Episode 150 -- September 20, 2021

Retrain Your Brain: How to Let Go of Controlling Behavior

Remember the control we thought we had? Before we realized that our lives had become unmanageable? That is just the beginning of the story. The desire to control situations, events, and people doesn't automatically go away when we stop using or drinking. This impulse can show up in lots of different ways. It might look like blame, a cold shoulder, or withdrawing, for example. How can we solve our problems without either being in total control or sacrificing our own wants and needs to someone else's will?

In her book Rein In Your Brain: From Impulsivity to Thoughtful Living in Recovery, Cynthia Moreno Tuohy discusses the struggle with compulsive thoughts and behaviors that most of us still deal with even once we've found recovery—including the impulse to try and control everything.

In the following excerpt, Tuohy discusses how control in relationships and addiction are similar. She shares different ways people try to assert control in relationships and offers brain-changing exercises to help us develop healthier behavior patterns that will lead to more mutually satisfying relationships.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Control and Addiction
Many of us with chronic relationship conflicts become dependent on some form of blame-based control behavior. These negative habits develop and follow a progressive path—not unlike addiction. Both share a similarity in our use of anger, guilt, and withholding, either overt or covert, and the abuse of alcohol and other substances. Both control and addiction give us an illusion of power. Another similarity is that we turn to these behaviors because of a desire to alter our mood or take the edge off an awkward emotional moment.

This subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle manipulation works fairly effectively in the early stages of relationships, especially during the Honeymoon stage of romance. In the beginning, neither manipulators nor their partners realize that this habit of self-alteration and pushing the other to change will become a problem later in the relationship. Denial kicks in. All of us are skilled at covering up our vulnerability and avoiding inconvenient truths. We get so good at it that we are no longer in touch with the pain and hurt hidden within us.

Persons with active substance use disorders rely on their substance of choice to help them cope and relax. It is less obvious that people with relationship problems become hopelessly dependent on some form of blame-based control (anger, guilt, and withholding). In both situations, these negative habits develop and follow a progressive path toward familiar addiction-type behaviors.

Blame-Based Control Behaviors in Different Conflict Communication Styles
When conflict heats up, people use their primary (or secondary) conflict communication styles reflexively. Their goal is to stop the pain they are feeling as a result of the conflict, or at least reduce it, if only for a while. As discussed previously, this desire to control others manifests differently in different people. Some examples:

  • Competitive people use their anger to get what they want through intimidation.
  • Avoiders resort to offering the "cold shoulder" in order to get their point across and exercise control.
  • Accommodators use guilt to manipulate the outcome of situations.

Another way to look at the desire to control others using blaming behaviors is by using the lens of the Twelve Steps, particularly Step One. It states that we are powerless to resist substances, and due to their hold over us, our lives have become unmanageable.

An addiction to control, like an addiction to substances, can be both physical and emotional in nature. Our bodies and minds are primed to take us down familiar paths, toward the impulsive habits we use to diminish pain and achieve control over someone or something. However, people who rely reflexively on anger, guilt, and withholding in emotional situations are destined to lose control over their lives and relationships, just as the addicted person does over alcohol and other drugs. Whereas people who are addicted to substances will progressively use more and more in an unsuccessful effort to gain control over their unmanageable lives, control junkies have not yet learned that the more reactive energy they invest in trying to manipulate another person, the less likely it is that they will get what they want. Nonetheless, they continue to try, and they succeed only in pushing other people away, often losing not only control over the outcome of a given conflict but also the relationship itself. Their sense of loss can be so great they finally "hit bottom" and seek another way to be in relationship with others. Alternatively, they may continue the same controlling behaviors with a new partner.

The Alternative to the Control-Resistance Cycle
A win-win solution to the control-resistance cycle that can occur in relationships is built on one partner encouraging the other to express his or her fear and resistance and the two thoroughly exploring these feelings together. It is based on the premise that all questions and concerns are valid. Consider the example of a husband and wife on a house-hunting trip. The wife, who is pregnant with the couple's first child, wants to buy a specific house. The husband, who is working in a new job in which he doesn't yet feel secure, is hesitant and overwhelmed at the price. In such a conflict, it is vital that the wife not view her husband as a case of "my will versus your will." Each party needs to hear what the other has to say. If they do, this dynamic will change their behavior and the outcome of their conflict. If the wife is wrong and pushes her husband past his comfort zone in order to get her way, then they both lose! The only win-win in this process is for both parties to get all the information on the table. A process needs to be established that promotes both partners' getting their needs met, and avoids viewing any resistance from their partner on a personal level. For the outcome to be worthwhile for both parties, they must adopt an attitude of mutual responsibility for whatever issue is on the table. In other words, it's not "my problem," or "your problem." It's "our problem" to solve together.

In order to work with resistance in a healthy way, we begin with thinking through, together, all the options to the issue we are facing. Discussing the options together gives us the opportunity to learn more about the thought process of each other and what is important to each person. In deciding on an option, we now become accountable for that decision as a we and not just a me decision. We now own mutual accountability and responsibility. There is no need to blame down the road should the decision not turn out as hoped. This builds internal self-control by recognizing that the decision was mutual and there is no need to blame or now control the other person because of the outcome of the decision.

What is helpful in this process is to write down your agreement and the next ideas or steps should the decision not meet expectations. Then, if needed, go back to that agreement and discuss the plan and its backup ideas. Should the couple decide at this point that the whole plan needs to be reviewed and retooled, it may be done by looking at the options together again and making a mutual choice. The idea is to not get into a position where only one person is making decisions, especially life-changing decisions. When only one person is responsible for big decisions, he or she gives the other permission to blame, shame, and control when it does not turn out as planned.

In the Honeymoon stage, we are not looking to control the other person; we are just happy to be with the person. It is in the later stages of a relationship that we work to control the other. Once you have agreed within yourself not to push for control, it allows both of you to feel those excited feelings from the Honeymoon stage. Each person can be more free to love and express affection, without waiting for the shoe of control to drop and stop the loving flow of the relationship.

Exercises to Help You Change Your Brain and Pattern
Consider creating an Impulse Control Contract:

  • Write the behavior(s) you need to take responsibility for.
  • Write the impulse control steps you will follow.
  • Write the consequences you will accept if you do not follow through.
  • Sign it. Refer to it often and remind your brain how you want to be.

Once you have completed your list of behaviors you are to take responsibility for, decide what needs to change in order to improve your relationship. What will happen to your relationship if nothing changes? We all must decide what it's worth to us—to change or to remain the same. It is our life to take back from our instinctual self. We do not have to be bonded to our "old ways." We all have the ability to create new behaviors and approaches to changing our need to control others.

About the Author:
Cynthia Moreno Tuohy, BSW, NCAC II, is the executive director of NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. She previously served as the executive director of Danya Institute and the Central East Addiction Technology Transfer Center.

© 2014 by Cynthia Moreno Tuohy
All rights reserved