This form of covert controlling shows up in my office every day. And each time it does I’m reminded of what Fritz Perls said about therapy clients:
“Very few people go into therapy to be cured, but rather to improve their neurosis.”
Still, It’s Just What I Do used to puzzle the hell out of me. Because I assumed that any repeated behavior must have some payoff attached to it. And I couldn’t figure out what the payoff was here.
Then I began to study the idea of control.
And I realized the payoff is all about Plan A.
4. Plan A
I’ve written about Plan A here before. It’s my label for everything we learn as kids about life and how to cope with it.
We each have a Plan A. We learn it mainly as kids, mainly from our parents, and mainly unconsciously. No one sits us down and says, “Now listen up. Here’s how you do life.” Instead we watch and listen to the grownups around us and absorb what they do like little sponges.
Plan A becomes our psychological default position, the place to which we revert under stress. As a coping method it may not work all that well. But it has one enormous advantage over any other plan: it’s utterly familiar.
And therein lies the payoff: the illusion of control.
Familiarity is enormously reassuring. We don’t have to analyze anything, learn new behaviors, anticipate new outcomes. Reverting to Plan A means knowing just what to do and just what will come of it.
The fact is, most of the time, most of us prefer a familiar pain to an unpredictable adventure.
Which explains why Dennis, terrified of losing his marriage, provokes the same fight again and again. And why Ellie, afflicted with chronic low self-esteem, lunches with people she hates rather than risking their disapproval. And why Frank, in treatment for crippling anxiety, tries to reduce his stress by agreeing with his wife about everything.
On some level each of them has decided they’re not ready for Plan B. Not ready for the emotional stretch, the stress of learning, the shock of fresh feelings, the unpredictability of something new.
So they cling to the familiar.
We all do. We’re anxious creatures, we humans. And our anxiety makes us resist change.
So we cling to the familiar like a child clings to a teddy bear. And chase control even what we chase is illusory.
“The most interesting thing about the control-mad people is that they always end up being controlled,” wrote Perls. “So the control-mad person is the first one to lose his freedom. Instead of being in control, he has to strain and push all the time.”
It’s just what we do.