From Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop by Steve Hauptman (Lioncrest, 2015).
Chapter 52: Boomerang
The more we try to control other people,
the more we force them to control us back
~ The Second Paradox
Most people freely admit hating to be controlled, and to resisting it however they can.
But for some reason they tend to forget that others feel the same way. So they regularly try to control the people in their lives, and are surprised when those people react just as they would.
I see this all the time in family work.
Parents in particular seem unable to anticipate that their kids will resist being controlled by them. It’s as if they believe parents should have control, and that kids should simply acquiesce. Their narcissistic blindness in such matters sometimes takes startling forms.
A father insists his son be truthful in all things. He also judges and criticizes the boy whenever the truth he tells displeases Dad. Unable see how his reaction actually discourages truthtelling, he is genuinely surprised when Junior turns into a habitual liar. (Lying, of course, is the son’s way of controlling Dad back.)
One mother regularly searches her adolescent daughter’s room, cell phone and social media postings for evidence that the girl is having sex. Then she is astounded when (you guessed it) the girl turns up pregnant. Though I doubt the daughter got pregnant intentionally, it is hard to ignore what a powerful Fuck you, Mom message it conveys.
Dad brings his depressed son for counseling and stays to explain the problem. “He never expresses feelings,” Dad complains. “Looks like he’s expressing some now,” I reply, nodding at the son, sitting sullen and silent on my sofa. “You look like you’d rather be anywhere else but here,” I tell Junior. “That’s not an option,” Dad interrupts. “Okay,” he snaps at the boy, “come on. Open up.” Predictably, the therapy goes nowhere.
Note that in these examples each parent’s overt controlling is countered by covert controlling by the child. (See chapter 7.) Yes, some kids openly defy their parents, but covert and unconscious resistance (like the pregnant daughter’s) is much more common. While most kids feel emotionally outgunned by parental authority, that doesn’t mean they’re helpless.
And then there are times when kids don’t resist the controlling, they try to comply, and parents are still left feeling out of control.
An insecure mom intent on impressing the neighbors demands high achievement from her son and her daughter. Both kids try their best. The daughter gets straight A’s and becomes captain of the cheerleading squad. The son makes Honor Society and wins the lead in his school play. Then in her senior year the daughter breaks under the pressure, swallows a bottle of Excedrin and ends up in a psych ward. A year later the son gets drunk, drives Mom’s car through a neighbor’s yard and is arrested. Mom can’t see her role in these tragedies. “They’re my whole life,” she cries. “How could they do this to me?”
The Second Paradox shows up regularly in marital work too, where controlling by spouses boomerangs more often than not.
One form familiar to all couples therapists is the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic, where one partner chases and the other runs away. The pursuer is always demanding more of something – more time, attention, affection, money, sex – and the other is always refusing or evading the demand. It’s like a self-perpetuating dance in which each partner’s move triggers the other’s: pursing provokes distancing, and distancing provokes pursuit. Even when I point this out and the couple sees what they’re doing, it can be impossible to get either partner to change. Instead they play You Go First. I’d stop chasing him if he’d give me what I want. I’d give her what she wants if she’d leave me alone. And the dance goes on.
For years now I’ve begun every marital and family therapy by spending time alone with each of the individuals involved. I do this because we’re all control addicts, and this addiction causes most of our emotional problems, including those that emerge in relationships. So we need to address our individual addiction before those relationships can be healed.
We need to identify why we control, and how we control, and how our controlling hurts the people we love. Most of all, we need to see how our controlling hurts us.
Because in the end our relationships with others can’t be any healthier than our relationship with ourselves.