NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Relationships: Is Your Partner's Behavior Kindness or Controlling Behavior?

I've written about relationship issues in prior articles (see my articles: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship and Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable).  In this article, I'm focusing on the difference between kindness vs. controlling behavior (see my article: Changing Maladaptive Behavior That No Longer Works For You: Controlling Behavior).

Relationships: Kindness or Controlling Behavior?

Over the years, I've met many individual adults and couples where the issue of kindness vs. controlling behavior has come up.  Usually, one or both partners in a relationship weren't sure if what they were experiencing from their partner was kindness, controlling behavior or some combination of the two.

Fictionalized Vignette:  Relationships - Kindness or Controlling Behavior
The following fictionalized vignette is an example of this problem and how psychotherapy can help:

Sara and John
Sara and John, who were together for a year, came to couples therapy because they were having disagreements about what Sara saw as John's controlling behavior and what John saw as his being kind to Sara.

Six months into their relationship, Sara took a job where she had to travel internationally a few times a month.

When Sara began traveling, John asked her to provide him with all the information regarding her flights, arrival time, and hotel.  He also asked her to call call or text him when her plane landed.

At first, Sara wasn't completely comfortable with John's request, but she didn't want John to worry, so she provided him with the information beforehand and would usually call him or send a text message to him when her plane landed.

But there were a few times when she was with colleagues and they were in a hurry to get to a meeting with a customer, so she didn't have time to text John immediately.

She felt she always tried to be considerate of him, so she didn't delay more than 10-15 minutes.  But, when she couldn't reach him immediately, by the time she turned on her phone, she already had a few panicky text messages from John wondering if she was okay.

During those times, John would also call her at the same time that she was texting him, and she didn't have privacy to talk because she was with her colleagues.

After this happened a few times, Sara tried to explain to John that she would always try to text or call as soon as she could, but when he panicked and she had to try to calm him down, he was adding to the stress she was already experiencing on the trip.

John told Sara that he felt hurt that she was experiencing him as adding to her stress when, from his perspective, he was being kind and caring.  He said he didn't want to be controlling.  He cared about her and he just wanted to make sure that she was safe.

Since they were getting nowhere on their own with these arguments, they decided to go to couples therapy.

During their couples therapy sessions, Sara told John and their therapist that she appreciated that John cared about her, but she couldn't understand why he needed to be contacted immediately.  She explained that she was often with senior managers on these business trips, and she didn't always have privacy to try to calm John down when he panicked.

She also expressed feeling confused and annoyed that John felt the need to be contacted immediately when nothing bad had ever happened on her business trips.  She couldn't understand his behavior, and she felt it was a boundary issue between them.

As John listened to Sara during their couples therapy sessions, over time he was able to acknowledge that he worried excessively when Sara traveled, and he wasn't sure why.

Sara told their therapist that, other than these business trips, John didn't try to keep tabs on her at any other time.  He never questioned when she went out with friends or went to business meetings locally.

John said that he tried to stay calm, but 10 minutes or so before he knew Sara's plane was about to land, he would become highly anxious.

By arrival time, he was on the verge of a panic attack imaging all the things that could have gone wrong.  So, he felt he needed to hear from Sara immediately when the plane landed to help him to calm down.

Relationships: Kindness or Controlling Behavior?

When he looked back on those times when he was calm, he acknowledged that, even though he still felt that he was being kind, his behavior was excessive, but he didn't know how to calm himself once he began to panic (see my article: Tips For Coping With Panic Attacks).

During one of their couples therapy sessions, John revealed to Sara for the first time that he had a history of panic disorder, and even as a child, he worried excessively whenever his father traveled on business.  He feared that something catastrophic would occur and he would never see his father again.

Since his father was self employed, he was usually on his own, and it wasn't a problem for to call John from his hotel to let him know he landed safely.  All the while, until John got his father's call, he imagined the worst.  But once he received the call, he calmed down.

John said that his parents never took him to see a psychotherapist when he was a child because they thought he was "outgrow" his anxiety.  But he never did and it was a problem in his prior relationships before he met Sara.

John said he felt deeply ashamed of his panic attacks and, as an adult, his shame got in the way of his getting help in therapy.  Even when he was talking about this with Sara and their therapist, his face was red and he didn't make eye contact (see my article: Healing Shame in Psychotherapy).

Since John eventually acknowledged that he had a problem, the couples therapist recommended that John see an individual psychotherapist to work on his anxiety and panic attacks while he and Sara worked in couples therapy to try to resolve these issues in their relationship.

The couples therapist also taught John a few techniques to calm himself when he felt a panic attack coming on (see my articles: Developing Coping Strategies and Internal Resources).

But she said that there were probably deeper issues involved that he would need to work on with an individual psychotherapist.

After John had a few individual sessions to give his family history, his individual psychotherapist recommended that they use a clinical hypnosis technique called the "Affect Bridge" to try to get to the root of his problem.

When they used the Affect Bridge, John remembered overhearing his grandfather talk about a plane accident where the grandfather lost his best friend.

When the grandfather was telling the story to John's parents, none of them knew that John was nearby listening to the conversation, so they talked about the accident in a detailed way that they would not have if they knew that four-year old John was listening to them.

Afterwards, John and his individual psychotherapist talked about what came up during the Affect Bridge.  He said he had completely forgotten about that memory and he was amazed that it was at the root of his panic attacks when Sara traveled.

His individual therapist explained that John was getting emotionally triggered whenever Sara traveled abroad and his fears stemmed from that earlier memory.

She explained that, even though John didn't witness the plane accident that his grandfather talked about, the story was told in such vivid detail that it was almost as if John had witnessed it and he became traumatized by it (see my article: Overcoming Trauma: When the Past is in the Present).

His individual psychotherapist recommended that they use EMDR Therapy to help John to overcome the trauma that was getting triggered whenever Sara traveled.

Gradually, as John processed the memory of hearing his grandfather's tragic story, he began to be able to separate out that memory from the times when Sara traveled (see my article: Working Through Emotional Trauma: Separating "Then" From "Now").

In the meantime, Sara felt much more compassionate towards John after she realized he was getting triggered.  She told John in their couples therapy that she now understood why he would become so upset.

Until John could work through the original trauma that was getting triggered, Sara continued to call or text John so he wouldn't worry.  But when she couldn't contact him immediately, John used the techniques he learned in his therapy to stay calm.

Relationships: Kindness or Controlling Behavior?

Over time, when John worked through the original trauma with EMDR therapy, he no longer kept tabs on when Sara's plane landed and he no longer panicked.

After a while, when he was no longer symptomatic, John told Sara that it was no longer necessary for her to contact him--he could wait to hear from her whenever it was convenient for her.

Sometimes, it's difficult to distinguish between kindness and controlling behavior.

There are times when what is meant to be kind also has elements of controlling behavior.  Sometimes, there are more than just elements--it's mostly controlling behavior and the person who is engaging in it has little to no insight into it.

The vignette above is one example of this kindness vs. controlling behavior.

There are many other examples:
  • The overprotective boss who gets involved in her employees' personal problems and tries to resolve these problems.  When an employee, who feels the boss is being intrusive, tells the boss tactfully that she doesn't want to talk to her about it, the boss becomes offended.  From her perspective, she only wants to help.
And so on.

Getting Help in Therapy
Although you have a right to set boundaries with the other people, setting boundaries can be difficult, and these situations aren't always easy to work through on your own, especially if the person who thinks s/he is being kind takes offense to boundary setting.

If you find yourself in this type of situation and you've been unable to resolve it on your own, a skilled psychotherapist can help you to discern what's going on and how to deal with it (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than struggling on your own, you could get help from a licensed mental health professional, who has experience assisting clients to overcome these problems.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.