If Your Partner Is Avoiding Sex, Read This

In my last post, I talked about controlling behavior.

by Lee Baucom, Ph.D.

Evidently, this hit a nerve. I received a number of emails that asked me to explain what I meant by “controlling behavior.” Several emails asked me for specific examples, and others told me that they were not the controlling ones, but their spouse was. Clearly, controlling behavior is an issue in many marriages.

So, I wanted to follow-up in this post by looking at controlling behavior, boundaries, and personal standards.

I wanted to clarify some of what I was saying in the last post on controlling behavior, then extended and expand on standards and boundaries.

I remember, a number of years back, when I first encountered this controlled/controlling behavior with a couple in my office. Every answer the man gave, he looked to his wife to see if it was okay. He crossed his legs, and she nudged him that he was not sitting well. His tie was flipped up, and she straightened it out. He told a story, and she corrected everything he said. Fairly quickly, I realized that this was a pattern that they both had established, that had at some point served them well, but was at the end of its capacity to lead them through this marriage. The man had realized that he had an opinion. The woman was tired of being responsible for everything.

This is just one example of controlling behavior, but at the extreme.

Lots of controlling behavior takes place in less obvious ways. The underlying dynamic is, however, the same.

A marriage requires two ingredients for it to be successful and healthy.

First, there must be a strong relationship.

By strong relationship, I don’t mean that the couple always has to spend every waking moment together. But, they have a connection that sustains both of them and boundaries in place to protect the relationship when the connection falls.

A marriage also requires two individuals, each with a strong sense of self.

I don’t mean a strong personality, an overwhelming personality, or big personality. In fact, these are often symptoms of a lack of self; it is someone trying to appear as if they have a sense of self, by projecting something bigger into the world.

What I mean by a strong sense of self is an awareness of the self. They are aware of how they are thinking, feeling, and acting in the world. Also, they have a sense of growing, of developing, and of becoming more and more of who they are. Whenever somebody tells me that they don’t have any room to grow, I know they are in trouble. We all have places of growth. The nature of life is to always be growing and developing. People with a strong sense of self are okay with this fact, and know they will continue to change over the years.

People with a strong sense of self also have a sense of direction, of a place they are headed in life.

In other words, they are not stagnant, but have a sense of direction and growth in their own lives.

Controlling behavior comes from a weak sense of self, in the midst of a weak relationship, where the connection is not trusted.

Also, controlling behavior is based in a place of shame and fear. It is something we bring with us from the family in which we grew up. Shame-based families create people who either control or let others control them.

As I said in my previous post, controlling behavior is always about fear: that you will not get what you need or want in life.

This controlling behavior is on a continuum. The continuum stretches from allowing others to control us to controlling everyone else. Predictably, in the middle is the point of health.

Controlling behavior is about having it “my way,” and micromanaging those around us.

We may micromanage our spouse, our children, our coworkers, and our life situation. In the process, we nullify the other person. We decide that we know what is best, and that the other person does not. Controlling behavior is based on the belief that the controller’s way is the better way, the correct way. If that was not believed, on some level, it would not be controlled.

In fact, I would argue that people who control really do believe they do it for the best — of themselves and others. They are not out to just be the one in charge, but truly believe they have the necessary answer and direction. Unfortunately, it comes at a disregard for others.

Some people asked me to give specific examples of controlling behavior. I hesitate to do this, because this will become the yardstick. Some people will say, “see, I don’t do that, so I’m not being controlling.”

Controlling behavior comes in so many shades and types that just a few examples will not cover the spectrum.

However, there are some common places in a marriage where this happens.

For example, often, controlling behavior arises around money. One person makes all of the financial decisions, decides how to pay the bills, decides how to invest the money, and decides how much somebody gets to spend on anything. Money is merely the means of control, not about the control. Control around money issues is rooted in the fear about money. It may be rooted in not having enough money, or in not trusting that the other person will make good, sound financial decisions. But whatever the cause, it’s based in fear.

Controlling behavior often shows itself in a marriage around the issue of sex: when to have sex, how to have sex, when not to have sex, are all examples of controlling behavior around sex. Sometimes, sex is used as a reward for good behavior, and a punishment for “bad behavior.” In other words, if things don’t go the way one person wants, the other person is not going to have sex with them. This ends up controlling the sexual relationship between the couple.

Notice that sex and money are two primary places where couples can play out a sense of WE, or get stuck in a pattern of playing you/me. In other words, controlling behavior can often be found in the very areas where they could most connect as a couple.

For another example, sometimes controlling behavior takes place around the issue of parenting.

One person deems their way of parenting as the “correct way” and the other person does it incorrectly. This undermines the parenting of both parents, but particularly the parent with the “incorrect” way of parenting. Similarly, many couples find controlling behavior in the household duties. One person is convinced that they know the correct way of carrying out the duties of the household. This always leaves the other person as having the incorrect way.

Behind all of these areas, there is a common theme of criticism from the one who believes they have the right way.

The method of chastising the other person is through criticism, or correcting, or doing it over.

This brings us to very important point: controlling behavior is based in shame.

It is based in fearing how we will be perceived, about appearances.

This is learned behavior, and it comes from families where there is perfectionism, blame, and reactivity.

Unfortunately, when there is controlling behavior, the same traits are passed on to the next generation.

People learn they have to do things perfectly, or they will be rejected.

They learn that any shortcomings will not merely be mistakes, but will cause blame.

The way these two lessons are learned is through emotional reactivity. In other words, somebody gets upset, angry, or has some other strong emotional reaction. This is internalized, and the person feels that they have missed the mark, and are blamed for it.

This is why I said earlier that while it looks like the person who is controlling has a strong sense of self, controlling behavior actually comes from the very weak sense of self. While someone may act self-assured, beneath the surface, he or she is afraid of how the world will view and judge him or her. It’s about appearances. Correctness or wrongness, perfection or imperfection, are all fears from a weak sense of self.

Usually, the person who is controlling has also either lost a sense of boundaries or misunderstands them.

So, to clarify, let’s talk for a minute about standards and boundaries.

A standard is what I expect of myself. A boundary is what I will not let happen to me.

Standards are something that only you can own. It is yours to keep. It is not something you can give to anyone else. You can try to teach it, but you can’t make somebody have your standard. I say this from a purely practical perspective, not philosophical. For example, I may hold as a standard that I will be honest with people around me. Whether I do that or not is irrelevant. That can be my standard. I can have a standard that I will be honest, but I cannot transfer that to anyone else.

For example, I may say that I’ll be honest with everyone else, and do that. I may never tell a lie, stretch the truth, or misrepresent. That would be my standard.

And I may have a boundary that if somebody lies to me, they cannot stay in my life. That would be a boundary.

But I cannot enforce that somebody else has to be honest with everyone around them.

That is impossible for me to monitor. So a standard is something that I hold for myself. A boundary is what I will not let happen to me.

I like to think of a boundary very much like a fence in my backyard. If I have a normal-sized fence, one that comes up to my waist, it just marks my space. People can cross the fence, but if they do, I can walk outside and tell them that they are on my property. They would know that, because I have a fence line. It doesn’t keep them out, but I can send them to the other side of the fence.

The reason I like this analogy is because it points to the fact that boundaries are about what people do towards us. Not how they act in general, but how they move towards me. Usually, there is some aggressive side to a boundary violation. Somebody who crosses a fence to get into my property has chosen to come into my space that is clearly marked. It’s the same with personal boundaries. Somebody has moved against us, towards us in an aggressive way.

This is important, because when this is confused, we can interact in controlling ways, thinking that we were just protecting our boundaries.

For instance, I had someone who wrote me to tell me that her spouse was violating her boundary. In the middle of a conversation, he would walk away. When he walked away, it shut down the conversation. She felt like this was a boundary violation, and was trying to figure out how to enforce the boundaries of making him talk to her. If she had done this — forced him to talk, I would say that she had moved to controlling behavior. He was moving away from her, as is his right as a person. We all have the choice, helpful or unhelpful, to have a conversation or avoid a conversation.

My suggestion was for her to not try to force him to talk with her at that point, nor try to make it into a boundary issue. Instead, I suggested that she let him leave. She might understand that at this point, he felt the need for space, and was perhaps overwhelmed with the conversation.

In other words, trying to continue the conversation would not just be useless, but counterproductive. It would likely devolve into an argument or an angry discussion. Instead, I suggested that she follow-up with him a little while later, saying “hey, I need about 10 more minutes of your time to finish up that last conversation.” This would give him some time to cool off, and when said in a neutral tone, was an invitation to continue the conversation.

It might be said that the man, in this case, would also being acting controlling by walking away and refusing to talk.

I would guess that over the years, they had developed the pattern where this happened repeatedly. So, when the man controlled the situation by walking away, it was rewarded with the fact that the issue at the heart of the conversation was left to die.

This makes another important point. Controlling behavior is often unwittingly reinforced.

When one person tries to control, and the other person lets them, it rewards the behavior. Since controlling behavior is based in fear, it is used to control things that make someone feel fearful, as a way of trying to feel more secure and less fearful. When this is reinforced, it makes it look like the fear was real and necessary. It makes it feel like it really was necessary to avoid the discussion, or the behavior. So unwittingly, it is reinforced for both people.

We live in a world of uncertainty, which can make us feel fearful.

Fear can often fuel behavior that is counter-productive to our lives, especially when we have not nurtured a sense of self and have not worked to monitor our own boundaries.

Whether you feel that you are controlling or being controlled, your task is to examine and claim your own standards (what you expect of yourself) and protect your boundaries (what you will not let someone do toward you).

The stronger your sense of self, the less the need to react around issues of control.

Oh, and let’s be clear: life is an ongoing project, where mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow. Mistakes are NOT the same as failure, unless we allow ourselves to be captured there.

Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage.

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