When Your Spouse Gets Their Way

October 9, 2014

There has been a flood of clients recently who have presented with similar situations: one spouse has taken control of the relationship from the other spouse. For each couple, the methods are different but the results are usually the same. The spouse who relinquished control is angry, exhausted and wants out of the marriage.

Not one of the controlling spouses meant any harm. They admit to strong persuasion tactics but they simply wanted something and used their good negotiating skills to get it. Their spouses however felt very differently in the marriage. They felt harangued. Beaten down. Powerless. They learned a long time ago their spouse would not quit until they “won” arguments or got their way, so they stopped fighting for their own opinion or desires. They learned to “give up to get along” and they lived quietly resentful for years. Their spouses never even knew the damage they had inflicted because none of them spoke up. They just grew more withdrawn and resentful each year. Until the day they decided they didn’t want to live this way anymore. So they told their spouse they were finished and wanted a divorce.

Here is one story:

Mark and Susan (names changed) came to see me because Mark wanted a divorce. Susan was devastated. She kept breaking down in tears as she explained she knew for a long time the marriage wasn’t “great” but she didn’t think things were this bad until Mark told her he was done. She couldn’t believe he was walking out without a fight. She wanted one more chance to fix things and she believed I could help her because she had read my articles and felt there was hope. Mark sat there quietly and showed very little emotion. I could tell he was nervous. I asked Susan to wait outside and I talked to Mark alone. He told me he appreciated my desire to help but he really was done. He said he had lived in a miserable hell for years and couldn’t take it anymore. He said Susan was a wonderful mother and he didn’t hate her but he didn’t love her either. Mark described his life with Susan in detail. Susan was outgoing and had a strong personality. She was opinionated and very determined. If she wanted something, she didn’t quit until she figured out a way to make it happen. These qualities initially attracted Mark. He could see how those traits came in handy many times throughout their marriage but eventually, Mark felt he was losing his own power to make decisions. If he and Susan disagreed about something with the kids or the household, Susan always got her way. Disagreeing with her meant hours of conversation until Mark got tired of the struggle and gave in. When he told her she was spending too much money, Susan started hiding the purchases and then minimizing the damage when Mark would express his feelings of anger or concern. If Mark tried to discipline the kids, Susan would override him and tell him he was being too hard on them. Finally, Mark stopped trying to have an opinion. He just kept giving in to what Susan wanted because he was sick of fighting and he was tired of talking about it. After a while, he felt very disconnected from Susan and the kids. They complained because he didn’t participate in certain activities with the family any more. Mark answered these complaints with more avoidance. He started working more hours and being less available. Eventually, the family unit learned how to operate under this new normal and years passed. Mark came to resent Susan. He felt completely powerless in his own life. He told me he needed to get away from Susan and was ready to start a new life.

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I asked Mark how he contributed to the marriage being in its current state. He wasn’t sure what I meant. I mentioned Susan’s control and how he felt he needed to divorce before he could be free to make his own choices. I knew this would be difficult for Mark to hear. He wanted to put all the blame on Susan for the way their marriage had been going. But Susan was only part of the problem. I explained to Mark that he gave her all his power. He never learned how to set boundaries with Susan. He said he couldn’t make Susan do anything…he had tried for years! I explained to him that boundaries aren’t something he puts on Susan. Boundaries are limits he puts on himself. He can’t control Susan’s behavior, but he can control how much he lets it affect him. He can control how much access he allows.

I could tell this was new information for Mark. I knew Susan could be a handful but I also knew Mark was conflict avoidant. Setting limits with Susan raised his anxiety and made him very uncomfortable. It was much easier to give in than to hold his ground. But giving in every time wasn’t good for the marriage.

Getting Mark to understand he didn’t need to divorce to get back his freedom was an interesting proposition. He and Susan have a long road ahead of them as he learns how to set boundaries and enforce them, but Susan finds the progress interesting. She has come to realize Mark with boundaries is a good thing. It is way more sexy to her to have a man with an opinion who will give a little push back than one who just goes along with everything. Together they are finding more passion than they have had in years.

It’s still early, but I think Mark and Susan will work things out. It doesn’t always end this way though. If you have a controlling spouse, seek out help before things completely unravel and you lose all hope that things can be different.

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  1. aalia

    Dear kim,

    the article feels incomplete. could you tell us how mark put boundaries on susan? because i’m going through a similar situation with my husband. he always gets his way, he manipulates me when i dont give in to what he wants. i feel unhappy in my married life. i have a lot of resentment towards him now. i have tried talking to him but he does not understand me. we just go around in circles. what should i do?

    • Kim Bowen

      Aalia…I’m so sorry you are feeling unhappy in your marriage. It isn’t surprising if your husband always gets things his way. Setting boundaries is such a healthy way to protect the marriage but the first step for you is learning to be ok when he is not ok. He can’t manipulate you into giving in unless you let him. And setting boundaries will never work if you don’t risk feeling uncomfortable when he is unhappy. We would love to work with you on this process. Contact us at office@themarriageplace.com or schedule a free Discovery Call to get started. We can get you set up with a counselor or coach who can learn more about your situation and create a custom plan for you! Hang in there!!

      • Diana

        Is there any kind of coaching since I don’t live near you and need help with putting boundaries in place without being nasty.

        • Kim Bowen

          Hi Diana, YES! My coaches work with clients by phone and video chat so your location is not an issue. Boundary setting is such a critical component in any relationship and knowing how to appropriately set them is something my coach can help you with. Please call my office 972-441-4432 or email to office@themarriageplace.com to start the process. Or better yet, you can schedule a free 15 minute Discovery Call at a time that works best for you and we can answer your questions and help you get started when you are ready! You can do this!! Kim

      • Tiffany Sutherland

        I feel the same way at times. I feel like my husband always have his way. Sometimes I am guilty of letting him. We fight mostly about my kids. I want him to treat them good and I want him to be involved in discipline but sometimes I think he goes overboard. I just want to find a healthy median.

        • Kim Bowen

          Tiffany, Relationships require compromise from both parties. If you are doing all the bending and compromise, then it’s probably time to learn how to use healthy boundaries to make some adjustments. Otherwise, your resentment will build to the point where staying in the relationshp will either seem miserable or impossible. Negotiating change and compromise is something we can help you do – either together or with you individually. We have coaches who specialize in situtions like this. You can do this! I encourage you to schedule a free 15 minute Discovery Call with us to see how we can help. Kim

    • Katharine

      What if your husband just does what he wants anyhow and doesn’t ask or tell you.

      • Kim Bowen

        Aalia, Thanks for taking the time to ask your question. My short answer for you is – boundaries. Every healthy relationship has them. Healthy boundaries are respectful and they are for you, not against someone else. Set limits on what you will or will not accept and if he crosses that line, then be prepared to respond. An example – if my husband constantly screamed at me over dinner, I would ask him to stop and I would tell him that if he doesn’t I won’t be eating dinner with him. And then I wouldn’t. I’ve got an older blog post on ultimatums and boundaries that I think you might find relevant. I’d also suggest you consider partnering with a coach who can work with you (or with you both) on how to set boundaries. Feel free to call my office and or set up a free Discovery Call and we can answer questions and help you get set up! Wishing you the best, Kim.

    • Jenna

      I also feel what your going through , I feel alone. Everything I do is wrong or he knows a better way . He can not celebrate my success , I am the wrong one for wanting to get my Masters . I feel helpless , alone and a failure through all my success .

      • Kim Bowen

        Jenna, You don’t have to feel hopeless anymore. We can help you. I have a coach on my team who would be an excellent resource for you and can help teach you how to stand up for what you need and want in the relationship…and do it in way that is still respectful. If you are interested in learning more via a free Discovery Call. I hope we’ll hear from you! Regards, Kim

  2. Ken Hogan

    Dear Kim,

    My issue is identical to Aalia’s, talking to my wife is nearly impossible. It always ends with her being confused and we go around backwards in circles while she goes into tangents until finally I give in if for no other reason than to prevent the loss of my own sanity. Its absolutely impossible to set boundaries with someone if you cannot have a coherent conversation with said person, is it? I can easily make boundaries for myself, I do by limiting myself to the point that she always gets what she wants right? But that is utterly useless if my spouse can’t set boundaries for herself which at this point I am convinced she cannot. Its even more frustrating that any time we do have a conversation the instant I raise my voice, any time i show any real emotion in my voice, I’m yelling. And suddenly whether what I said was right or wrong, I am wrong simply for yelling. I am overridden on every decision. I cant discipline my own son without being told what i’m doing is wrong. Even in the article with Mark, it is said that he first put up a fight, tried and failed to get Susan to see his way. How do “boundaries” do anything? Won’t Susan still be controlling; still do everything she can to get her way in the end? Did he even end up staying? Honestly, I am at my wits end.

    • Ken Hogan

      I forgot to mention that every time I do fight back she turns it into self pity and says stuff like my son and I would be better off without her. This is such counter productive behavior that it literally sickens me.

    • Mud

      My wife always throws me out if she can’t get her way. We stated three businesses together and she claims she’s the boss, and I’m just an employee……. Need I say more. I can’t ever do it fast enough or good enough, and she always gets another mans opinion before she’ll accept mine….. How do you fix that? I don’t understand her at all anymore?

      • Kim Bowen

        Ken, the answer is BOUNDARIES! Stand up for yourself and find that backbone! If she can manipulate you she will never respect you and you will continue to resent the control she has. Set your boundaries and stick to them and it can change her perspective of you as well. If you want some help working through a plan to do this, please call us. Regards.

        • Kim Bowen

          Will, I’d love to have a sit down conversation with you on boundaries. Your wife acts out this way because it works. It keeps you quiet or complacent or both! You don’t set boundaries by trying to control her behavior. You set boundaries by controlling YOURS. You don’t allow yourself to be treated this way. I’m not talking about physically overcoming her. You set limits with kindness but firmness. You may indeed be sleeping in a hotel…because you chose to leave the abusive argument. Also, allowing yourself to be treated this way in front of your kids is emotionally abusive to them! I hope you will learn how to stop this abuse. Even if it means you have to leave.

        • Rich

          You’re missing Ken’s point – his wife does not listen to what he is saying. She takes him round and round in their discussions. My wife does the same thing. She defends everything she does and says. She defended her actions/words when our pastor called her out. She defended her words and actions when our marriage counselor called her out for slapping me twice. Boundaries in her world are meant for her to set, not to respect other’s boundaries. She wanted to know everything I said to my counselor in the two appointments I had with him. I did not remember everything he and I talked about. She said that meant I was keeping secrets from her. My counselor said his and my sessions were confidential unless I wanted to tell her and that if I did not want to tell her and if she objected then that meant SHE had boundary issues (respecting the boundaries of others).

          I pretty much go along with everything just to keep from having to deal with her single-perspective view and unreasonableness when I try to present my perspective.

  3. Bridgette

    My husband is the same way. Everything is always his way or he shuts down. He wants total peace to lay around and watch television but we have a two year old and she loves him dearly. She wants his sttention but he only gives in when he wants to spend time with her. We both work but everything is leftvfor me to do; housework, child rearing, cooking etc. He wants to work..which is very little effort though highly paid, and do whatever he wants. Everything’s an argument …saving money, giving his time to me or her and basically anything outside of what he wants to do.

  4. Leigh

    My fiancé has to have everything his own way. His parents haven’t helped as they agree with everything he says even if its him that’s in the wrong he has to be right all the time. We are trying to plan our wedding but he keeps pushing me to bring the date forward but cant give me an explanation why. Now it seems like his whole family who are really lovely are trying to rush me into marriage and I’m confused with what to do. He just has to have the final say in everything and if I try and tell him he is wrong he wont accept it. I really love him and he loves me but we cant go on like this I want to feel like we have made joint compromises like at Christmas he will not stay away from his parents I have said to him that we could alternate every year so xmas eve at my parents xmas day at his and boxing day at mine and rotate every year but he is having none of it. I’m really starting to worry that my parents are starting to dislike him too. A typical mummy’s boy HELP!

    • Lysa

      If you’re uncomfortable, hold strong. There’s absolutely no reason someone should be pressured into marriage when they’re not ready. And you sound like, on some level, you’re not. You’re preparing for a potential lifetime with this guy and, from the sounds of it, very strong influence from his family. This situation likely provides a strong indication of life ahead. Allow yourself time. Tune in to what your body tells you (stress indicators) and any issues that seem troubling/questionable to you… they’re likely giving you important messages about what you should do. In the early “in love” stages, we tend to overlook those cues, looking back later to realize the signs were always there. I wish you the best.

    • Betsey

      I’m imesprsed. You’ve really raised the bar with that.

  5. Alastair Cook

    Hi, My situation is very similar I married my wife took on her two daughters both under 18 months. We have a Son between us and I have brought them up the same. However our son’s hobbies have demanded more of my time and more money. My wife has since my children have got older and the girls left home become controlling, accusing me of favortisim to our son when all decisions are joint and our intimate life is non-existant because I will not beg for it. I now would rather be work than at home with my wife’s sulks for no apparent reason, when asks “I’m OK, but giving me the cold shoulder.

  6. Kj

    I am in exactly the same type of situation as “Mark” is or was in. My fiancé is a headstrong, determined, and ambitious individual. At first it is what attracted me to her. Now, as we grow closer to getting married, I’m seeing signs that I could be getting into something over my head if I don’t do something fast. I too need to set some boundaries. But how? I can surely use the same kind of help.

    • Kim Bowen

      KJ, Being able to set appropriate boundaries is critical to any successful relationship. If it is a struggle now, it will be even more so later. One of our coaches can partner with you and teach you how to do this. I would encourage you to call us so we can help. Wishing you the best, Kim

  7. Casey

    I’m conflict avoidant, and in the same situation. Love my wife, but starting to feel like I have no life of my own, and no say in any of the joint decisions. I’m slipping into depression. I try to have civil conversations, to express my grievances, and get shouted into submission. I’m tired of apologizing for expressing my hurt feelings. I feel myself checking out mentally. She nit picks and disagrees with everything. She has to have everything her way in the house, yet doesn’t do much housework. I work and she stays at home. I don’t feel it’s fair. I need to learn how to set boundaries or I can’t continue the relationship. Tired of feeling like a doormat.

    • Kim Bowen

      Casey, I’m so sorry your relationship has gotten to this point, but I’m so glad that you recognize that you need to set boundaries. That’s a great start to making things better. When someone who has never been good at setting boundaries decides it’s time to do just that, it can be a scary time, indeed. If you’d like some guidance to help you know what boundaries to set, how to set them, and how to enforce them, consider giving my office a call. Depending on where you’re located, my counselors or coaches can help empower you and walk you through this. Warmly, Kim

  8. Leslie

    Hi Kim
    I’m in the same situation as Casey.
    Everything that we discuss ends up her way. I submit to everything she says just not to have an argument. I feel like she’s the master and I’m the slave. Always do what I say or pack your bags according to her. There is a day she told me “I’m used to making my own decisions” but I told her we married now we should make them together. Seems like it didn’t stick. We are in our second year of marriage living in her moms house and I’m from another country. So far she has packed my bags three times. I feel like I’m on the Virge of collapse. How do I set boundaries in this situation. I love my wife but I can’t be a man in this relationship otherwise I’m on the first flight back to my country

    • Kim Bowen

      Leslie, you need to learn the most powerful skill for being in any relationship. BOUNDARIES! You need to learn how and when to set limits. Call us at 972-441-4432 or set up a free Discovery Call to learn more. A coach can teach you all of this in just a handful of sessions. It will transform your life if you use them!

  9. Leslie

    I almost forgot to say she has my x girlfriends photos in her phone. I’m not allowed to socialise with female colleages at so k she even calls all my cousins to make sure they are my cousins and not affairs. We don’t have a social life. Not even allowed to go to a pub and watch a soccer game. So sad

  10. Miranda

    my husband of 18 years trys to control me in everyway possible and when I don’t submit he gets an attitude and then reverses the situation on me saying that its always my way and I can’t get him to realize that what he is saying is the exact opposite. I work full time and attend classes two days a week, he calls me to bed every night when I am studying for an exam or just trying to regroup my thoughts and if don’t come to bed on the first request, he will call my name in an abusive tone within 10 minutes of the initial call, when I say that I have to study or I am not ready for bed he becomes hostile. this has been going on for years, yet he does not put as much attention into our children they fall asleep with electronics on lights on and not once does he go to check on them yet her always harassing me about what I am doing, he will ask me to call out from work for no real reason and when I say I can’t he will begin saying things like all I care about is that bleaking job and I am not a young woman I have to maintain employment because he does not make enough money to take care of me solely. How do I speak to him to understand what matters to me. this is just one of the many behaviors

  11. dave

    I am Sagittarius, she is Scorpio. It took incredible amount of work for us to finally understand each other and set boundaries. But even with this, every time we have a disagreement, it feels like heaven is coming down and it is her way or no way.

    Major life changing decision is yet to occur in our life so this can be scary if we don’t agree. She is a revenge type of spouse, if she does not get her way, I have to brace myself for some kind of pay back of some sort so she can satisfy her inner self. The whole idea of of learning to be okay when she is not okay with back fire heavily… She is very strong willed and very opinionated individual.

  12. Nicky

    My husband insists that he should be able to do whatever he wants. He often spends the entire weekend drinking at his sister’s house even to the point when he does not come home until the next morning. Our children have anxiety because of this even to the point where they hate weekends. I have expressed my dismay in every way possible. He refuses to acknowledge his wrong and states that he would rather stay there than get a DUI. I think his alcohol intake is the issue. He thinks I am trying to control him and refuses to compromise. I just cannot deal with that type of behavior for a man who claims to love me.

    • Kim Bowen

      Nicky, it sounds like it’s time to start setting some healthy boundaries for yourself. This can be hard to do when it hasn’t been a part of your life before. If you’d like some help knowing how to set and enforce boundaries in a healthy way, we can help you with that. Just give us a call.
      TL for Kim

  13. Daniel

    Oh, I am sucked in. This silly advice that YOU set YOUR boundaries when a spouse is abusing you is hilarious. Now I get it a bit. Say your spouse tries to force you to cave in to his/her way through full on abuse (yell, scream, cry, throw you out, they walk out, etc). You can ‘ignore it’, ‘set your boundary’, ‘dont let it affect you’. OK, I get it.

    But once you have set your boundary it does not stop the full on abuse. I know. Maybe you can be happy and confident and not caving in with another person abusing you day in and day out. Great for you. But why oh why would a human decide to remain in such a crazy environment (I ask myself 🙂 )

    For the OP here to say ‘when you can boundary yourself, it will make the other person stop abusing you…..’. Well, that is just silly nonsense. The OP here has never come across real ‘nitpickers’ and ‘control freaks’ and ‘abusers’. And to blame the victim for ’empowering’ the abuser. What a load of crock.

    • Kim Bowen

      Hi Daniel,

      I’m not sure I completely follow your line of thinking. Setting a boundary does not guarantee your spouse will change. Setting a boundary is to protect you. When abuse is involved, the boundary (or ultimatum) may very well be to leave the situation or relationship. Abuse is never okay and in the example I wrote about (or any example), Mark is not responsible for Susan’s behavior. He is responsible for HIS behavior. And when Mark took back the control he’d unintentionally given Susan, it empowered him and in turn influenced Susan’s behavior for the better. Now it doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes the boundary setting forces the boundary setter to make some tough choices about the future of the relationship. But without healthy boundaries, there will never be a healthy relationship. Regards, Kim

  14. Anj

    Hi, I feel like my husband thinks I am trying to take control of him because of his porn watching habits. I told him that I could not be with a man who can not remove porn from his life for his family, he rather believe it’s something that is a part of him. I was close to leaving him when he told me that and I will if he keeps giving me stupid reasons why he can not stop watching porn. He knows it hurts me and there is a base reason why I do not want to be with a man who watches porn. A lot was affected by his habit in our relationship there is so much I rather not talk about it but I feel like he is lying all the time about it I just can not bring myself to trust him, I keep hearing him say just let me watch porn and our problems will be over with…..someday’s I wish porn did not exist and maybe then he would be different but I just feel he is too selfish….it affects our sex life, it affects the way I feel about him, it affects the way he see’s woman as objects, it affects how I see him and so much more I am just waiting nervously now wishing so much that we lived in a better world.

    • Kim Bowen

      Anj, I’m so sorry you are going through this. There is help we can offer, but rather than replying here, I’m going to send you an email with next steps.
      Warmly, Kim.

  15. KC

    My fiancee is a woman with many wonderful qualities: beautiful, smart, driven, hardworking. These are attributes which attracted me to her but some of the traits are creating barriers between us.

    It reached a head when she started trying to make demands of me as though I’m a child. She manipulates matters to work in her favor whilst not being completely honest of her intentions, yet she expects honesty from me. We were set to marry in Feb. 2018, but too many red flags caused me to put on the brakes. I felt a huge relief of pressure by not marrying her then, despite her strong opposition and the fact I had to explain four days in a row to her the reasons. I did say to her that I feel like I’m talking to a wall when dealing with her and we would address the issues before going to the altar. She and her mother rushed the save the dates, and though I felt bad, knew that I could not marry her with the severity of the issues. No new date has been determined, and in a way, I am shy about rescheduling our indefinitely postponed marriage.

    I told her it would be the end of 2018 before I even thought about marrying her, and she keeps trying to push a May 2018 date. She finally realized I will not marry her in May, thus forcing her to work on herself and the issues causing us to postpone in the first place. If she can’t get it together enough to realize that selfishness will not work in a marriage and with her desiring motherhoods, I have an inclination to force her to call things off by setting a date of July 2019.

  16. Chris

    And what if you are faced with the same thing, but you are not conflict avoidant? …. I used to have a way of thinking – if my partner wanted something more than I didn’t want it (or vice versa) then as a pair – the balance is on her end and so i will compromise – problem with that as a philosophy is that unless both partners approach decisions in the exact same way, and do it honestly, it can easily be abused by feigning how much you actually want / need something so your always get your way…… Well in my experience, what will happen is that you will pick up on the tactic and then stop being so balanced in the way you make your decisions, it will force you to hold your own and argue, and argue often over the colour of the cushions and throws, over real grass vs astroturf…. you get the idea…. then eventually you will get tired of the arguing, your partner has more stamina than you and you only hold and fight for your position when it really means something to you. Things like the colour of the floor no longer matter, why bother arguing, but when it comes to how to raise your kids? The stakes are raised and there is a need to fight for what you genuinely believe is the right way forward. But most of the time you will probably get no-where. As time goes on you will then start to escalate how aggressively you argue for the things that really matter to you, for instance threatening to leave the marriage unless things change, threaten to disengage from the whole thing, move into the spare room, tell her she can parent on her own and I’ll just go to the gym…. things may improve when you find a degree of leverage that gets your spouse to reconsider their actions (leaving the marriage- nothing else, the cynic in me wonders if it is because she will miss me or just be so inconvenienced by a divorce), so she actually makes an effort – for a month, maybe two, but as time passes, the behaviours return and the arguments continue, the threats return, she makes an effort for a month this time, then it happens again, resentment builds, 3 years of this cycle and thats where my experience ends. Hopefully things will get better, or maybe my wife will realise I can’t live without my kids and so know theres no way I’d ever leave the marriage, realise I have no levererage and make a conscious decision to keep getting whatever she wants, because she is willing to tear us apart to get it. (She probably justifies the whole thing in her head by telling herself the decisions are right for the family….. her way of handling the kids is the only way…… etc etc….. not the case if it tears apart the relationship that brought the children into the world in the first place)

    • Kim Bowen

      Chris, I wish I could tell you that something is going to change, but my experience has been that if you keep doing the same things, you get the same results. And what I read here is that you both continue to do the same things over and over again. I refer to this as the “dance”. I see couples dancing every day and as their therapist, it’s my responsibility to help them recognize the dance/patterns and show them how to stop it in its tracks – thereby creating an opportunity for lasting change. Otherwise, the cycle will continue another 3 years and beyond. If you want some help in recognizing your dance and learning how to change it, please consider reaching out to schedule a free Discovery Call so we can help you plan your next steps. Kim