"I am sure that when we spoke our marriage vows," said Janet, "Bob added 'to have and to hold as long as I'm the boss.' " She was sitting in my office after four years of trying to stand on equal ground with her husband. According to her, Bob never lets go of the reins. Literally.
"He would have to be in a complete body cast before he would let me drive the car," she complained. On a few rare occasions when Janet does get behind the wheel with Bob in the car he tells her everything to do: Stop here, speed up, pass this guy. "Then there's the TV remote," Janet said. "Need I say more?" She gracefully dismissed this easy target. But before the end of our counseling session, Janet summed up her husband this way: "He believes he knows how to do everything and is, by natural right, the boss of anybody found standing in his vicinity—including me and the kids."
Sadly, more than just Bob's wife know him as a control freak. Most of his church knows it, too. Or, I should say, did know it. After an ugly episode when Bob felt the church board was not 'spiritual enough'—because they didn't agree with his position on spending money—Bob wrote an inflammatory letter to the pastor and his fellow board members. He also told Janet that they would look for a more 'biblically-based' church. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing the congregation he left breathed a sigh of relief.
Control freaks come in many guises, from over-involved spouses to pushy parents to controlling coworkers and bosses. Some control freaks do their dirty work with a smile, while others are verbally abusive. Either way, relationships suffer. If you've been had by a control freak—or fear you are one—this article is for you.
Understanding the Control Freak
Isn't some controlling behavior healthy? Sure. Feeling in control is vital to mental and physical health, as well as happiness at home and satisfaction at work. In fact, feeling to some degree that you are living on purpose and in control is a key trait of happy people, according to Christian psychologist David Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness. Scripture even urges us to be in control of our tongues (James 3:2). Being in control, however, can be too much of a good thing—especially in the church. In pursuing power, control freaks can impose their rules on an entire congregation for years. Because of wealth, personality, or longevity, a person—or even a family—can end up dominating others.
Of course, they not only subject themselves to rigid routines that prevent them from enjoying life, but they can cause frustration for people around them. Imagine what life would be like if everything you wanted and every goal you hoped to achieve was dictated by the winds of fate or other people's whims. The prospect of such utter powerlessness would be terrifying, right? Well, imaginary or not, that is what life is like for the hyper-controlling. To prevent powerlessness, their domineering ways can come through at home, at church, or both.
Coping With Control Freaks
Here are two time-tested techniques for managing anyone who exhibits controlling tendencies.
Don't Take It Personally
In most cases, control freaks are trying to protect themselves—they are not trying to hurt you. So accusing them of being controlling will only make them more fearful and in charge. Instead, explain to them how the behavior makes you feel. You might say something such as, "You may not be aware of this, but it seems that if we don't vote the way you want us to, then you see us as ungodly. Does this seem right to you?" That is far better than saying, "You think you're better than everyone else and you never trust anyone but yourself with a decision."
Pinpoint the Need
Do your best to figure out how to give the control freak what he or she wants without compromising your own needs. If your controller is prompted by anxiety over an important phone call he is waiting to receive, for example, he might snap at you for putting your feet on the coffee table: "Why do you do that? I've told you before how that upsets me." Rather than accuse him of being irrational and petty, put yourself in his shoes and ask yourself what he really needs: "I'm sorry, you must be eager to get that call you were talking about."
A simple statement about what is going on beneath the surface can be like a soothing touch on the soul of a worried control freak.
Taming Your Control Freak Tendencies
Almost everyone is a control freak some times. If you're aware of how you can over-control at times, here are two proven strategies that can help. Know Where You Can—and Can't—Exert Influence. I know a pastor who nearly lost his marriage because he treated his spouse like a staff member. He ordered her around the home, never asking for her advice or input.
If you want to keep your controlling tendencies from getting out of control, you have to decide where you can exert your influence and where you can't.
That usually comes down to handing your anxieties over to God. As Luke 12:25 says, "Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? Of course not!" (NLT)
Count Your Blessings
Some of the best advice I ever received for managing my own controlling tendencies came from my father. As a retired college president with many years of knowing what it's like to be in charge, my dad sat me down and asked me a question: "Why are you driving so hard, son?" My knee-jerk response was a joke: "To keep up with you, Dad." He thought I was serious. We talked about the psychological pressure that is transmitted, intentionally or not, from one generation to the next. We talked about the drive to produce and our mutual compulsions for control.
Then my dad told me his secret for keeping life under control without being a control freak. "Count your blessings," he said. "Don't let a day slip away without taking time to appreciate God's gifts." A few years have passed since Dad and I had that conversation. But I haven't forgotten his advice. And I've discovered he's right.
When I take time to appreciate the blessings I enjoy, the things I'm trying desperately to control pale by comparison. The same can be true for you.
Les Parrott is founder of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the author of The Control Freak. Visit his website.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2007