People who can't control themselves control the people around them (Part 2) by Dr. David Schnarch
"People who can't control themselves control the people around them. When you rely on someone for a positive reflected sense of self, you invariably try to control them."
"Ideas to Ponder" are summary ideas at the end of each chapter of Intimacy & Desire. The Ideas to Ponder Blog unpacks these key thoughts, principles, or observations, and highlights additional points within Intimacy & Desire.
Recently I wrote about the importance of emotional autonomy. (available here.) When you can't manage your own emotional life, you invariably (deliberately or unknowingly) enlist other people to help you handle your feelings and maintain your emotional equilibrium. Beside pressing other people into service, your interpersonal relationships become devoted to this task. The result is your marriage and family become rigid, stifling, stale, and unable to blossom because of the over-riding mandate for emotional regulation.
Emotional Autonomy: The key to interdependence
I'm sure some readers asked themselves, "Where does healthy interdependence fit in?" This is not just a legitimate and important question, for some it's their brain/mind desperately searching for an "escape exit."
Interdependence as a concept has been around for years, but it is badly misunderstood. This is why people talking the most about it are usually unable to do it. The problem isn't that they have difficulty putting their ideals into practice (but which is often true). The problem is their idea of interdependence is systematically wrong.
Emotional autonomy is the key to interdependence. Too many people think interdependence is driven by being mutually dependent on each other, or being unable to take care of themselves.This is wrong, and it's wrong in the way they want it to be wrong. Mutual dependence drives people into and out of highly dependent relationships all the time. What makes relationships stable is not our need for each other (which we all have), it's our emotional independence. Emotional autonomy.
If you want to have interdependence, rather than just talk about it, you've got to get down to practicalities: How do you do it? How do you put healthy interdependence into play? How do you keep it going? Here conventional notions of interdependence fall apart.The answer is emotional autonomy--being able to handle your own feelings, thoughts, anxieties and emotions. People's lack of emotional autonomy makes it impossible to maintain healthy productive interdependent relationships for long.
Tampering with your partner
Therapists have their own mistaken ideas about interdependence. Everyone's entitled to be wrong, even therapists. But when they are systematically wrong, the general public suffers. So getting this right is important. And getting it right pisses off a lot of therapists.
Some therapists advocate what they call "co-regulation"--partners regulating each other's insecurities, anxieties, and emotions as a primary activity in their relationship. "Co-regulation" is part of what's called attachment theory-based therapy, which currently holds sway among a great many therapists. I am not one of them. My approach is rooted in differentiation theory. I am part of the "Great Attachment Debate" currently happening at Psychotherapy Networker online. You can read extensive exchanges here, detailing how my approach differs. Webinars are available here.
Advocates of "co-regulation" don't realize couples automatically regulate each other out of necessity. This is what drives them into the relationship to begin with, and subsequently into the therapist's office. Prescribing "co-regulation" doesn't add something new. Advocates reply partners need to "co-regulate" each other better, prescribing a solution that reinforces the problem: When you tinker with your partner's emotions to suit your partner, there's the temptation and opportunity to tinker with your partner to suit yourself. And conversely, controlling your partner to tinker with you only as you want to be tinkered with is just asking for trouble. Your partner ends up feeling controlled by you, and you end up trying to protect yourself from your "support system."
"Co-regulation" advocates say partners in good relationships only regulate their mate for his or her benefit. True, but these aren't the couples seeking treatment. People who need "co-regulation" depend on getting a positive reflected sense of self and emotional soothing from others. These people are most likely to regulate their partner for their own personal needs. The more you get your partner to give you the reflected sense of self and emotional soothing you need, the worse things get.
"Co-regulation" won't make you feel good enough about yourself that you free the slaves. You become more dependent on them, and you make sure you continue to get what you need: You control what you let your partner know about you. You complain you want more intimacy, but you're increasingly afraid to be truly known. You tamper with how he or she feels about himself/herself, in part, to offset feeling vulnerable through your own emotional dependency.
People who can't control themselves control the people around them
In the end this is not an academic debate. Your picture of reality controls what you do. If you're trying to save your marriage, how you think you're suppose to achieve blessed interdependence had better be the way it really happens, rather than the way your prefer to get there. It doesn't get more personal than that. Multiply this by several million couples and you realize mistaken ideas are a national health crisis.
If you're reading this on Psychology Today online, an avalanche of expert advice is a mouse-click away. You are a consumer, and you'll find any advice you want to hear. I'd suggest you seek out what you need to hear.
if you are serious about developing more emotional autonomy, I'll repeat two important things to keep in mind. And if you opt for "co-regulation," these two things will still serve you well:
One of the kindest things you can do for the people you love is develop more emotional autonomy.
Managing your own emotions, feelings, and anxieties gives other people back their lives.