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Relationships

Living With a Critical Control Freak

Dr. David Hawkins
The Relationship Doctor

CBN.comI receive emails and letters with increasing frequency about abusive control issues and criticism in marriage. Marriages are failing at enormous rates, partially because of a lack of warmth and safety.

When it comes to criticism, it seems we have 20/20 vision—about our mate’s behavior. When it comes to our own faults and foibles, we have myopia.

This is not a new problem. In one of Jesus’ earliest sermons, he addressed this issue:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your won eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7: 3-5)

A recent email from our Message Board indicates this problem.


Dr. Hawkins.  I have been married to my husband for just over 2 years and I left him in April of this year. He was a 'control freak' and I helped him excel in it. He criticized everything I did and nothing I did ever pleased him. I eventually lost myself because I was trying so hard to be what he needed. He verbally abused me & my son almost daily, with small issues. He is just a negative person. Now I have left and am pregnant 5 months. I do not miss him, I do not like and am not in love with him and I do not want to go back but we do need to maintain a relationship for this child’s sake. I stay in prayer but just do not know what to do. My husband remains bitter, blames me for everything and does not see his fault in any of this. How can I communicate with such a person? Help! Thank you for taking the time to read & respond.

It is easy to empathize with this woman. Who hasn’t been in a relationship with a controlling person, only to feel smaller and more worthless? The Control Freak finds it easy to criticize and find fault, often over such minor things. As Jesus said, “the speck of sawdust” in someone’s eye.

Sadly, the ultimate result in a controlling relationship is, as this reader said, a loss of self. One cannot thrive and grow in an atmosphere of criticism. One cannot feel safe to be who they were called to be when constantly criticized. Criticism in this manner is abusive and violent.

What can you do if you’re in a relationship with a controlling person? What can we say to this woman, who now wonders how to let go of bitterness? Is there a way to communicate so he will have insight into his own actions?

First, controlling people often do not have an understanding of the impact of their behavior on others. Because of their rampant denial, it usually takes some emergency or crisis before they realize the damage they have done. People often don’t have a breakthrough until they’ve had a breakdown.

Second, you can be part of that breakdown. In other words, you can stop enabling this destructive behavior. Quit trying to make him admit he’s controlling.  Stop explaining your actions or defending yourself. Stop engaging with him in the destructive dance. Let him know you will not participate with him in any critical discussions unless there are boundaries in place so they don’t become “complaint sessions.”

Third, stop trying to please him or others. It is easy, with a Control Freak, to try to please them, though always falling short. We must not get hooked in the struggle of trying to please others. We must keep our focus on the Lord and what He wants from us. Approval addiction only hurts us and enables others to control us.

Fourth, if you are to remain in relationship with him, for the child’s sake, make sure you set boundaries on him controlling you through your child. Your relationship must be business-like, and focused on the needs of the child. Don’t let him manipulate you into other personal discussions.

Finally, should you desire to work things out with him, insist on wise couples counseling. I suggest you consider going back to him only under the supervision of someone who knows about his control issues, as well as your codependency traits. You both need to be accountable to someone for learning new skills, including taking responsibility for actions.

While this situation looks bleak, one person can have a tremendous impact on a relationship. If one person refuses to participate in criticisms, bickering and control, the dance must change. When we develop firm, healthy boundaries, others often learn to treat us with greater respect. This can happen for you as you learn to treat yourself and others with the respect they deserve.


Dr. David HawkinsAbout the author: He is known as The Relationship Doctor. With more than 30 years of counseling experience, David Hawkins, Ph.D., has a special interest in helping individuals and couples strengthen their relationships. Dr. Hawkins’ books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You and When Trying to Change Him Is Hurting You, have more than 300,000 copies in print.

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