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Relationships and Control


(I wrote this on January 10, 2003)

Sometimes it helps, in gaining insight, to think about who is trying to control a relationship, and how.

Relationships have a lot of control issues. Many people view their close personal relationships as the one area of their lives that they can (or should) control, build, and stabilize ... instead of simply relating with compatible others by spending occasional time together doing mutually interesting activities.

Humans do tend to be territorial, having constructed social norms of property and ownership for practically every object on (or within) the planet. Humans, like many living creatures, are territorial in order to provide personal survival, comfort, and security.

We humans also tend to be territorial about our close personal relationships. We use possessive pronouns when talking about "my boyfriend" or "my children" or "my best friend". We feel jealousy when these relationships appear threatened, and we feel anger & sadness when these relationships do not progress in the ways we intend them to. Typically we are socialized to value exclusive, lasting, and committed relationships more than transient ones, even though the demands of school, career, home maintenance, and commercial entertainment ensure that we spend only a small fraction of our waking hours attending to our most highly valued relationships.

Perhaps this is why lovers usually sleep together ... it is the only time they have left ;-)

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Humans, like other social animals, tend to create systems of dominance and submission within an organized hierarchy of control.

There are so many ways in which people try to control their close personal relationships, but perhaps most of them sort into a few basic categories.

There is, of course, violence (and the threat of violence), but "modern" Western cultures frown upon using violence to control our mates. Most forms of personal violence have been criminalized by Western governments, and many social welfare agencies offer assistance to the victims of domestic violence to help them escape their "dysfunctional" relationships. However, I've heard many people use phrases like, "He'd kill me if he found out," or "Over my dead body," when talking about their mates.

In addition to violence, people also use bribery, negotiation, flattery, persuasion, blackmail, demonstrative emotional outbursts (both positive & negative), strikes, lockouts, walkouts, lies, threats, sexual arousal, and emotional abuse. This is not a flattering picture of relationships ... but the pleasant cultural mythology of "happy relationships" is itself part of the system of control, it is the carrot we dangle in front of each other's noses ... if you want a happy relationship with me, you'd better behave appropriately.

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People who seem to spontaneously behave the way we want them to are considered "compatible" and "desirable" partners. Controlling other people is a lot of work, and we'd rather start with a partner who is already behaving in many of the ways we want them to ;-)

Over time, some partners become easier to control, and other partners become more difficult to control. Some relationships end when the battle for control alienates one or both of the partners. In many long-term relationships, partners work out a variety of agreements that are more-or-less self-enforcing, in order to reduce the burdens of monitoring and controlling each other's behavior.

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Is love anything other than a system of control? Maybe if all of the people within a relationship truly have no expectations regarding other's behaviors, maybe if all of the people have unconditional positive regard for each other.

But expectations are what make relationships special. Why have a relationship with Mr. X instead of Mr. Y if we have no expectations for their behaviors? Without positive and negative judgments about the behaviors of other people, we have no reason to choose one person over another for our limited number of available close relationships. Once we have chosen people, positive and negative judgments about their behaviors give us reasons to maintain or abandon relationships.

And feedback -- communicating these judgments to the other person -- is always an important feature of control systems -- which is why good communication skills are helpful to the survival of all kinds of long-term relationships.

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I don't think we can avoid issues of control in personal relationships ... not really ... the best we can do is finding people who already want to behave in the ways we'd want them to.


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