The modern world has sold us on the illusion of control.
Time management systems tell us that we can control the passing hours of each day.
Influencers tell us we can control our mind, body, and emotions by taking the right supplements, eating the right foods, and doing the right practices.
Our society at large tells us that we can control our sense of self-worth and happiness by winning big at the game of capitalism.
So it’s no surprise that one of the most frustrating features of being in a relationship with another human being is this issue of control.
We’re so used to controlling the moment-to-moment experience of life that some part of us now expects our partner to behave like our Wi-Fi enabled thermostat. We should just be able to push a button and change the temperature of our relationship, shouldn’t we?
Of course, if you’ve ever tried to control your partner in this way, you know that it's a hopeless pursuit.
Control creates asymmetrical dynamics of power. Control creates conflict. Even if you’re able to create a structure of control, you now live with the fear that your control over your partner might one day slip away and they won’t have any other reason to stay with you.
So how can you let go of this natural human impulse to control your partner?
Most people don’t have a good answer to the question: “How am I trying to control my partner?"
Why? Control and power live under the surface of awareness in most relationships.
The good news is that feeling irritation toward your partner is often a sign that you have some sort of control plan running in the background. If you feel irritated that your partner is always messy, that’s an indication you may be trying to control their level of cleanliness. If you feel irritation around your partner's commitment to work instead of quality time, that’s an indication you may be trying to control the way they spend their time.
As you go throughout your week, keep an eye out for these moments of irritation to arise. Make a mental note of all the things you wish you could control or change about your partner.
Jim Warner, author of Facing Pain - Embracing Love, observes that, “You can’t control your partner, but you can influence them."
This is an essential insight because giving up control over your partner doesn't mean turning yourself into some sort of relationship doormat. It doesn’t mean that you now need to repress all those moments of irritation and allow your partner to continue doing the things that annoy you.
While you can’t control them, you can influence them. To do this, we recommend shifting from criticism (our habitual reaction) to offering a clean reveal and request (a more skillful reaction). For more on this practice, check out Chapter 7 of The 80/80 Marriage. But the short version is this: reveal your inner experience during these moments and then make a clear request.
When we talk to couples, we often see a common dynamic: an under- and over-contributing partner. The over-contributors complain about the under-contributing partner's lack of engagement, follow through, and help around the house.
And yet, when we dig deeper, we often find that a desire to control lurks in the shadows of these complaints. The husband who complains of his wife’s inability to schedule summer camps often secretly enjoys having control over the summer calendar. The wife who complains of her husband's inability to manage finances often secretly enjoys having control over the family's books.
If you notice this happening in your relationship, the antidote is simple: let your partner help. Give them full access to these domains that you currently control. Give them the tools they need to actually learn how to do it and succeed.
This will feel uncomfortable, maybe even scary. But it also has the potential to radically transform your relationship and to help you finally let go of control.