Shared Relationship Control

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Every now and then you read something that resonates with you so clearly and succinctly, that you find yourself reading it repeatedly. Such has been my experience in reading about stress and marriage in The Stress Myth (1985) by Richard Ecker (Ph.D., Iowa State University). Truth is, most of what Ecker says about married couples could be generalized to any close relationship. His words resonate–indeed, corroborate–my approach to working with clients in therapy. He specifically addresses the need for “shared relationship control.” He writes:

“Most people find that their greatest problems with stress arise from their relations with other people. Any setting which puts people in regular contact with one another has significant potential for stress. And when people’s lives are closely interdependent – when the activities of one affect the lives of the others – the potential for stress increases. The greater the investment in the relationship, the greater the likelihood of stress and conflict. Obviously, the family head the list of potentially stressful settings, and the workplace is a close second. Emotionally motivated stress typically occurs in response to a perceived loss of control over one’s circumstances. Clearly, when a relationship requires sharing control with another person – spouse, parent, child, friend, supervisor, employee, colleague – the possibility for conflict is greater than when no such sharing occurs. We need to understand the concept of shared control if we want to put our stress-analysis skills to work on improving personal relationships. Shared control occurs whenever one person’s activities have a significant influence on the life events of another person – whenever one person loses some or all control of his or her own life because of dependence on the actions of another person” (pp. 87-88).

This concept of “shared control” resonates with my approach to working with clients because I am constantly pointing out in therapy that anxiety–often manifesting as anger–implies a loss of control; and, all of us desire some measure of control, or stability, in our lives. When this desire for control, or stability, becomes inordinate, we often try to self-soothe by pressuring those closest to us to change. Ecker writes:

“When, by choice or by chance, we become part of a relationship, our lives are affected by many factors beyond our control. If we perceive such loss of control as a threat to our stability, the frequent result will be unwanted stress. As a consequence, our relationships will probably be subject to frequent conflict….Some people, reacting with stress to this loss of control, attempt to regain control in order to eliminate the stress. When they do this, they take a big step toward destroying the relationship….(E)ach…feels out of control and blames the other….Each also feels that the only way to regain control is for the other to change. So they shout, point fingers and resurrect outdated sins, each trying to eliminate the unpleasantness of unwanted personal stress. The dynamics…are simple: each time the husband makes a cutting remark to regain control for himself, the wife assumes that he has all the control. She redoubles her own efforts to get it back, thereby making the husband fear that she has all the control” (pp. 88-89). Etcetera. Etcetera.

Sound familiar? He continues:

“Have you ever observed a married couple who have agreed to divorce, but are still living together until the details of the separation are worked out? It’s not unusual to hear their friends describe the relationship as ‘living like strangers.’ They don’t fight anymore. They are civil, but distant. Both have withdrawn their investment in the relationship. What the husband does is no longer viewed by the wife as a factor in her control of life events, and what the wife does no longer affects the husband. The basis of conflict has been removed” (p. 90).

The point? “In making a (relationship) investment, you choose to allow the other person’s activities to influence (control) certain aspects of your life.” It’s called “shared control,” and it is most certainly implied in the relationship vows we take. “I do” implies the abdication of absolute personal control. But, can any of us say we fully understood this at the moment of commitment? No. This doesn’t mean that we should never ask our partner to change something about their behavior. It means that we ask, then accept their dilatoriness, even noncompliance, should that be the verdict. It means that we must find other ways to reduce our personal stress than arm-wrestling our partner for personal control. “Shared control” is the language of togetherness. “Personal control” is the language of separateness.

By the way, in a newly released book , What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal (2012), relationship specialist John Gottman (Ph.D., University of Washington) talks differently, but similarly, in chapter 1 about this theme of “shared relationship control.” I recommend it.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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