Question: My wife says I'm manipulative and controlling. I don't think I am. Let me give you an example. We have been separated for about a year, but recently we were out to dinner. While we were sitting there, she was friendly to some other patrons (policemen who she knew). She wasn't flirting, but I felt slighted and insulted that she was ignoring me. I told her how I felt and she accused me of being controlling. Is that true? I don't see it?
Answer: First, let me applaud you for even asking the question. Most people, when given that kind of feedback, totally ignore or discount it. The fact that you are asking the question suggests that you might be open to the possibility that it's true, even if you don't see it.
Manipulating and controlling behavior is often subtle and hard to prove in the moment. It becomes much more obvious over time. If we just take this one incident, you might find it difficult to see your behavior as controlling. I think most people feel a little uncomfortable when they are out to eat with someone and that person has an extended conversation with someone else and does not include us, whether it is in person, on a cell phone or even texting.
So the only way we can truly answer this question is to examine your patterns over time, especially in relation to your interactions with your spouse. As you do this, you may begin to see a pattern of manipulative and controlling behaviors emerge.
Most people who use these kinds of behaviors don't usually recognize them as wrong or harmful. It's just the way they have learned to cope with uncomfortable or painful emotions, or the way they've learned to get their own way or what they want from others. Underneath these dysfunctional behaviors are usually attitudes of entitlement as well as unrealistic expectations of how others should be or how they should treat you.
For example, perhaps you felt insulted at the restaurant because you believed that you were entitled to your wife's undivided attention and anything less than that meant that she wasn't interested in you or your conversation. Ask yourself, were you attempting to control her friendliness with others by making her feel guilty about "slighting" you?
Or you may believe, "A wife should never talk with other men, even as friends. If she does, that means she doesn't love me or I'm not most important." Again, your response to her indicates that you had some expectations of her to give you her undivided attention the entire time you were together. You didn't say how long she was engaged with the policeman, but was it extensive or just a few minutes?
Here are a few more ways people manipulate and control others. Read through the list. Perhaps you will recognize some ways you attempted to get your wife to do what you wanted using these methods.
Arguing: You don't take no for an answer, but instead you continue to make your point over and over again until she wears down and finally agrees with you. The underlying message is that it's not okay for her to disagree or have her own opinion.
Begging: "Please? Please? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease? You continue to ask, beg and plead until she changes her mind. The underlying message is that she is not allowed to say no.
Bargaining: "If you do this, then I'll give you..." You use a bribe to get her to do or not do what you want. You use favors as a means to manipulate someone into doing something that they would not have wanted to do otherwise.
Guilt Trips: You might say, "you're not following God," "you're being an un-submissive wife," "God hates divorce" or "if you really loved me or our children, you would..." The message here is that if you don't do what I think you should do, God will really be upset with you, I won't be able to handle it, or you are not a good/godly person.
Micromanaging: This is usually in the areas of time and money where one person makes the other person feel like a subordinate employee or child. They are not allowed to make their own decisions or handle their own life without asking your permission.
Misquoting or Twisting: You state, "you said..." when in reality the person didn't say it that way, but you twist what they said to suit your own purposes. For example, "You said we were going to get back together soon," when what she really said was, "I don't know if we can get back together soon."
Playing Holy Spirit: We are all tempted to do this when confronting someone with his or her sin, but it is not our job to convict or change someone else's behavior to line up to what we think it should be. When we see someone caught in a sin or trespass, we can try to restore them in a spirit of humility and gentleness (Galatians 6:1), but if we try to hold someone accountable to a change that they have not initiated, we are attempting to play God in his or her life.
Promises: You say, "I will do anything, just ..." Whether or not you keep your promise is irrelevant. You use a promise to get her to do something you want her to do.
Punishing actions: You use physical, sexual, economic, or verbal pressure, abuse or tactics to punish her for not doing what you think she should do. You might stop paying the bills, close the bank account, curse at her, call her names, accuse her of things, or tell friends and neighbors untrue things about her to teach her a lesson for not doing what you want her to do. You feel justified, because she did something "wrong" and won't change, stop or admit she was wrong.
Irritation or silence: You are so bothered or angry that she won't do what you want, that you won't speak with her or treat her kindly until she changes and does what you want.
Threats: You threaten to leave, to hurt yourself or others, or to hurt something she loves like her pet, her parents, her children or her stuff if she doesn't do what you want her to do.
Some of these overlap and are used together to try to get someone to do something we think they should do or to stop doing something that we don't want them to do. When we do that, we certainly are trying to control their behavior and often their thinking. That is not our place.
If you see yourself in these examples, that's a good start, but it usually doesn't result in permanent changes unless you begin to invite your wife and others to tell you when you fall back into them. Then it is your responsibility to learn how to maturely tolerate the uncomfortable emotions that you may feel when she disagrees with you, doesn't want to do what you want her to do or wants to do something different.