How to Cope with a Controlling Spouse

A reader asks:

My partner of 15 years is an extremely controlling, narcissistic, and emotionally abusive. Do you have any strategies for how to cope with people like this?

Stop trying to cope with them and move on.

But it’s my spouse… I can’t just cut them out of my life, right?!

Yes, you can.

Of course you don’t have to. You can continue trying to cope…

  • You can continue stress eating and smoking weed to numb out the pain.
  • You can keep distracting yourself and telling yourself that if you just explain things in exactly the right way they’ll finally realize the error of their ways and change.
  • You can keep talking to your therapist about them week after week in your therapy sessions.
  • You can try every new fad mindfulness technique and stress reduction tips you come across.
  • You can psychoanalyze your own personality and why you feel drawn to these people.
  • You can demand that they go to counseling, or read this great book you found, or watch this course you bought.
  • You can pray.
  • You can hope.
  • You can wish.
  • You can do a thousand and one things to cope.

But if this person is truly, as you describe them, “extremely controlling, narcissistic, and emotionally abusive,” then the odds of them changing are miniscule.

Which means, realistically, you have two choices:

  1. Radical acceptance. Remain in the relationship and accept them exactly for who they are and accept that you will be constantly sad, disappointed, stressed out, and anxious because you have willingly chosen to remain in a relationship with them. Stop expecting things to get better. Stop dreaming about the day they finally wake up and decide to change. Accept that you have chosen to stay in the relationship and that the cost of that decision is all the pain, hurt, and drama that goes along with people like this. You will still be unhappy but you won’t be constantly disappointed by your unhappiness.
  2. Radical assertiveness. You have one life to live. ONE. Do you really want to spend it constantly dealing with someone like this? Is any price really worth that? Maybe. But have you sincerely and rigorously contemplated this option? As painful and scary as it might be to leave your partner of 15 years, are you sure that pain outweighs the pain of living with someone like this?

I realize this answer might sound harsh and perhaps somewhat black and white. I also realize there are lots of complicating factors in people’s lives, from financial dependence to religious or moral concerns. And I’m certaintly not trying to suggest that any of this is easy or should be undertaken lightly. But I feel compelled to put forward a pretty strong position on this issue because I don’t think gets enough attention.

The biggest tragedy I saw working as a therapist was how many people condemned themselves to a life of constant stress, anxiety, and unhappiness, because they weren’t willing to even think seriously about making a major change in a primary relationship. And then they went on rationalizing to themselves that if they just attended enough therapy sessions or read the right self-help books or learned the right communications strategies, things would get better.

But it’s not all in your head. Sometimes the problem really is out there, in the world. And very often, it’s another person. And as much as we don’t want to admit it, some people will never change in the way we want or need them to. Which means the burden is on us to confront that reality honestly.

If you’re ready to start considering leaving someone like this, talking with a therapist or counselor can be a helpful way to think through such a big decision in a structured and empathetic way.

If your current relationship is dangerous or unsafe, I encourage you to use the National Domestic Violence Hotline (or it’s equivalent in your country).

Finally, keep in mind that most difficult people don’t fit the description above. Which means my advice for dealing with your more run-of-the-mill difficult person—including a difficult spouse—would be very different. But extreme cases happen, and when they do, extreme solutions are often necessary.