Correcting a Controlling Spouse and Parental Alienation

A serious mistake many spouses make in their marriages is the failure to offer a gentle, clear correction to a spouse who regularly communicates or acts in controlling and disrespectful ways. Such behaviors, unless corrected, severely harm marriages and children over time.

This appropriate psychological response to spouses, in-laws and children with this major personality, can be challenging. The reason is that these people often attempt to instill a fear of their anger in the others in an attempt to intimidate and to prevent justifiable criticism. Subsequently, the response to gentle correction can often be intense anger that is meant to end communication on the topic.

Here’s a trade secret which is that mental health professionals who have the courage and confidence to comment on this weakness in a marital therapy are also often subjected to the same manipulative treatment with angry, disrespectful comments and also may mistakenly back down as do so many spouses.

Here are the leading reasons why spouses can have difficulty in offering much needed correction to harmful controlling communication:

  • Denial of the harm caused by this severe weakness in marital self-giving
  • Fear of a spouse’s angry response creating severe stress in the children
  • Fear of being cut off from love and greater loneliness
  • Lack of confidence
  • Fears of marital separation
  • Selfishness with concerns about the possibility of leading a materially less comfortable life
  • Failure to truly trust the Lord with the marriage.

Spouses battered by controlling abuse can come to recognize that the Lord expects more of them in the sacrament of marriage which can motivate them to work to overcome several of these weaknesses. As faith and confidence grow, there is greater freedom in giving a gentle correction with the request to trust more and to be more respectful. A reminder to the spouse that from a Catholic perspective there is no need to control, because the Lord is in control and has placed a sacramental bond between them, can be helpful.

When a Spouse Refuses to Let Go of the Controlling Compulsion

When a Catholic spouse refuses to work on letting go of the tendency to control and emotional suffering is growing in others in the family, consideration should be given to reading together about the nature of Catholic marriage as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, including this description of what is truly occurring in the marriage, “Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination …” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1607). Also, couples report being helped by reading together sections of St. John Paul II’s, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World and Archbishop Aquila’s apostolic exhortation, Family: Become What You Are.

If the controlling persists, then consideration should be given to speaking with a priest with the hope that he could communicate that the Lord has placed the sacramental bond between the spouses and He is the Lord of the marriage, not either spouse. Furthermore, a reminder can be helpful that the Lord expects spouses to live up to their marriage vows to love and honor and to give the control of the marriage to Him. Such advice can also be offered by concerned family members and couples who may be trying to help.

Spouses have reported that, when they have recognized that the controlling behavior arises from modeling after a controlling parent or from experiencing childhood hurts with an angry, alcoholic, controlling or selfish parent whom they could not trust, prayer for healing of those conflicts has been helpful to the marriage. Other interventions can be participation in Church related programs such as Retrouvaille or the Alexander House program.

If resistance continues in the controlling spouse to address this severely damaging personality weakness, consideration could also be given to seeking supportive professional counseling with someone loyal to Catholic marriage with experience in this area. Unfortunately, the control compulsion is often so strong that these spouses are very often unwilling to admit and work on this weakness in marital therapy; rather they tend to blame their spouses for all the marital difficulties.

A worsening marital relationship with harmful fall-out onto the children may indicate the need to discussion of the possibility of a marital separation. At times this threat leads to a “hitting bottom,” in Alcoholics Anonymous recovery terms, in the controlling spouse that leads to a commitment to work on the control compulsion.

In a number of marriages, it was only after a marital separation that the controlling spouse finally began forgiving someone who damaged their ability to trust/feel safe or working on not repeating the controlling style of a parent.

Some loyal spouses give up on this challenging healing journey because they become burned-out by the severe pressure of criticism and disrespectful communication directed at them by the controller. They may either accept the abusive treatment or they move toward divorce. We strongly recommend perseverance on the healing journey for years before journeying on either of these two paths.

When marriages are on the verge of separation, a discussion of the conflicts with a trustworthy, sensitive relative, such as a mother or father-in-law, who is in a stable Catholic marriage in which there has been reliance upon their Faith and the sacramental bond during challenging times has been beneficial.

Growth in faith has helped victim spouses persevere on a stormy marital healing journey. Husbands with significant fears and insecurities report being helped by meditating upon Our Lady’s comforting love and wives also upon the Lord’s comforting spousal love. Also, praying a meditative rosary for marriage has been reported to be beneficial in reducing the controlling compulsion by slow growth in Marian virtues of gentleness and meekness. Other spouses report reading together St. Louis de Montfort’s, True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, has deepened a sense of maternal protection that can diminish fears, mistrust and then the control compulsion.

Controlling Spouses and Parental Alienation

Some spouses are so emotionally and cognitively impaired by their compulsion to control that they falsely come to view their husband or wife as being dangerous toward the children. Often, this is projection of a conflict these spouses had with one of their parents who was overly angry, controlling, abusive, addicted or not loyal and responsible onto spouses who have none of these weaknesses and who are psychologically healthy.

These spouses set out to attempt to undermine the trust of the children in a father or a mother and sadly may accomplish their goal. Husbands may be falsely accused of being autistic when in fact they are quiet men whose trust has been damaged by an emotionally abusive wife. Wives may be falsely presented as being religious fanatics and angry because they believe in the sacrament bond and may point out to husbands his family of origin conflicts with a controlling or angry mother or father.

Most of the spouses who engage in parental alienating communication and behaviors refuse to face honestly their own family of origin psychological weaknesses that they have brought into their marriages. When we attempt to engage such spouses in therapy by recommending that they read about the long-term damage from divorce in the 2017 book, Torn Asunder, they both deny the harm caused by divorce and also refuse to participate in marital therapy.

Justice requires that paternal alienating behaviors and their origins be uncovered and addressed in the family in order to protect essential, secure relationships between child and parent. The most common conflicts uncovered in our experience are modeling after a controlling mistrustful parent and a difficulty in trusting as a result of traumatic emotional experiences often with the parent of the opposite sex.

Further information on this serious marital and family conflict is available at www.maritalhealing.com/conflicts/controllingspouse.php.