Are you a control freak? Maybe you desire control over your kids, your relationship or your job. So you make rules, right? Rules can be very enticing. They can feel like you are getting what you want, which is the people in your life are behaving as you’d like them to. Even if it’s because of an external motivator, like a rule, you think, “that’s okay, I’m happier this way”. But are you really? Are you really getting what you actually want, or what you THIINK you want?
We need rules to help people function well in society. The ultimate in rules are laws, of course. And when we consider trying to function without rules, we realize we couldn’t. So, yes, sometimes rule serve us. But let’s dive a little deeper with some examples about trying to impose rules in relationships.
Let’s say we want our kids to come home from school and get their homework done. We think this accomplishes two things: the house is quiet while you’re making dinner preparations which you want done because you’re tummy is grumbling, and they are doing what they need to do to pass their courses. Great. Fantastic rule. Upon closer inspection, however, we can see it might actually be interrupting the flow of your relationship. If your child comes home, full of stories to share with you, and is told to go their homework first, the impetus and desire they have in that moment to connect with you is now hampered, significantly diminished. They may be feeling that you don’t want to hear about their day. Let’s say it looks like this, “Hey mom, I had this crazy day,” they say as they sit down at the table ready to share with you. Meanwhile you’re head is in the fridge because it’s after 5 pm and you are hangry, tired and your muddled brain is studying the contents of the fridge trying to figure out what to make. “Great, tell me about it at dinner, after you’ve done your homework, k?” And you shoo them away from the table and they go upstairs obediently (on a good day). You’re able to focus on what you want to focus on, and they are focused on what they should be focused on. Right?
What if that’s completely counter-intuitive to what we actually NEED? The British have “tea” in the late afternoon to early evening to tide the family over for a later dinner around 8 pm. It also provided that decompression and conversation time between family members. The French had “Le Goute” at the same time for the same reasons. In many countries like Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Italy, they call it “merienda” and in the Phillipines and Morroco sometimes called “lanche” or “merenda”. In Poland it’s “podwieczorek”. So if much of the world does this, why don’t we? Historically, we were tribal and after separation always made a point of reuniting with tribe members, often over food. We grazed and we shared food to demonstrate care and connection.
That’s the problem with rules in relationships. Typically, when dealing with an imposed rule (like the homework getting done before dinner example), we think we are doing what’s best for everyone, but it’s often more about other things beyond the relationship. In this case, the child goes to their room, feels a desire to rebel, is hungry, feels disconnected, dismissed and unheard and doesn’t WANT to comply. Many times in these situations the child WILL do their homework, but do it poorly. Or will refuse, lie or avoid. When they come down for dinner an hour later, having “done” their homework, and Mom asks “What was school like?” they are met with “It was okay” instead of the stories their child intially WANTED to share. They’ve been shut down, dismissed and hurt. They feel like they don’t matter. So they resent their parent. Is that the outcome we want? No, of course not.
That mom could just have easily decided to get them both a snack (solves the rumbly tumbly issue) sit down, listen and be present and connect with their kid. Then that same kid, feeling valued and fueled, can go to their room to do their homework without any of the resentment or desire to rebel. The parent can continue with meal prep and everyone’s needs are being met.
Let’s look at a rule in a relationship. Say for example, you’re dating someone and they have a best friend that you think they are attracted to. In fact, let’s just say, they used to date, so you KNOW there was attraction at some point, even if it’s different or less now. So you tell your partner, “I don’t want you guys to hang out together alone anymore. You can hang out together, but only when I’m there”. This is to placate your fear that your partner will find them MORE attractive than you and leave you. So your partner agrees often because they don’t feel they can advocate for the relationship without making you more insecure. But… they are reluctant, and maybe they tell you that. Maybe they say, “You don’t have anything to worry about. I don’t even like them in that way anymore. But okay, to make you feel better, we won’t hang out alone anymore.” Great, right?
Well, guess what just happened? You’ve created a rule that your partner has agreed to, but RELUCTANTLY, and now they see your relationship with them as a potential threat to their friendship with their BEST FRIEND. Let’s say they share this new rule with their friend and they responds with hurt feelings and they withdraw a little because…well much like the child in the previous example, they feel they don’t matter. Now, your partner is feeling the loss of that awesome connection they were enjoying. No matter how present and invested you are with them, you cannot replace the lost relationship. Your partner begins to resent you and long for the connection they once had. When you all finally do hang out together, your partner is hyperaware of your presence, feels awkward around their friend and doesn’t want to behave authentically in any way that might look suspicious to you. So they avoid hugging their bf, which makes them both feel worse, and they don’t sit on the couch as closely as they once did when they game together. Your partner is essentially being asked to choose between two relationships they HONESTLY WANT to invest in. Over time, this will erode your connection and potentially both of the connections.
Or let’s say you’re in a situation where your partner has another partner. Maybe they are consensually non-monogamous or polyamorous. Or maybe they were monogamous to you, but after lots of talks you decide as a couple to open up. You feel strong in your foundation with your partner. You’re excited to open up. So you do… and they start seeing someone else. Your insecurities pop up (as they are wont to do) and instead of working on those, you take the easier route; make the common and understandable but misguided rule that “we can have sex but we just won’t have any emotional connections”. Many folx who open up make this rule, (and others) in an effort to protect their relationship. And sometimes it seems to “work” just fine. As soon as feelings begin, your partner breaks it off with the person they were seeing, thus “protecting” your relationship. Until ….that day when feelings begin and they, quite frankly, don’t WANT to break it off. They really like this other person. Maybe they even love them. If you’re in an open, CNM or poly relationship, this doesn’t threaten your relationship, unless you make it into a mono-mindset situation where you’re asking your partner to choose between you and them.
We don’t control our loving emotions; they arrive like a steam train as a fast-tracked chemical response to a series of pleasurable experiences OR experiences that demonstrated this person is someone we feel safe with. Falling in love is a flood of chemical responses that make us want to be close to that person, much like an addict. You can have the same experience without “falling in love” per se, in ANY new relationship. NEW RELATIONSHIP ENERGY is that same chemical reaction as falling in love, in fact, sometimes it’s one and the same, but sometimes it’s not. We enjoy ourselves, our senses are heightened and we CRAVE more of the dopamine hit we get when we are with the new person. The other partner who tries to control that, stop that, who imposes the rule of “you can’t_____”…well, now that partner becomes a HURDLE to overcome to get what we want. We no longer see them as someone we love and care about or who loves and cares about us, but as someone in our way. Believe me when I say, LOTS of communication between you and your partner is what’s required here, NOT rules.
Rules don’t build connection because they indicate a lack of trust and they are impositions, even if they masquerade as agreements. They are not what our partner actually needs or wants, therefore, even if they agree, they may be doing so out of OBLIGATION, or even ignorance about what they might experience or might want, but likely not authenticity. At the very least, and in my experience personally as well as professionally, while it may be their INTENTION it isn’t anything they can actually PROMISE. If they do, that promise has the potential to lead to resentment; which will lead to a desire to rebel and a feeling of disconnection, of not feeling heard or seen, of feeling like their needs and wants don’t matter to the rule-imposing partner who claims to love them.
We see this play out in the workplace as well. Where a boss is connected to their employees, the employees will work harder. The more the boss is willing to understand their needs and wants and provides a safe space for them to express these things, the stronger their loyalty is to the boss. So much so, that often if a boss is transferred, their loyal employees will apply to move with them. The disconnected employee is more likely to avoid discussing challenges, not come to their boss for help, to take more sick days, to perform poorly and to quit without notice.
The more you try to rule it, the more unruly it becomes. The more resentment builds. External motivation is NOT what we actually want in our relationships. We don’t want our child to do their homework because “I said so”. Or our partner to choose our relationship because “I said so”. Or our employees to show up on time because their pay will be docked or because “I said so”. We want our child to see that they feel BETTER when their homework is done or come to us when it’s too hard, and our partner to CHOOSE to be with us because they WANT to and our employee to COMMUNICATE with us if the start time is a challenge so we can modify it, they can feel supported and they are happy to stay in the job longer.
When you need control, it’s a sign that you’re out of it. It’s a sign that it’s time to really INVEST in connecting, and forget trying to control other people’s behaviour, which is ultimately impossible. Connect with them deeply; know them, see them, hear them and let them know what they need MATTERS and they will be more inclined to make choices that align with their AUTHENTICITY, their internal truth…because that is what we ACTUALLY want; it makes everyone happier.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I invite you to check out our EMPOWERED NOW podcast episode called “Tools vs. Rules”. Click below to get to my Linktree to find our podcast on various platforms.
3 thoughts on “When You Need Control, You’re Out of It”
Brilliant, per usual. I love the different perspectives you give on each scenario. I can totally see where rules can have unintended negative implications. Well written. Thank you for sharing this.
Consent in CNM = Control that can be used to deny a partner the freedom to engage with others, and cause exactly those problems Leanne describes above.
Ethics in ENM = Are all the reasons Leanne gives for ditching control and going with more advantageous alternatives.
I see hope here yet!
I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying about CNM, Randall. I prefer to use the term CNM/Consentual Non-Monogamy for a host of reasons, but primarily because consent (when informed) is more clear than ethics. Ethics are based on personal beliefs and vary from person to person, so I find the use of ENM/Ethical Non-Monogamy problematic and even a barrier for certain folx to wrap their head around what it is. For example, for some people, because of their belief system, there could never be “ethical” non-monogamy.
I think we see these terms differently.