(Speaking from experience.)
The other morning, I woke up and started getting ready: washed my face, brushed my teeth. I walked back into the bedroom to get dressed, and John was still asleep. It was 7:30 on a Monday, so I woke him up thinking surely he needed to be doing something. I proceeded to make coffee and breakfast tacos, and then shouted to John from the kitchen that I’d made breakfast. No answer. I texted him a picture of the tacos in a stance of stubborn passive-aggression. No answer. After a few minutes, I was fuming at the thought of this breakfast I had so thoughtfully thrown together getting cold. I went to the bottom of the stairs and called his name.
“John? I made breakfast!” (How sweet of me.)
I could hear in his groggy reply that he had still been asleep, but he hopped out of bed and came downstairs. We talked a little about our days ahead, and I asked what his schedule was like. His first class was at 11-something, and then he had another class that afternoon and a group meeting.
“Are you gonna workout today?” I asked. He said yeah, probably, but it would most likely be that afternoon.
My mind started crafting this story about what he’d do as soon as I left for work in a few minutes. The fictional story went that he would sit on the couch for a couple hours until his class, watching golf, drinking coffee, scrolling social media — and suddenly I was so mad at him that I could hardly look at him as I said goodbye for the day. As we parted ways, I pushily, irritatedly suggested maybe he should just get his workout out of the way this morning. And he did. As soon as he acquiesced so easily and kindly, it clicked almost instantaneously that I have a problem.
As I drove to work, I became infuriated, first with John, then much more so with myself. I get so wound up sometimes with expectations about how I THINK things should go: the most efficient way to do things or the best way plan a day or the quickest way check off to-do lists. Before my day even started, I had worked myself into such a spiral about harmless, meaningless things that aren’t, or shouldn’t be, in my control. None of it even had to do with ME.
Not every day goes like this. (Oy. Could you imagine?) But this specific day, when I was so extremely affected by someone else’s choices and a made-up story in my head, was when I realized with immense frustration and pain that I’m sort of controlling…and even a bit codependent.
A little background: When I was about 11 or 12, some stuff went down in my family, and I can distinctly remember making a choice — the memory is as clear as yesterday — that it was time to stop being a kid and start taking on more adult responsibilities to help ease some of the stress on my mom. It became my job to be the best helper I could be.
I was cleaning up after my older siblings, doing my whole family’s laundry, and trying to keep the peace among everyone. I put this immense expectation on myself, and then on everyone around me, to keep it all together, and I was extremely disappointed anytime anyone fell below my ideals, which was often. Because that’s life.
But I trained myself to hold everyone, especially myself, to the highest of standards, and then whenever someone messed up, that memory tainted my future experiences with them. I also believed I could “fix” those issues as long as I would constantly “help” that person with whatever the issue may be (i.e. push them toward my idea of perfection).
When it comes to my relationship with my boyfriend, there are a few things that have consistently driven me crazy, not because he’s in the wrong in any way, but because of those expectations I’m always writing in ink for others. I myself am super health-conscious and workout almost every day of the week, and so I have expected from John to have the same attitude toward fitness. The dude’s healthy (and so cute), but if he falls short somehow (doesn’t workout when or as often as I would like, drinks a beer too many on a Tuesday, etc.), I typically spend my own energy micromanaging him and guiding him toward what I think is correct.
I’m also very tidy — an anti-hoarder, as I often self-proclaim myself to be — so, when I step into John’s office and see piles upon piles of what I see as junk (“organized chaos,” he calls it), I start making his to-do list for him and leave it passive-aggressively on top of one of the piles. Poor guy. Basically, my own insecurities and pressures on myself dictate how I have treated my significant other, and my opinion of how things should go supersedes his.
It’s disrespectful and so, so sickening (in retrospect).
The sickest part is that, in this small part of my brain, I think my controlling, micromanaging tendencies are HELPING John (or my friends, or my family members). And then my codependence kicks in when people don’t listen to what I have to say and, God-forbid, make their own decisions, and then someone else’s independent actions actually affect me and upset me to my core.
This is ALL what I realized on that Monday, and between Googling “how to be less controlling in relationships” and “how to delegate without being bossy,” suddenly I was in tears.
Of course, other people’s decisions will affect me, especially people I’m close to. But I am starting to realize that just because John isn’t as clean as I am or doesn’t want to go to the gym as much as I do — or whatever it may be — doesn’t give me reason to try to control, manipulate, micromanage, and force him to do things that he is fully capable of deciding on his own. My desire to control is proof that I’ve been giving him almost no trust or space to choose a lot of those things himself, and I can’t imagine how frustrating and insulting that must feel.
My hope in writing this is that I’m not alone in this internal power struggle — there’s got to be more people out there who are stuck in this place of wanting to “help” their loved ones by making all of their decisions for them. (Oops?) Perhaps my (mildly humiliating) story can help break whatever habitual controlling might be taxing your relationships, or at the very least bring some awareness to your own world.
The irony that I’m posting about one of my worst relational faults (and insecurities) on America’s biggest love-celebrating holiday is not lost on me, but what better way to begin living more fully in love and authenticity than writing about the real (for lack of better word) shit that happens in relationships on Valentine’s Day?
It’s funny — a lot of the articles I read after my deep Google dive into topics about controlling relationships gave tips on how to stop this behavior. One resounding suggestion was to just simply not let the release of control stress you out…
Umm. I don’t know about you, but anytime you release something as tightly gripped onto as CONTROL, it will feel stressful, and deciding to just not feel stressed is the equivalent of putting a bandaid with no adhesive on a cut. I would say, though — since I’ve been practicing this a LOT lately — that simply recognizing the stress I feel when I want to manipulate a situation or pushily suggest something, but choose not to, is a step forward. Greeting, acknowledging the anxiety that comes with allowing others to just be, and then moving on from it, has helped.
Also, I have to remind myself multiple times a day that it is not my job (or project, or life’s endeavor) to help or fix or make better ANYONE — especially not the people who I love. It’s my job to support them. That’s ’bout it.
The thing about control is it’s one of the greatest illusions and imposters in life. I’ve been clutching to it the last five, 10, 15 years, since I was actually a child, yet I’ve been wringing my hands around a ghost. I grab on to it but end up doing the opposite of being productive or efficient — and, in fact, I drive a wedge between me and the people I’m trying to control.
So (bear with me in this very yoga-y sentiment), I’ve been repeating words in my head like relinquish and surrender as my mantra-like affirmations, and while I still face stress when I feel the temptation to control a situation, I feel more rooted in knowing that my own thoughts and actions are the only things I truly have any control over. And I don’t want them to be toxic anymore.
Anyone feel me?
(By the way, I think it’s important to say that I ran this topic and the actual post itself by John before laying it all out here in a blog post — he proofread and offered notes before I published. Promise I’m not just airing our laundry without consulting him first. The best part about this guy is that he’s so supportive of me in every way — even when I want to publicly talk about some of our more unsavory issues in the hopes of helping other people.)
Photography by Jessica Steddom.