I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day concerning something her partner was doing. Her situation was that her partner - her husband, in fact - was continuing to have occasional friendly contact with an ex of hers. (They're poly, obviously.) She was not altogether comfortable with that but she wasn't sure what she wanted to do about it. So she asked me what I'd do if I were her. Here's what I said…
"I myself want to *control Max – or any partner I have - as little as possible, and that's mainly because I think controlling (or trying to control) your partner is an unhealthy coping mechanism that ultimately damages the relationship. If I'm not directly impacted by something my partner is doing, then I usually don't think I should try to control it. So the policy I have with myself is: if it's something that Max is doing when I'm not in the room, then I ask myself to consider very, very carefully if it's mine to control.
"Now, obviously there are times when stuff your partner does while away from you does affect you directly: safer sex boundaries certainly come immediately to mind. So it's not a black and white situation. But overall, I find the when-I'm-not-in-the-room yardstick helps me know if the issue is really something that affects me or not. "
"Huh, very interesting. I assume you mean a metaphorical room, rather than a real one?"
"Yeah, for the most part. And let me be clear - I'm not saying I don't struggle with this issue. There are times when I really want control of things even though they have no measurable impact on me. But it's the standard that I try to live up to."
"So," she said, "hypothetically, what if Max was seeing someone who was a huge drama queen and had terrible boundaries?"
"As long as it doesn't affect my life, that's his choice. I wouldn't want to spend time around her myself, but…"
"What if she showed up at the house and pitched some big drama fit?"
"Now she's in the room with me and that's legitimately my problem."
"What if they were having big dramatic upsets all the time, over at her place, but he was coming home all upset from them?"
I thought about it. "That's sort of borderline. I mean, stuff happens. Your partner is going to be upset about things from time to time, that's part of being in a relationship. So I'd say that if it's occasional, I'd let it go. If it was every week, and he was just beside himself with unhappiness or anger or something to the point where it was a struggle for me to cope with it, then we'd have to talk. But even then I'd try to frame it in terms of "how can we change the situation so that your feelings don't impact me so strongly", rather than, "You can't see her anymore!"
Hmmn," she said. "So you're saying that if my husband wants to have dinner with a crazy person, that's his business and I shouldn't tell him not to."
"Yeah, that's my opinion."
"But what if she thinks-" then she stopped. "Oh, right. I don't get to control what she thinks, do I?"
"Honey, if you could do that, you'd still be dating her."
"What if she calls me?"
"Then she's in the room with you, so to speak, and you can deal with that however you think necessary. And you can tell him that she called you, even though you've told her not to, and he can decide what he wants to do with that information.
"Plus," I went on, "I think that when you do things to control your partner, you set precedents that tend to come back and bite you on the ass later on. I know that one of the other reasons I don't want to control Max's behavior is that I don't want him trying to control mine. And you can't reasonably expect to have a double-standard, so… Do you want your husband telling you who you can and can't be friendly with?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I don't think so. Good point."
I'm still refining my if-I'm-not-in-the-room approach to control within relationships. But conversations like one help me keep sharpening it.
(*Obviously we're not talking about erotic/BDSM-type control here. We're talking about being controlling in a pejorative sense.)