Love is not control

Valentine’s Day is a great time to celebrate all the positive aspects of being together. But every day I see many of the negative aspects as well. It’s not my intention to cast a shadow over this romantic holiday, but with a little care, we can actually keep it romantic even after this week has passed.

One of the primary reasons people fall out of romance is the issue of control. Life is full of unexpected developments and undesirable outcomes, so it’s natural to try to control what we can. But relationships run into trouble when a person tries to impose this control onto others. When a loved one goes in what we deem to be the wrong direction, the immediate urge might be to stop him or her from making a mistake. We might rationalize it as ‘love,’ but forcing the issue will certainly backfire.

Think about your reaction when someone disapproves of something you do. If the person loves you, you’d probably be disappointed if they didn’t at least speak their mind. But do you want them to manipulate you with guilt, hurt feelings or deceit? Of course not. Well, it’s a two-way street: The person you care about wants you to express your viewpoint, but also to accept that what they’re doing feels right for them.

Parents often make this mistake with their grown-up kids. ‘Oh, you don’t want to do that,’ a mother will say to her grown son’s desire to pursue a certain career. Instead of asking reasonable questions like, ‘That’s interesting. What appeals to you about that?’, the parent will express anxiety or hurt over the young person’s choice. Though the reactions may be couched in ‘love,’ what it actually conveys is that it’s all about you, i.e., ‘How could you do this to me?!’ Sound familiar? If you really love somebody, this is the last thing you want to convey.

In some situations, the anxiety is realistic. It’s reasonable to worry about a loved one who smokes or abuses alcohol. How can we stand by and watch somebody make such dumb decisions? Well, sadly, we have no choice. People make their own decisions. We don’t have to bankroll or enable them, and we can make heartfelt arguments, but in the end we can’t make their choices for them. Coming to terms with this can save a lot of wear and tear on the nerves and the relationship.

Notice I’m not saying that you shouldn’t control other people. I’m saying that you can’t. It’s a fact, not an opinion. Despite different personalities and levels of self-confidence, we each have the capacity to think for ourselves. Does this guarantee we’ll always be correct? Of course not. Are there legitimate differences of opinion among reasonable people? Absolutely. But when somebody tries to force or intimidate us into doing something, the natural reaction is to resent it. Though we might pretend to comply just to keep the peace, the mind will rebel and the resentment will fester and grow.

Several years ago I spoke to a man who persistently scolded his wife for overeating. Every meal was served with guilt and pointed commentary. She was indeed overweight, and I could tell he was acting out of love. Yet, though she dutifully ‘dieted’ when they ate together, she got bigger and bigger as she secretly overindulged. She admitted that part of her compulsion stemmed from her resentment (and ensuing guilt) over his well-meaning but relentless criticism. She loved him dearly, and knew he loved her and wanted her to be healthy. But she also knew that her decision to diet could only come from her in her own time. Control changed her behavior in his presence, but it never changed her mind.

Using ‘love’ as an excuse to control says that you don’t think a person’s capable of making their own decisions. Everybody wants respect, and it hurts when someone doesn’t respect you enough to let you make your own choices — and to enjoy, or suffer, the consequences.