“If I Win, You Lose” is Not the Only Option Open to Us

Control, like most facets of human behavior, is probably best experienced in moderation. At one end of the spectrum, control is a positive, adaptive tool. For example, control over prolonged and constant chaos in our lives is usually a good thing. At the other end, control can be seen as negative. People who are over-controlled to the point of being unable to feel or express emotion can find life’s expected turmoils to be difficult or even impossible to handle.

While some control is appropriate, especially when the control is used as a way of adapting to some aspect of our own lives, it can spread out to other people when it’s taken to the extreme … and sometimes we don’t realize that we end up controlling other people. We sometimes walk a thin line in this regard. Controlling others has the potential to be a highly negative experience, not only for the one controlled, but also for the controller.

On the surface, we might think of a controlling person as one who is strong, independent, and even a natural born leader. But this is seldom the case. Ask yourself, why would a person need to dominate the actions and feelings of another person? It could be because the controlling person may privately experience a great deal of self-doubt, negativity, and lack of fulfillment. Controllers may be people who lack the tools to achieve personal integrity through their own resources … but they get a feeling of fulfillment when they can control the behavior of another person. With this thought in mind, we can see the controlling person as one who may be the weak and dependent party in an interaction. And it may be the one who is controlled who actually has more strength – that is, it takes strength to give in to the needs of another person (the controller).

We can draw on the strength and energy of another person when we may feel unable to provide for our own needs. But while most people can give their energy to another person up to a certain personal limit, there comes a point where they feel drained and can simply give no more. This is the point where the person feels controlled – and it’s there that they balk at giving any more. Then the tug-of-war begins. The one controlled refuses to give any more to the controller, and the controller tries to an equal degree to regain the control that has been taken away.

At some point in the relationship we will see open conflict. There is a struggle for power. This struggle continues until it is difficult to see which party is the controller and which is the controlled. Each can complain, “I’m being dominated,” and they each have a point.

This pattern can be seen in marriages and other close relationships, as well as in some friendships. It is seen on the job and other organizations, and even between nations. People take the position of “I win and you therefore lose,” (or, conversely, “I’ll let you win and I’ll be the one who loses”), and this sets up a pattern of conflict between people or groups of people.

Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT

San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.