Paradoxes of Control


It takes two people to unite in a marriage. If you succeed at controlling your partner (imposing your will on them) unity is lost. Why? Because your partner no longer has a free will and is no longer an independent person; they’ve become an extension of you and your will.

Controlling a partner is bitter sweet. We may get our partner to do what we want (which feels sweet) but they’re not doing it willingly (which feels bitter).

Fear of unmet needs is usually behind the urge to control our partners. The more we try to control our spouse the more disinclined they are to want to meet our needs. It’s a vicious self fulfilling prophecy.

Expecting others to do what we say fuels our sense of power and power is a terrible glue to hold couples together. Kindness, love, respect, deference, freedom, and serving are much better at fostering connection.

Few people welcome a partner’s control without trying to control back. This then creates a power struggle and the relationship becomes a competition to see who is most powerful. This leads to escalation and in worst cases, violence.

If the thought of letting your spouse do whatever they want increases your anxiety it’s likely you’re controlling. If your spouse does what you want and your anxiety decreases it’s likely you’re controlling. Since anything that decreases anxiety is addicting, controlling your spouse can become addicting. This is a precarious place to be since your spouse eventually will resist your control, your anxiety will spike, the urge to control will increase, their resistance will increase, and now anxiety regulation rules the relationship, not love.

Since much unhappiness occurs when spouses fail to meet our expectation to do what we want we have two options: try harder to get them to do things our way (spouse control), or change our expectations (self control). Since one of the “fruits of the spirit” is self control, we believe fostering personal spirituality and thereby decreasing the urge to control others is good for marriages.


Differences in Marriage: Not A Bad Thing


“I know there are differences but I’m going to change him.”


With all the slogans promoting marriage oneness (“Be of one mind,” “Two shall become one flesh,” “How can two walk together unless they be agreed?”), it may come as a surprise to hear that differences in marriage can be a good thing. Look over the following statements and pick several to discuss with your mate. Get ready for some possible differences of opinion!

1. When “two become one” it means “one flesh” (sex, kids) not “one soul in two bodies.”

2. Jesus said marriage only lasts until death and that there is no marriage in heaven.

3. Technically, your partner is not your soul mate. You were complete even before you found your other half (a term I’m not especially fond of). You are a whole person whether married or single.

4. Allowing no difference in a marriage means either one forces the other to merge, or one voluntarily merges with the other. In both cases, the individual is lost.

5. When we die and go to heaven as individuals not as a couple.

6. There is a rhythm in marriage, get close and be separate. We need to be separate and connect; not get stuck in either extreme.

7. If one person loses them themselves to merge with the other, at some point they’re going to say, “Hey! When do I get a say in our decisions?”

8. If being in a relationship means you having to no longer be you, that defeats the purpose. If husband and wife are identical, one of you won’t be necessary.

9. Many marriage problems occur NOT because the couple is too separate but because they’re too close. There are no emotional boundaries. One person never gets to separate and miss the other person.

10. Couples that are emotionally fused (like a blue and yellow crayon melted into one green blob) never feel connected. There’s no place where they can emotionally touch each other since they’ve merged.

11. Boundaries not only separate two countries, they are also the place where two countries touch, like the US/Canada border. Emotional boundaries are where two people touch. But if you’re fused there’s no place to touch.

12. Individuals eager to eradicate differences between me and my partner never learn how to tolerate differences.

13. People who fear abandonment hate differences.

14. People who fear being engulfed hate fusion.

15. How we deal with differences is more important than what those differences are. If one partner wants differences and the other wants no differences, there’s a difference! And thus a conflict!

16. To some, differences sound like criticism or betrayal. “If you really loved me you’d agree with my ideas, tastes, and opinions.”

17. Some are so afraid of isolation that they refuse to talk about differences. Conflicts focus on the details of some issue rather than the more global and philosophical discussion of the existence (and importance) of differences. A good question to discuss, “How many differences can this marriage handle?”

18. Many a partner claim to be okay with differences…until their mate makes a decision contrary to the unspoken rule, “We must agree on everything.”

19. To remove differences we either say, “I’ll become like you and lose me,” or “You become like me and lose you.”

20. Fights usually aren’t about surface issues but the more subtle issue of whose view of differences will prevail.

21. Some differences in marriage shouldn’t be tolerated. If one thinks infidelity, drug abuse, addiction, or abuse are good and the other thinks they’re bad, that may be a difference too large to tolerate. What are the deal breakers in your relationship? Unconditional love and sacred marriage vows do not mean any misbehavior can be tolerated. Best to hash this out prior to marriage.

How Our Family of Origin Influences Marriage Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction


Subconscious needs in marriage can be as confusing as an optical illusion!

These ideas originated from Dr. Gary Brainerd in a Cross Country Education workshop entitled, Counseling for Couples: Understanding and Improving Love Relationships. © 2012 Gary Brainerd.

Rather than just blowing away the smoke of marital conflict, we want to put out the fire, the source of marital conflict. And one of the biggest sources of marital conflict is what we learned or didn’t learn, got or didn’t get, while growing up. Here’s how our early care givers continue to affect us today.

If, during the critical ages of fifteen months to three years, our primary care givers were overly smothering (hovering like helicopters, emotionally enmeshed, clingy and needy) we develop an extra strong need for independence, separation, autonomy, and we become ISOLATORS. If our primary care givers were negligent (absent, distant, or mean) we develop an extra strong need for closeness and we become PURSUERS. We bring those strong tendencies into adulthood and base our mate selection on a subconscious desire to maintain those levels of independence or closeness, to get what we didn’t get growing up, or to replicate the emotional life style (values, rules) we’re used to. Familiar and family come from the same root.

When ISOLATORS marry ISOLATORS they are both comfortable with lots of alone time.

When PURSUERS marry PURSUERS they are both comfortable with lots of together time.

This comfortableness is maintained as long as both ISOLATORS stay ISOLATORS or both PURSUERS stay PURSUERS. But guess what? People change!

Furthermore, when an ISOLATOR marries a PURSUER tensions erupt. The more the ISOLATOR feels smothered the more they need space and freedom. The ISOLATOR distances themselves from the PURSUER. That activates the PURSUER’S wound of feeling neglected so they pursue, cling, and chase even harder. The ISOLATOR feels smothered and the PURSUER feels abandoned. A vicious negative feedback loop is set up. Which of these partners is the evil one? Neither! It’s the result of family of origin patterns established early on.

Stages of Marriage

ROMANCE. When we find Mr. or Ms. Right, the pleasure centers of our brain light up like fire works! Infatuation, bliss, and the goose bumpy feeling of finding the perfect fit is a dream come true! We’re going to live happily ever after! Our endorphin saturated brain is on love drugs and we overlook our partner’s flaws, quirks, and mannerisms. We may even think those mannerisms are cute.

POWER STRUGGLE. Once those brain chemicals wear off we get irritated, impatient, and the differences between us and our spouse becomes a major problem. It turns out our partners have different values, rules, beliefs, and culture than ours. They can’t (or won’t) replicate our family of origin. Our expectations are dashed. Ninety percent of our marital hurt and sensitivity is due to history—these subconscious patterns, expectations, and unmet needs from childhood. We think we’re fighting about money, sex, kids, and hobbies when in fact we’re troubled by things we’re not even aware of. If our partner’s words, actions, and behaviors cause a strong, emotional, knee jerk reactions it’s probably one hundred percent due to history. When this happens it’s appropriate to say, “You touched my wound and caused my hurt but you didn’t cause the wound.” However, few of us say that. Instead, our partner becomes the culprit for touching an already bruised emotion. By the way, our spouse’s endorphins are wearing off, too, thus creating a perfect classroom in which to grow love. Your childhood strategies to deal with hurts trigger your partner’s defensiveness and their childhood strategies trigger yours. Welcome to the power struggle!

COMMITMENT. At this point each partner must decide if they’re willing to do the hard work of relating, meeting our partner’s needs for closeness/separateness, and responding calmly when our needs for closeness/separateness aren’t met. It’s not the power struggle that torpedoes marriages, it’s figuring out whose power will prevail. Most divorces happen when one partner refuses to make this commitment.

TRANSFORMATION. Here’s where the hard work comes in. Instead of trying to change our marriage or our partner we should let the marriage change us from blaming to responsibility, from hurt to healer, from perpetuating self limiting, subconscious habits to engaging in intelligent behaviors. Learning skills and specific processes assist in this transformation. Worksheets include My Unconscious Relationship Agenda, Conscious Dialogue Exercise, Finding Agreement, and Communicating Our Frustrations Without Demanding.

KNOWLEDGE/AWAKENING. In this stage we realize how many of our responses and reactions are automatic and habitual. And we awaken to the fact that our partner isn’t the enemy but a gift to help us grow and become better people. Meeting our partner’s needs requires us to grow, adapt, and learn new things.

REAL LOVE. This kind of love doesn’t depend on brain chemicals but on intelligent choices. Love occurs when our partner’s needs are equal to or even greater than our own needs. Love is a behavior, not a feeling.

Conquering Boredom

Boredom occurs when our personal skills exceed life’s challenges. Moving from the contentment zone to the boredom zone occurs when we feel under-challenged and overly prepared to meet easy, simple, and not very demanding demands. When this happens we feel useless, unchallenged, and bored. Tackling some new difficulty gets us out of the boredom zone.

When you first learned tic-tac-toe it was probably fun. But once you mastered that game, you moved on to checkers. But when you exhausted your skills at that game you moved on to chess or baseball or motorcycles or video games. Why? Because life without challenges is boring! The way to overcome boredom is to increase the challenges in your life.

Moving from the boredom zone to the contentment zone involves taking on some new project, goal, mind or body exercising difficulty. The interesting thing about this plan is that the process of tackling new challenges is a cause of much happiness. There is something very satisfying about facing and successfully meeting a difficult challenge.

Is mowing the lawn boring? Challenge yourself to do it faster. Are weekends boring? Take on a new hobby. Get a pet, travel, learn a new skill, volunteer to help others, get out of your boring comfort zone. Your mind is like a muscle; it needs exercise.

Being stuck in the Boredom Zone is no fun. One way to reduce boredom is to reduce the number of skills we have: moving backwards by becoming incompetent, under achieving, whiney, negative, faking a disability, and/or lazy. But who wants to waste a perfectly good brain and body?

Take on a new complex project and give yourself the motivation to learn the skills necessary to live life to the max. What new (healthy and legal!) challenges would you like to tackle? The human brain is wired to learn, develop, grow, and help your body meet challenges at home, work, school, neighborhoods! Boredom can be overcome. You can do it!

When Making You Happy Makes Me Unhappy

It may be hard for you to believe this, but I genuinely do not like doing ___. I know you like it, but I’m not you. This puts me in a huge quandary. I want you to be happy. I love you and want living with me to be a joy for you. But if your happiness depends on my doing ___ we’ve got a problem. I’ve tried to stifle my gag reflex and do the thing you’ve asked me to do. But it’s hard. I’ve tried to explain this to you many times but I’m not sure I’ve successfully explained why it’s so hard for me to do ___. I simply find doing ____ repellant, difficult, unnatural, and unpleasant. Which do you want: me do ___ , or me be happy? You can’t have both.

You’ve told me that if I really loved you I’d do ___ with consistency and joy. As hard as it may be for you to grasp this, both facts are true: 1) I do love you and 2) I do not love doing ___. We are at an impasse in this relationship. Dilemmas don’t get any more basic than this. If I make you happy I’ll be making myself unhappy. If I make myself happy I’ll be making you unhappy. So what do we do? We’ve got the following options.

  1. I bite the bullet and do ____ for you.  Doing ___ for you will be hard, difficult, and nauseating for me NOT because I don’t love you or don’t want you to be happy. It’s just that doing _____ is really hard for me. I can try but there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to sustain it. I may develop resentment and anger. I may eventually tire of doing ____. To set me up for success could you please express appreciation once in a while for my sacrifices to make you happy? I find it highly de-motivating when I finally get around to doing ____ and hear, “It took you long enough. What do you want, a parade?” Well, not a parade, but at least a sincere thank you. And could you please withhold the anger and scorn when I do ___ imperfectly or when I forget? Could you even the score once in a while by doing something that you maybe find unpleasant but that you know makes me happy?
  2. I bite the bullet and refuse to do ___ for you. This means me learning to inure myself to your anger and disdain. It means me getting thicker skin when you criticize me. It means I stick to my convictions, principles, and preferences and learn to live with the emotional and relational ramifications. I become Teflon so your emotional manipulation doesn’t stick. I don’t chose this out of spite or hate. It’s just that I really don’t like doing ___. I resign myself to living with an unhappy, hard to please spouse.
  3. You bite the bullet and relinquish your desire for me to do ____. I know this isn’t what you want. For some inexplicable reason(s) you like ___. But I’m asking you to stop asking, wanting, or expecting me to do ____. Or you do ___ yourself. Or you find someone to do ____ for you. If you accept my inability/unwillingness to do ___ this means you’ll have to learn to live with unmet needs/wants. This may require coaching, counseling, therapy, behavioral modification, spiritual growth, or plain old-fashioned self-control. It’s probably as hard for you to understand why I find ___ so unpleasant as it is for me to understand why you find ___ so pleasant. I guess we’re just two different individuals with different preferences.
  4. You bite the bullet and continue to pressure me to do ____. If living with an unhappy spouse is more important than living without _____ then this is the option for you. Warning: if I do finally succumb to your pressure and do ____ please don’t whine, “You’re not sincere! You don’t mean it! You’re just doing that because I made you.” Of course I’m not sincere. I’m just doing this to get you off my back.
  5. We learn to live with this impasse. If I refuse to do ___ and you refuse to stop wanting me to do ____ we’re stuck. One option is for us to accept this stuck-ness like some people learn to accept aging, bad knees or unpredictable weather. Some couples do learn to live with unmet desires/demands/requests. If the price of options 1 – 4 is too great, option 5 is the our only option. It’s “agree to disagree” time. This means you quit saying, “If you really loved me you’d do____” and I quit saying, “If you really loved me you’d quit asking me to do ____.” Let’s call a truce. I won’t do ___ and you’ll stop asking me to do ___.  I’ll continue to show my love and care for you by doing other things that are within my capabilities and desires. But ____ is out of the question.
  6. We split up. If doing ___ is a non-negotiable for you, and if my not doing ____ is non-negotiable, our only option is to go our separate ways. This will of course be painful and tragic on many levels. But if options 1-5 don’t work we could try option 6 at least temporarily. If we choose option 6 let’s be very clear on both the timetable and ground rules for spending, dating, parenting, living, etc. while living separately.
  7. We take turns. I may be willing to do ____ on occasion if you lower your expectation that I do it 24/7. In return for my occasional capitulation I’ll want you to do things for me that I find pleasant and enjoyable. If I feel I’m making all the sacrifices I may burn out or get resentful.

When Making Me Happy Makes You Unhappy

I must admit, I’m totally shocked that you’re unwilling to make me happy. I thought this is what marriage is all about! How dare you say making me happy by doing ____ will make you unhappy! If you really loved me you’d find the oomph to do ___ and quit being so selfish.  If I knew you didn’t want to make me happy I’d not have married you! You are cruel and unloving. This is borderline abuse. But since I’m willing to negotiate here are our options.

  1. I give up my desire for you to do ____. This is both counter intuitive and crazy but because I’m willing to take the high road I’ll explore this. It’ll mean me NOT expecting my happiness to come from you. It’ll mean me learning to live with an un-supportive and negligent spouse. It’ll maybe mean therapy and counseling for me to overcome anxiety, anger, resentment, and hatred. Now that I think of it, I’ve made so many compromises and concessions already that I’m not sure I can lower my expectations any more. I’m at rock bottom already. Either you do ____ or resign yourself to living with an unhappy spouse. You can’t not do ___ and have a happy spouse at the same time. The choice is yours.
  2. I do not give up my desire for you to do ___. If this makes you mad or unhappy that merely proves how selfish you are. I’ll just inure myself to your narcissism and thoughtlessness. If you complain about me pushing you to do ____ I’ll learn to live with your complaints. That’ll be my cross to bear. If you get angry and call me controlling, manipulative, or demanding, oh well. I’ll be like Teflon so your unkind remarks don’t stick.
  3. You give up your stubbornness and do ____. This of course is my preference. I don’t see why doing ___ is so hard. I love ____. Most people I know love ____. I can only conclude that your unwillingness to do ___ is motivated by selfishness, a dysfunctional family of origin, sin, or worst of all—lack of love and caring. To prove that you do love me just do this one simple thing: _____. I’m not asking you to walk on water. Just do ____ and make me feel loved.
  4. We learn to live with the impasse. I’m not sure I can do this. Your unwillingness to do ___ is so fraught with negative meaning for me that this may be a deal breaker. If I were you I suggest you go back and consider option 3 again.
  5. We split up. It’d be much easier not seeing you refuse to do ___ to make me happy than seeing you every day NOT doing ____. I’d be more unhappy living with a partner who refuses to comply with my one tiny request than living alone. Either way, I don’t get ____. But if I’m not going to get ___ I’d rather you not be around to remind me you’re not giving me ____.
  6. We take turns. I can’t believe I’m even mentioning this. This is a marriage; we’re not supposed to be keeping score. You’re saying you’ll scratch my back if I scratch yours? Why should I scratch your back since you’re so unwilling to scratch mine? My desire that you do ____ is logical, sane, normal, healthy, and not asking that much. Your reasons for not doing ___ don’t even make sense. Since you’re not willing to give up your stubbornness and do ___ I’m not sure I can stay in this relationship. I may need to go back and consider option 5 again.