The Controlling Spouse/Relative Healing


This chapter will describe the challenge of dealing with a controlling spouse, child or relative and offer recommendations for addressing serious this conflict. The healing of a compulsive need to dominate others is very challenging.  This conflict is properly identified as a major marital toxin.


The origins, manifestations and treatment of this common marital and family difficulty are presented.  In addition, I recommend reviewing updated material in chapter three of my new marital book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage: A Handbook for Catholic Spouses, Ignatius Press, 2019.

Men and women are on a journey to find someone to whom they can entrust themselves for a lifelong commitment..  After the discovery of the person,  marriage and the birth of children various stresses can result in a diminishment of trust, the foundation for loving. When this occurs, emotional walls can unconsciously go up which then limit giving and receiving love.  Subsequently, spouses feel less happy and may experience loneliness and irritability toward a spouse. This type of stress also can lead to transitory tendencies to control or to withdraw.


Fortunately, the tendency to control can be resolved if promptly addressed through a process of understanding, forgiving, seeing the good in one's spouse, and re-committing to trust and to show respect.

In contrast to these transitory stresses on marital trust are the serious difficulties which arise when a spouse manifests ongoing controlling and disrespectful behaviors.  Unfortunately, not a small number of spouses today bring into their marriages strong selfishness, deep unconscious trust wounds from hurts with a parent or the serious weakness of modeling after a controlling parent which lead them to act in a controlling manner. 

The tendency to control a spouse can emerge slowly in response to hurts or character weaknesses or it can be present at the very beginning of a marriage. This serious personality conflict creates a great deal of tension and unhappiness in a married life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1606, speaks to this challenge, "Their (marital) union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can scale into hatred and separation."

The ability to trust, that is. to feel safe and secure with one's spouse, is the foundation for giving love as well as for receiving love.  Without a strong foundation in trust or without attending to and maintaining trust, a rift can develop in marriages and families.   Therefore, trust needs be protected and strengthened at every stage of married life.

Let's look at weaknesses in trusting, which are often unconscious, which are a major cause for controlling behaviors. However, in our clinical experience the most common cause is selfishness.  The more a spouse gives into selfishness, the greater the drive to have everything go one's own way and the greater the lack of respect shown to one's spouse.

The checklist below identifies many symptoms of mistrust and controlling behaviors, as well as origins from hurts in childhood and adult life, as well as from personality weaknesses.

Specific Origins of Controlling Behaviors


1. Modeling after a controlling parent

The very painful experience of a having a controlling and, therefore, disrespectful mother or father is one of the major reasons for mistrustful behaviors in married life. If your spouse had a controlling parent, he/she will have most likely many of the behaviors listed in the mistrust checklist.  Unfortunately, this childhood pain is difficult to face and to address and many will project this conflict claiming the spouse is the controller rather than a parent. One of the major reasons for this denial and projection or misplacement is because of the intensity of the powerful unconscious, locked-in anger and rage toward the dominating by a parent. 

The emotional trauma of having a controlling parent in childhood also leads to an intense unconscious fear of being controlled in married life. This fear often results in a compulsive need to distance or to criticize a gifted and trustworthy spouse. This pain of fear and mistrust can be buried for many years only to emerge for the first time after the birth of a child or after some other major stress in the marriage.

Without a process of uncovering and resolving strong resentment with a controlling parent through a forgiveness process and through growth in trust, the controlling spouse, in the words of John Paul II, will be remain "a prisoner of the past", that is, will, in fact, be controlled emotionally by the hurts from childhood.  Our clinical view is that if a person does not work to forgive a parent for a serious weakness, such as a tendency to control, that the intense anger with this parent will contribute in a major way to the spouse's repeating such behavior in married life. In addition , this anger and rage meant for the parent will be misdirected at the spouse. 

Also, the response to having a controlling parent can be that of acting in a passive-aggressive way in one's own family life by not assuming any appropriate responsibility, particularly in regard to the correction of children.  Here the spouse can unconsciously support rebellion by children against the other responsible spouse in an act of passive-aggressive anger which is meant primarily for the controlling parent of that souses.

The process of addressing and resolving such anger will be described in the case studies in this chapter. However, if you believe what has been presented here applies to your spouse, you can begin now thinking of asking this spouse to repeat a parent's good qualities but not his/her tendency to control.  You might also begin to think about saying that you are not going to enable controlling behaviors in your marriage.

2. Character strength gone awry

Those spouses with very strong personalities can engage in behaviors which they view as being responsible and caring, but which their husbands and wives can experience as being controlling and disrespectful, particularly under various types of stress.  When this occurs, it should not be denied, as often occurs, but honestly discussed.  Often a strong spouse can recognize an overreaction, apologize and make a commitment to be strong and loyal, but not controlling.  In addition, growth in the virtues of gentleness and patience can refine and modulate the special character trait of strength and protect the marital friendship.

3. Damage to trust from parental alcoholism, divorce or excessive anger or from other abuse trauma

We work with a number couples who experience severe stress in their marriage because one spouse overreacts regularly with anger and controlling behaviors under stress.  They often come to discover that this harmful emotional response is the result of an unconscious need to control because of the fear that they could re-experience in their married life the same pain, turmoil and sadness of their childhood. The childhood experiences which cause such controlling responses later in marriage are from the stress alcoholism/substance abuse, excessive anger, emotional abuse of a parent or oneself, physical abuse, marital separation or divorce.  In fact, the most common unresolved childhood conflict we address in wives who are controlling is alcoholism in the her father. 

4. Insecure spouse

An insecure spouse often fails to be responsible enough as in the home which then forces the other spouse to be more responsible than he/she would like to be. For example, struggles with insecurity can interfere with responsible parenting and appropriate correction of children because the parent craves their love and acceptance.  Then the more responsible parent is burdened with doing all the correction of children and feels very unsupported. Since nature hates a vacuum, the more responsible spouse may become more controlling as a result of being forced to assume too many leadership roles in the family.

Evaluate the Control Conflict

Please attempt to determine if you or your spouse has these controlling conflicts:

• Trying to make the spouse believe that he or she is the cause of the conflicts in the marriage

• Using anger with the hope one’s spouse will become fearful

• Distancing the spouse in numerous ways

• Using excessive and unwarranted criticism with the goal of weakening a spouse's confidence

• Acting as a victim or in the sick role

• Acting in hysterical ways to intimidate

• Restricting access to family finances

• Acting in manipulative ways

• Refusing to listen to one's spouse

• Cutting a spouse off from family or friends

• Using religion to dominate

• Presenting others as not being trustworthy

• Controlling communication

• Making one’s spouse feel overly dependent

• Attempting to turn the children against a one’s spouse

• Making threats of ending the marriage if one cannot have one’s own way.

Marital Control Conflicts

Copyright © 2017 Richard Fitzgibbons

The following case stories of a controlling husband and a controlling wife are taken from Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Since they have helped many couples, they may be of assistance to you as well. Forgiveness helps to break the control patterns, purifies the memory in a sense and enables one to live with less anxiety and anger. Forgiving those who have damaged one's trust is also essential overcoming the tendency to control one's spouse and children.

The Controlling Husband

In our clinical experience, forgiving the distant or unaffectionate spouse is an easier task than forgiving the controlling spouse because the latter is usually more disrespectful and arrogant.  The domineering spouse often is much more resistant to therapy because of profound selfishness or of fear of buried emotional conflicts with a parent, especially intense rage.  Also, these individuals are very challenging because they regularly try to control those who want to help them. 

The most common causes of controlling behavior in a spouse are the result of modeling after a controlling parent or of a narcissistic personality. Another reason is a stressful and traumatic childhood and adolescence as a result of having an addicted, extremely angry or narcissistic parent. Also, many of those abandoned in childhood will be highly controlling in their adult lives as a compensation for the lack of security they experienced. Finally, some spouses are extremely controlling due to their narcissistic personalities which result in their insistence on always having their own way.

It is challenging and quite difficult to resolve the emotional conflicts of controlling spouses and help those individuals let go of their excessive anger. One reason for this is that most of these individuals have a weak foundation in trusting others as a result of their childhood and adolescent traumas with parents.

Once the client is aware of the origin of the spouses need to control, it is possible to become more confident and assertive and point out the weakness of the controlling partner. In the work phase, the offended partner needs a great deal of patience because a significant change in this type of behavior can take a considerable amount of time. Also, it is usually difficult to continue forgiving the controller since domineering behavior is repeated on a regular basis.

When one forgives a controlling spouse, it does not mean that the individual decides to tolerate insensitive treatment. Instead, forgiveness can remove the stress of anger and strengthen the spouse to be assertive and to make the necessary decisions that need to be made to protect oneself and ones children, and improve the marital relationship. Finally, if the spouse is unwilling to give up the controlling behavior, marital separation might be indicated. Such a step may be the only thing that will motivate some spouses to work on their compulsive need to control.

Jed is a twenty-eight-year-old married man who was controlling, overly critical of his wife and irresponsible in the home. His wife, Violet, entered therapy because she could no longer tolerate his behavior. For a long time he refused to participate in marital counseling and only agreed after Violet threatened separation and divorce.

Initially, Jed blamed Violet for his anger. He was highly resistant to examine any conflicts from his family of origin and blamed Violet and her family background for the stresses in their marriage. Clinical experience has shown that there is more resistance in the uncovering phase of the treatment of marital conflicts than in the treatment of any individual disorder. For months Jed reluctantly came to therapy and did very little work because he wanted to maintain control over his wife.

Violet accused him of not working in therapy and again threatened marital separation unless he worked on his own conflicts. It took many months for Jed to accept that his difficulties with trusting and anger were the major source of the marital conflicts. Until that time he tried to pressure his wife to end therapy and, when that failed, he attempted to control most of the sessions by blaming his wife for the stress in the marriage, by using humor to defend against his own weaknesses and by not following the advice of the therapist.

Violet had great difficulty coping with her anger with Jed because, for months, he did not appear truly motivated to change. She tried to resolve her anger for the good of the marriage by forgiving him. This forgiveness did not limit her ability to be assertive with him. She was able to express her anger in an appropriate way when he was being controlling. It is not unusual during treatment of such cases that therapists experience anger toward a controlling client. The therapist may benefit by forgiving such clients during or after the sessions.

Under the threat of separation, Jed finally admitted that he had grown up in a family with a very controlling mother and with several older sisters who treated him in the same manner as his mother had. He reluctantly accepted that he might have an unconscious fear of being controlled by his strong wife, as he had been by his mother and older sisters. Even though he would not admit the presence of anger with these women, he was given a cognitive forgiveness exercise in which he was asked to reflect that he hated being controlled when young and that he wanted to try to forgive the controllers in his world.

Again he manifested a great deal of resistance, not truly entering into the work of forgiveness. He continued to try to control numerous aspects of their life together including the care of their home, their time together, their leisure activities and regularly overreacted in anger when he was unsuccessful. His ability to invest trust was so limited that he did not begin the hard work of forgiveness until he felt considerably safer with the therapist. In order to build that trust, the therapist would regularly reiterate that he did not want to control Jed and was not an agent of his wife. Also, the therapist expressed the view based on many years of clinical work that unless he resolved his anger with the offenders of his childhood that they might control him for the rest of his life. Specifically, they would limit his ability to enjoy a trusting, relaxed relationship with Violet. The fear of being controlled by others motivated Jed to finally work on letting go of his deep resentment and to try trusting his wife.

Jed grew in trust as he reminded himself daily that his wife was a trustworthy woman who did not desire to control him. The growth in trust facilitated his ability to let go of the resentment toward his mother and sisters, which he had been misdirecting for years toward his wife. The recovery process was stormy with intense quarreling and threats of separation necessitating several years of therapy because Jed, like many controllers, was ambivalent about giving up the control.

Violet, during this period, worked daily at trying to forgive Jed so that she would not overreact each time she saw his controlling behavior manifest itself. Jed, in the deepening phase, grew to become more trusting of Violet and felt greater love for her. Furthermore, he regularly expressed remorse to his wife for all the ways in which he had hurt her.


The Controlling Wife

Several months into their second marriage, Dave, 53 years old, and Marsha, 50 years old, came into therapy because of their marital fighting. Dave complained that his wife, Marsha, was driving him crazy because of her constant criticism and because of what he viewed as her compulsive need to control every part of his life. Dave was profoundly discouraged and talked about giving up on their new marriage. Marsha disagreed with him and claimed that her criticisms were fully justified. However, Marsha grew slowly to understand that she had difficulty trusting Dave because of all the ways she had been betrayed by her first husband who had left her for another woman as well as by her own mother, who had been an extremely critical person.

Since Dave was more receptive to understanding the concept and benefits of employing forgiveness, he was asked to use it first to resolve his strong anger with his wife. Marsha was resistant to uncovering her anger, but she eventually agreed to employ past forgiveness exercises for hurts from her mother and former husband. She became highly motivated to resolve her anger toward her mother. She did not want it to control her and she knew it was essential to reestablishing a healthy, loving relationship with Dave.

Marsha had far more difficulty in forgiving her former spouse, whom she was trying to forgive at the same time she was forgiving her mother, because she had never fully recovered from the betrayal pain he caused. She related, "I gave myself totally to him and he used me and left me for a former friend. Thinking of forgiving him is so hard. He should be punished and suffer for what he did to me." However, Marsha committed herself to the very hard work of forgiveness because, as she stated, "I don't want him to control me and I want to be freed from that part of my life." As her anger with her former spouse diminished she was able to admit that she feared that Dave would betray her as severely as her former husband had and that this fear gave rise to a need to control.

Other therapeutic interventions which helped improve this marital relationship were for Marsha to reflect daily that she wanted to trust Dave and not control him and to ask Dave for forgiveness for her compulsive need to control. Their love became stronger as anger lessened and trust grew.

Resolving anger with those who have damaged one"s ability to trust is very effective in diminishing the emotional pain of the past and in building a safer feeling in the marital relationship.

Common Reactions to a Controlling Spouse/Relative

These include:

__ Denial that one is upset or offended by controlling/disrespectful behavior

__ Excessive anger

__ Withdrawal with diminished communication

__ Sadness

__ Lack of attraction to one's spouse

__ Anxiety and muscular tension

__ Need to escape into alcohol, pornography, activities outside the home

__ Friendships pursued outside the marriage

__ Loss of confidence

__ Exhaustion

__ Withhold affection and love

__ Rebellious behaviors including infidelity

__ The enabling of controlling behaviors

__ Avoidance of the home

__ Psychosomatic disorders such as irritable bowel, headaches, etc.

__ Failure to work on the marital friendship

__ Correction of the controlling behaviors

__ Separation or divorce.

Do you think that you experience any of these emotional responses because of controlling behaviors in your spouse, children or other family member? 



The most common response to the controlling pressures in the early years of marriage is that of denying how one has been hurt by such behaviors. However, this denial is time limited and eventually a strong emotional reaction against the controlling spouse will emerge.  Unless the control weakness is uncovered and addressed, it can lead to severe marital and family conflicts and even separation. 

Strategies Used to Control Others

A number of strategies are used to control one's spouse and others. How does your spouse or others try to control you?


__ anger

__ the emotional life by attacking confidence

__ the victim/sick role

__ finances

__ manipulative behaviors

__ social life by cutting one off from family or friends

__ emotional life by overly indulging/spoiling others

__ religion to make a person feel guilty

__ thinking by making a person feel totally dependent

__ sex

__ spiritual life by trying to undermine trust

__ threats of ending a relationship.

Any surprises here?  Many spouses are afraid of discussing controlling strategies because they fear the response they will receive.  Don't be afraid of your spouse or others!  Christian spouses report being helped meditating that the Lord's love supports their Catholic marriage, trusting the Lord with the marriage and then discussing controlling issues.

Communication with the Controlling Spouse

When this conflict is present in a marriage, it should be discussed in a calm and charitable manner which is not easy.  First, it is essential to try to understand why a spouse has this weakness. Next it is important to work on forgiving the controlling spouse daily.  This forgiveness will decrease anger and diminish the likelihood of so that overreacting in anger.  Spiritual forgiveness, in which one gives up anger to God, can be the most effective way to diminish this resentment in some marriages.

The offended spouse can consider relating that being treated in a controlling manner is disrespectful and harmful to the marriage and to the children.  Then, whenever the tendency to control is manifested, the other spouse can respond, "Please treat me with more respect" or "I don't deserve to be treated in a disrespectful manner."

Also, when it is clear that a controlling spouse is repeating the controlling behaviors of a parent, an effective approach can be to request that he/she stop repeating the weakness of that parent and, instead, repeat the parent's good qualities.  In addition, relating that there will be no enabling of controlling behaviors in the marriage, as occurred in his/her childhood, is important.  Many controlling spouses expect that their spouse will not challenge them because they did not see this occur in their childhood.  In other words, the controlling parent got away with it and they expect to also.

The reasons why many spouse have difficulty in being honest about this serious marital conflict are the result of a lack of confidence in one's own gifts and in God and numerous fears including those of of being criticized, of increased marital conflict, of being rejected and even of marital separation.   I have worked with people who related that parents told them they were going to leave the marriage because they could no longer bear to be treated with such controlling disrespect, but decided not to because of the love for the children.

Confidence can be strengthened by discussing their marital conflict with a trusted friend and with a marriage-friendly counselor.  Marital therapy can be beneficial, however, controlling individuals regularly will attempt to dominate the treatment process.

From a faith perspective confidence to address this serious marital problem can grow by being thankful for one's special gift and for Christians by meditating on asking the Lord to protect one's confidence.  Fears can be resolved by entrusting the marriage to the Lord on a more regular basis. As confidence grows and fears diminish a request can be made to the controlling spouse to try to make a commitment to try to overcome this weakness by working daily on growth in the virtues of respect, gentleness, humility and faith.

In Christian marriages another beneficial intervention can be to remind the controlling spouse on a regular basis that the Lord is in control and not either spouse. Also, controlling spouses who have modeled after a controlling parent, can benefit from reading how negative parental modeling can be overcome in the parental legacies chapter on this website. 

Recovery from the controlling compulsion/addiction

The good news is that often after much struggle some spouses are willing to admit this conflict in their personality and to commit themselves to work on it. Some do so because their spouses are totally burned-out, have major symptoms of explosive anger, anxiety or depression or are prepared to leave the marriage. 

When they begin the healing process, many discover very powerful buried anger/rage toward a controlling parent whom they have modeled after.  Others identify similar strong hostile feelings toward a parent who was a an alcoholic, was abusive toward the other parent or children, was narcissistic or left the family.  This anger must be fully uncovered and resolved which is done initially through past forgiveness exercises in which the spouse pictures himself as a child thinking, "Dad/Mom, I want to understand you and forgive you for your controlling behaviors or for other harmful behaviors.  I don't want to model after your weaknesses or try to control my spouse because I could not trust you."

The cognitive distortions in these spouses often are "If I don't control, I will be hurt as I was in my childhood. If don't control, my spouse will control me. "  This false belief can be overcome by thinking of the goodness in one's spouse and of their many loyal and trustworthy qualities.  Interventions described in the anxious spouse chapter are effective also.

Some Catholic spouses report that their deep resentment with a parent diminishes by taking it regularly to sacrament of reconciliation. Meditating upon trusting the Lord and one's spouse several times daily decreases fears and control compulsions. Some Catholic women relate that choosing Our Lady as another role model for trust enables them to feel safer with their husbands and Catholic men relate, similarly, that choosing St. Joseph as another role model for relating to a wife can bring more trust and refinement to the marital friendship.

Correcting a Controlling Spouse

A serious mistake many spouses make in their marriages is the failure to offer a gentle, clear correction to a spouse who regularly communicates or acts in controlling and disrespectful ways.  Such behaviors, unless corrected, severely harm marriages and children over time.

This appropriate psychological response to spouses, in-laws and children with this major personality, can be challenging.  The reason is that these people often attempt to instill a fear of their anger in the others in an attempt to intimidate and to prevent justifiable criticism.  Subsequently, the response to gentle correction can often be intense anger that is meant to end communication on the topic.

Here’s a trade secret which is that mental health professionals who have the courage and confidence to comment on this weakness in a marital therapy are also often subjected to the same manipulative treatment with angry, disrespectful comments and also may mistakenly back down as do so many spouses.

Here are the leading reasons why spouses can have difficulty in offering much needed correction to harmful controlling communication:

• Denial of the harm caused by this severe weakness in marital self-giving

• Fear of a spouse’s angry response creating severe stress in the children

• Fear of being cut off from love and greater loneliness

• Lack of confidence 

• Fears of marital separation

• Selfishness with concerns about the possibility of leading a materially less comfortable life

• Failure to truly trust the Lord with the marriage.

Although spouses can feel battered by controlling abuse, they often come to recognize that the Lord expects more of them in the sacrament of marriage which can motivate them to work to overcome several of these weaknesses. As faith and confidence grow, there is greater freedom in giving a gentle correction with the request to trust more and to be more respectful.  A reminder to the spouse that from a Catholic perspective there is no need to control, because the Lord is in control and has placed a sacramental bond between them, can be helpful.

When a Spouse Refuses to Let Go of the Controlling Compulsion

When a Catholic spouse refuses to work on letting go of the tendency to control and emotional suffering is growing in others in the family, consideration should be given to reading together about the nature of Catholic marriage as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, including this description of what is truly occurring in the marriage,   “Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination …” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1607).  Also, couples report being helped by reading together sections of St. John Paul II’s, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World and Archbishop Aquila’s apostolic exhortation, Family: Become What You Are.

If the controlling persists, then consideration should be given to speaking with a priest with the hope that he could communicate that the Lord has placed the sacramental bond between the spouses and He is the Lord of the marriage, not either spouse.  Furthermore, a reminder can be helpful that the Lord expects spouses to live up to their marriage vows to love and honor and to give the control of the marriage to Him.   Such advice can also be offered by concerned family members and couples who may be trying to help.

Spouses have reported that, when they have recognized that the controlling behavior arises from modeling after a controlling parent or from experiencing childhood hurts with an angry, alcoholic, controlling or selfish parent whom they could not trust, prayer for healing of those conflicts has been helpful to the marriage.  Other interventions can be participation in Church related programs such as Retrouvaille or the Alexander House program.

If resistance continues in the controlling spouse to address this severely damaging personality weakness, consideration could also be given to seeking supportive professional counseling with someone loyal to Catholic marriage with experience in this area.  Unfortunately, the control compulsion is often so strong that these spouses are very often unwilling to admit and work on this weakness in marital therapy; rather they tend to blame their spouses for all the marital difficulties. 

A worsening marital relationship with harmful fall-out onto the children may indicate the need to discussion of the possibility of a marital separation. At times this threat leads to a “hitting bottom,” in Alcoholics Anonymous recovery terms, in the controlling spouse that leads to a commitment to work on the control compulsion.

In a number of marriages, it was only after a marital separation that the controlling spouse finally began forgiving someone who damaged their ability to trust/feel safe or working on not repeating the controlling style of a parent.

Some loyal spouses give up on this challenging healing journey because they become burned-out by the severe pressure of criticism and disrespectful communication directed at them by the controller.  They may either accept the abusive treatment or they move toward divorce.  We strongly recommend perseverance on the healing journey for years before journeying on either of these two paths.

When marriages are on the verge of separation, a discussion of the conflicts with a trustworthy, sensitive relative, such as a mother or father-in-law, who is in a stable Catholic marriage in which there has been reliance upon their Faith and the sacramental bond during challenging times has been beneficial. 

Growth in faith has helped victim spouses persevere on a stormy marital healing journey.  Husbands with significant fears and insecurities report being helped by meditating upon Our Lady’s comforting love and wives also upon the Lord’s comforting spousal love.  Also, praying a meditative rosary for marriage has been reported to be beneficial in reducing the controlling compulsion by slow growth in Marian virtues of gentleness and meekness.  Other spouses report reading together St. Louis de Montfort’s, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, has deepened a sense of maternal protection that can diminish fears, mistrust and then the control compulsion.

Controlling Spouses and Parental Alienation

Some spouses are so emotionally and cognitively impaired by their compulsion to control that they falsely come to view their husband or wife as being dangerous toward the children.  Often, this is projection of a conflict these spouses had with one of their parents who was overly angry, controlling, abusive, addicted or not loyal and responsible onto spouses who have none of these weaknesses and who are psychologically healthy. 

These spouses set out to attempt to undermine the trust of the children in a father or a mother and sadly may accomplish their goal. Husbands may be falsely accused of being autistic when in fact they are quiet men whose trust has been damaged by an emotionally abusive wife.  Wives may be falsely presented as being religious fanatics and angry because they believe in the sacrament bond and may point out to husbands his family of origin conflicts with a controlling or angry mother or father.

Most of the spouses who engage in parental alienating communication and behaviors refuse to face honestly their own family of origin psychological weaknesses that they have brought into their marriages. When we attempt to engage such spouses in therapy by recommending that they read about the long term damage from divorce in the 2017 book, Torn Asunder, they both deny the harm caused by divorce and also refuse to participate in marital therapy.

Justice requires that parental alienating behaviors and their origins be uncovered and corrected in families in order to protect essential, secure relationships between child and parent which are important to psychological health. 

Children and the Controlling Parent

Children are seriously harmed by observing the controlling and demeaning behaviors and words shown toward a parent. Such parental behaviors result in severe stress in the home which damages a child's happiness, hopefulness, trust and confidence even if the child is not the recipient of these words and behaviors.  The emotional pain in these children, which includes a great deal of anger, is often unconscious.  However, it requires the expenditure of significant intellectual energy in order to deny it.   Subsequently, many of these children develop cognitive difficulties with maintaining attention and concentration which can lead to their being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or ADHD.  

If the parent of the opposite sex is controlling, then this child will develop an unconscious fear of being controlled in a similar fashion in adult life and will have great difficulty in trusting a spouse in marriage.  Also, since the anger with the controlling parent is denied in childhood, it will regularly be misdirected later toward a spouse leading to severe stress in his/her marriage in the future.  In priesthood or religious life this anger and mistrust will be misdirected at authority figures.

An awareness of the severe harm done to children by parental controlling and disrespectful behaviors in the marriage and home can be an important factor leading to change in some spouses except those who are very selfish.

Correcting Controlling In-Laws

Controlling in-laws can be a source of serious conflict in many marriages.   These in-laws can place psychological pressure upon a married child to be more loyal to the family of origin than to one’s spouse.  Part of this process involves engaging in criticism of a son or daughter-in-law, not infrequently for being too religious or not religious enough.  Spouses with insecurities or who crave parental approval are particularly vulnerable to such pressure.

We work with many young Catholic couples who experience severe stress in their marital life because of control pressures from an in-law. These controlling and critical behaviors often include:

__ demanding excessive attention and time

__ pressuring a couple to live in a certain area

__ demanding more loyalty to them than to the spouse

__ lack of respect for the son or daughter-in-law

__ excessive criticism of the son or daughter-in-law

__ making plans to be with the couple without first consulting with them

__ arranging family vacations and then demanding the couple come

__ failing to respect appropriate boundaries

__ attempting to interfere with and criticize the parenting of grandchildren

__ trying to influence the number of children in the family

__ trying to dominate through the victim role

__ text messaging grandchildren to arrange meetings with them without the permission of parents

__ pressuring a couple to embrace the contraceptive mentality and cafeteria Catholicism

__ ignoring in-laws.

An increasingly common cause of this difficulty is that the in-laws chose (with the aid of contraception or sterilization) to have only one or two children themselves. They can become upset with the decision in a child's marriage to a more traditional Catholic family of four, five or more children. . As a result, they may intrude in their children’s marriages, attempt to control their lives to a degree by discouraging having more than two children and offer a constant stream of criticism if they have more than two children. Marital trust, as well as family peace and happiness, require correcting such in-laws by requesting they stop the criticism and communicate more respectfully. Should controlling relatives resist such a request, couples may have to act to protect their marriage by distancing themselves from these relatives until they relate in a more respectful manner.

A major mistake often made when one spouse complains about being on the receiving end of controlling and disrespectful behavior from an in-law is the failure to address this major source of family and marital stress.  Spouses regularly report that they feel insulted and hurt by a controlling in-law and often do not feel supported by their spouses. An understanding of this pain can motivate couples to corrective action.  If the offending behaviors are not properly addressed, they can over time damage marital trust and create serious marital tension and discord.  

Spouses with a controlling and demanding parent regularly fail to understand how a parent's overly strong behavior can be hurtful because they believe that they understand the goodness in this parent and have coped with such behaviors. This reaction is seen particularly in husbands who often fail to understand how sensitive their wives are.  In addition, these husbands often become upset with their wives for failing to "suck it up". overlook the controlling behaviors and employ the defense mechanisms they have used since childhood.

The emotional reality is that their wives usually have not had to deal with a controlling parent in childhood and are completely unable and unwilling to deny the emotional pain of being treated in a pressured, disrespectful manner.  They want their husbands to protect them which is completely reasonable.  When husbands work to understand their wives' family communication experiences, they come to realize both how completely unprepared they are to deal with a controlling in-law and that they need to act to protect their wives.

The strategies for dealing with a controlling spouse can also be effective in dealing with controlling in-laws. The first step is the identification and labeling of controlling behaviors.  The mistrust and selfish checklists on this site can be of benefit here.  Next, a communication process needs to begin in which the controlling in-law is affirmed in his or her strength, but told then that the overly strong communication style is hurtful to the wife because it makes her feel anxious, sad, hurt, disrespected and mistrustful.  In addition she never experienced such communication style in her family background.  Then a request should be made that the controlling parent work on growing in a number of virtues such as gentleness, kindness and compassion to purify the gift of strength which will help the family relationships.   The controlling parent also should be told that in communicating he/she should never state an expectation for meeting with the couple, but, instead, should ask if it would be possible to meet on such and such a date.

The controlling relative may initially be offended by such a correction and request.  A discussion of growth in virtues and in a more gentle communication style may need to occur a number of times.  In our experience, if the deep love of the overly strong in-law for the couple and the grandchildren will usually lead to beneficial changes in the relationship.  If the request for change in behavior is ignored, couples may have to create some distance with the in-laws until they cease their controlling and disrespectful behaviors.

The major limiting factor in this process is the fact that the spouse who had a controlling parent often believes that he is not bothered by the control pressures which he views as passionate love.  The husband often needs to pray for strength and wisdom so that he can be a gentle, but strong protector of his wife.  He can also be helped by reflecting that from a Christian perspective the priorities in his life should be be: first God, then his wife, next his children and finally his parents.  Reflecting on the priorities strengthens one to act for the good of the family, as does reflecting on the scripture passage of leaving father and mother and clinging to one's spouse.

Also, because of the epidemic of narcissism and divorce in the culture, many older couples are experiencing intense controlling pressures from a dominating daughter or son-in-law. Such controlling relatives can even resort to withholding grandchildren if they do not get what they want from their in-laws.  Correction, a refusal to enable controlling and narcissistic behaviors and prayer are beneficial in these families.

Stress from Controlling Children

One of the most common strategies used by children to try to control their parents is to label responsible parenting as being controlling, insensitive parenting.  This behavior occurs particularly when parents do not give into children's selfish demands.  The recommendations for dealing with a the controlling spouse are also effective here. In addition parents can explain that their goal is to be a responsible, not a permissive parent.

The Role of Virtues

A daily commitment to grow in the following virtues can help to diminish the need to control in marriage:

  • trust

  • respect

  • generosity

  • forgiveness (of those who have damaged trust or have spoiled one)

  • fortitude

  • gentleness

  • gratitude/thankfulness

  • meekness and humility (to face family weaknesses)

  • faith and prayer (meditating on feeling safe and protected at every life stage).

The Role of Faith

A survey of nearly 37,000 men and women, which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in May 2005 in Atlanta, showed that people who regularly attend church, synagogue, or other religious services are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other psychiatric illnesses than those who don"t.

The lead researcher of this study, Marilyn Baetz, MD, of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, stated, "The higher the worship frequency, the lower the odds of depression, panic disorders and mania,"

As stated in other chapters on this site, faith can play a beneficial role in the healing of emotional pain and conflicts. (See faith and healing at the National Library of Medicine web site, Medline.) A number of spiritual interventions help in resolving control conflicts and in building deeper trust in marriages. These include employing daily modification of the first two steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and thinking "I am powerless over my tendency to control and want to turn it over to God." The process of meditating daily "Lord you are in control, not me" and "Lord help me not to act like a controlling parent" are also effective.

For those Catholics who could not trust their mothers, attempting to meditate upon Mary as a trustworthy mother at each life stage can deepen their safe feeling. People with mother conflicts also report that they have been helped by asking the Lord to give them a gift of Mary as another loving mother who has always been with them.

Similarly those who could not trust their fathers report being helped by meditating daily upon God the Father or St. Joseph as another loving and trustworthy father at each life stage. Again, some find this process very challenging and find it easier to ask the Lord to give them a gift/sense of God the Father"s love and St. Joseph"s love during each phase of their lives.

Since the tendency to want to control others is often the result of modeling after a controlling parent, being thankful for the gifts one has acquired from parents and then asking the Lord to free one of the acquired parental control weakness can slowly help to resolve this compulsive habit.

When a decision is made to try to overcome the personality and emotional weaknesses which lead to controlling behaviors, Catholic spouses report being helped by taking these weakness to the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis. Some spouses believe that their control tendencies diminish also as a result of asking to be healed of this conflict after receiving the Eucharist. Also, husbands and wives have found that trusting more in the graces of the sacrament of marriage to be assistance.

A deeper understanding of marriage, human love and sexuality acquired from a study of John Paul II"s outstanding books,.Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body, lead to a deeper respect for the spouse and the sacrament of marriage. These insights can help to diminish the tendency to control.

Finally, the Vatican document written by Pope Benedict earlier in the year when he was chosen to lead the Church, Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World contributes to an understanding of some of the present cultural conflicts which have contributed to mistrust and the need to control and of God"s plan for collaboration between men and women.


Human nature being what it is, most of us who are married believe at times that we know what is best for the marriage and for our spouse.  Then, we can act with a lack of respect and refinement.  We can benefit from keeping in mind daily that any attempt to control our spouse is going to harm our marriage, our children and, in the long run, ourselves.