There are plenty of unhealthy ways spouses could respond to a controlling spouse. That just makes things worse.
Of course, God wants both husbands and wives to treat their spouses with love and respect. When the Bible says that wives should respect their husbands, it assumes such respect will be based on love. When it tells husbands to love their wives, it takes for granted that a disrespectful love isn’t love at all.Focus on the Family
The dynamics with a wife and a controlling husband get a little tricky because a husband does have a position of God-given leadership. So a wife needs to respect him and his position (Eph. 3:22-33). And God calls the husband to be loving, selfless, gentle, and understanding with his wife (Eph. 5:22-33, 1 Pet. 3:7)
- A husband has positional authority, meaning, he is ultimately accountable to the Lord for the management and direction of the family.
- A wife has influential authority, meaning, she can influence her husband for good (like the Proverbs 31 wife) or for bad (like Eve or Jezebel).
9 Healthy Responses to a Controlling Spouse
This is going to require a person to be fully yielded to the Lordship of Christ.
They will need the power of the Spirit to help them love this person and they will depend on the Holy Spirit to break the spiritual bonds the controller has so the Lord can open their eyes.
They will need to handle God’s Word rightly, acting in the love, power, and truth of Jesus Christ. It’s important that spouses of the controller not act in wrong motives like fear, resentment, bitterness, sinful anger, control, malice, hatred, idolatry of the other spouse, idolatry of self, selfishness, self-righteousness, pride, sinful jealousy, etc…
This is a spiritual battle. The controller is not the enemy. The real enemy is Satan, lies, and the sinful nature. The controlling person needs the healing of Christ, just like we all do.
Before confronting anyone else about their sin, Jesus calls each of us to willingly and thoroughly examine our own lives.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Matt. 7:3-5
It is difficult to receive a godly rebuke from someone who is sinning against you. But if the spouse/family member deals with the sin in their own life and repents for it to the Lord and the family, and they live out the fruit of repentance over a significant period, their example and words carry a lot more weight.
The goal is to love God wholeheartedly and to love the spouse with the love of Christ. Seeking to do no harm. And seeking what will bring God the greatest glory.
2. Private prayer
A spouse who is walking in right fellowship with the Lord can pray and invite God to open the controller’s eyes. Only the Holy Spirit can truly awaken any of us to the gravity of our sin. Sometimes, it can take a long season of prayer for healing to begin.
The spouse can also pray for wisdom about exactly how to love, respect, and approach the controller. All believers in Christ are to humbly treat others with the very love of Christ and with gentleness, honor, dignity, and respect.
If the spouse reacts in the flesh, it will only make things a lot worse. But if they respond in the Spirit, they can be a vessel to pour the healing of God into the marriage and the wounded controller’s life.
A spouse/family member can also invite the controller to pray together if that person is open to it. They may also be able to invite a prayer partner or godly mentor to pray.
Note – Asking a spouse to pray may be more difficult for a wife with a controlling husband. In that situation, the wife will need to be extra sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting. Sometimes fewer words about God can be better with a husband who is far from God—1 Pet. 3:1-7.
Consider singing praises to God by yourself or speak them out loud. The Lord inhabits the praises of His people.
3. Respectfully, lovingly address the control issue directly
First, I vote to seek to try to understand the deeper core beliefs, wounds, and root issues. This is especially helpful for husbands seeking to help lead wives out of bondage, in my view. They may be able to help explain the baby steps a wife needs to begin to heal.
Husbands often respond better with fewer words about spiritual things and God, but wives may need the loving, verbal leadership of their husbands.
You can attempt to directly address the skewed thinking in a loving, respectful way. I would encourage praying first and seeking God’s wisdom and prompting for the timing, the approach, and the exact words to share.
And keep in mind:
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.Prov. 15:1
NOTE – If you know that it is not physically safe for you to do this, if you believe the person may become violent or threatening against you or your children, please get help from an experienced counselor or other authorities. If the controller is extremely unstable, you may need reinforcements or you may have to get wise counsel about if/when/how to best handle the situation who can understand your situation personally.
Scripture provides instruction about how to handle others’ sin against us:
- If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Matt. 18:15-17
- Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. Luke 17:3
- Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Gal. 6:1
- My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20
- If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 1 John 5:16
Keep in mind that when you directly address a controlling person, even if you are respectful, gentle, and loving and even if your motives are pure, they may be very offended.
Things will probably get worse before they can get better. A wife may cry or get upset. A husband may get angry. Don’t be surprised or shaken by this.
You are not playing by their skewed version of reality and they are going to probably try to make you conform to their perspective. It is the only one they believe is accurate.
Just because they get upset, initially, doesn’t mean they won’t think about things and respect your point later. And just because they get upset, for a time, doesn’t mean you are being unkind or unloving to speak the truth in love to them. So don’t be discouraged.
You know the truth. And you have Jesus. So you don’t have to be afraid. And you don’t have to be swayed or pressured to please them more than Jesus. Don’t be swept into drama.
You don’t have to own their feelings. They may need to think about things for a while. You can invite God’s Spirit to work in their life and to help open their eyes. You can’t make them see and understand.
It isn’t usually necessary to have this same big discussion every time they act controlling.
That would probably be overkill, but they do deserve to understand the challenges you are facing and how their approach is pushing you away. They need to know there is a different way to look at things and that there is sin in their life that is hurting the marriage.
You can offer your support to help them when they are ready to change. And you can be there to encourage them when they decide to take baby steps toward healing, realizing it is often a long, tedious journey.
4. Appreciate their attempts to love but don’t be coerced
If a spouse speaks the truth in love but the controller still can’t see, the spouse doesn’t have to be manipulated or coerced into something they know is wrong.
A husband could prayerfully say things like:
- Thank you for loving me enough to care about my health. I appreciate that you want me to be healthy and live a long life with you. I will have to make my own decisions about what I eat and how I exercise. If I need support and help in this area, I know I can ask you for assistance. Thanks for being there for me.
- When you say X or do Y, it hurts me. I feel tempted to back away from you because I feel disrespected. I don’t want to do that. I want us both to be able to be vulnerable and to feel loved and honored.
- I know it is normal for wives to speak like that to their husbands these days. We men are big and strong, but we do have feelings. I don’t think you appreciate it if I spoke to you that way. I’d love for us both to treat each other with honor and dignity.
- When you say that with that tone of voice, I feel like you are trying to be my mom instead of my wife and teammate. I like it better when you are my wife.
- I’m sure you aren’t doing this on purpose, but you look and sound really angry right now. (Hug and smile) We are on the same team. I love it when you smile and act like my friend.
- You sound really upset about this. I have a feeling there are some deep wounds in your life that are contributing to how angry you are right now. Areas where you were really hurt. Could we talk about that together while I cuddle with you?
- I need a bit of space and time to think right now. I love you dearly, so I don’t want you to worry that it means I am upset. I just process things internally and need to think through things on my own for a bit. We have different approaches and personalities and that is a good thing.
- That feels kind of controlling/smothering to me. Could we try a different approach? Here’s an example of what I would prefer…
- Thanks for loving me enough to check up on my walk with the Lord. It’s very important to me, too. I actually feel more motivated to pursue my own relationship with God when others don’t remind me about it. I’d like you to trust me to handle this on my own, please.
- I know you are worried that things won’t turn out well if I don’t do what you think I should do. I promise that I will consider all of the things you have shared in addition to the concerns I have. Let’s pray about this together and trust God to help lead us. Ultimately, I know that God will hold me accountable for this decision and I want to do what is best in His eyes.
- Thank you for sharing your concerns and wisdom with me. I need some time and space to think through things, pray, and seek the Lord’s wisdom. I want to be sure we do what honors Him most.
- Honey, thanks for wanting to help me. (Hug and kiss) Do you know what would be a big help to me? If you could do X it would mean a lot to me.
- I know you don’t mean to try to control me. I know you just want to help me and love me. How about I give you a little signal to let you know when I am feeling a bit too mothered?
Some of the above suggestions may also work for adults with their parents.
A wife could prayerfully say things like
- Thank you for being the leader in our home. I want to honor the Lord and I want to honor your leadership. I’d also like to feel like I have input and a voice, like we are a team.
- Babe, may I please have permission to speak into your life?
- When you say X to me, it hurts. I feel unloved and I never want to feel that way with you.
- That sounded harsh.
- I really love it when you approach me more like this…
- I am feeling too pressured right now. I may need a bit of space and time to think, please.
- It kind of sounds like you are angry. Am I understanding correctly?
- When you talk like that, I feel really tense. Could we just cuddle for a minute and relax together? I need a second to calm down, please.
- I want to cooperate with what you would like. But I would really love it if you approached me more gently like this…
- I want to be able to be more open and vulnerable with you. What would help me to do that would be X, Y, and Z.
- When you use that loud volume and that angry-sounding tone of voice, it is really hard for me to feel safe emotionally with you like I want to. (hug or back rub)
- (Privately) Honey, I wonder if we need to take a break for a few minutes. It seems like our son is really scared right now.
- I appreciate your leadership and that you want to do what is best for us. Right now, I am feeling a bit rushed and pressured. I’d like to have another day to get my head around this decision and to pray before we make a final decision.
- It’s okay if I don’t always agree with you. I can still respect and honor you even if we think differently.
- I want to honor your leadership and cooperate with what you think is best. But X goes against God’s Word and my ultimate submission must be to Jesus. So this is something I just can’t do. Is there a way we can get you what you would like while honoring the Lord?
- I’d like to learn more about what the Bible says our roles are as husband and wife. I found this resource that was interesting. Could we look at it together sometime?
Some other approaches a wife can take include being vulnerable and direct about what she desires and how she feels:
- I would like to do X, please.
- I want X, please.
- I don’t want Y.
- I feel nervous about that pathway.
- I feel upset about this.
- I feel afraid of that.
- I really love this idea.
- I don’t like that idea.
- Please don’t speak to me so harshly.
- I need to take a break to collect my thoughts and pray.
And sometimes, the best approach a wife can take is not to use words but to pray and set a godly example, allowing the Lord to work miracles. (1 Pet. 3:1-6)
Each culture has its own differences in these areas, and so does each family and individual. As we each seek the Lord, He can give us exactly what to say at the right moment.
We are wise to choose our battles. Not every issue is worth a confrontation.
5. Agape love
Your spouse’s greatest need is Jesus. If they are spiritually dead, they need a resurrection. The greatest priority must be to set a godly example to point them to Jesus. (1 Cor. 7:10-16)
A spouse may decide to continue to show God’s love and honor to the controller, not the sin, but the person and the position they hold in marriage, knowing who they can be when God heals them. Seeking to set a godly example, undeterred by the controller’s spiritual blindness and sickness.
This spouse can refuse to idolize the controller or be a people pleaser. They may choose to yield fully to God, themselves, seeking to demonstrate the power of the love of Jesus to overcome evil with good.
So a spouse might continue to do kind, thoughtful, honoring things for the controlling spouse. Not to manipulate, not out of fear, not to placate the controlling spouse, just to bless and share the love of Jesus.
After all, Jesus loved us when we were still His enemies. He can give us the power we need to love our spouses in supernatural ways, too.
The spouse can show selflessness, joy, cheerfulness, perseverance, patience, and the fruit of the Spirit, seeking to bless the controlling spouse. Praying for God to open the person’s eyes and soften their heart.
The spouse can also be sure to do their part to be the wife/husband the Lord calls them to be and that they portray their side of the covenant of marriage in a God-honoring way. This blesses the children and may be an instrument in God’s hand to draw the wayward spouse home to Christ.
6. Respond with gentle humor
Some spouses may try to deflect the controlling spouse with humor. This can work, at times. Other times, it just angers the controlling spouse more. But in the right situation, gentle humor, can defuse the tension.
If it is done with malice, it will only make things worse.
We all need grace sometimes. If someone is exhausted, sick, hormonal, super stressed, in pain, etc… it could be wise just to give a hug and invite the spouse to cuddle and relax.
Sometimes, trying to get into a deep discussion when someone is worked up or they aren’t feeling well is only going to make things worse.
Sometimes, all we need is someone to look us in the eye, love us, hold us, and reassure us that things will be okay. We need someone to talk us down off the cliff on a bad day. Someone to gently redirect us back to the narrow path that leads to life.
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.1 Pet. 4:8
This verse doesn’t mean we never address sin in another person’s life. But there are times when we may simply need to love them.
8. Bring in appropriate outside reinforcements if necessary
Don’t bring in people who are a mess spiritually or emotionally, themselves. Choose people who are close to the Lord and who know how to have a strong, healthy marriage. Preferably, choose people who are familiar with working with people with similar control issues.
If the spouse does confront the controlling spouse and the controller refuses to repent, it is wise to bring in a strong believer (like a trusted mentor, experienced pastor, or solid Christian counselor) to help intervene with the hope of seeing the controlling spouse’s spiritual eyes be opened so they can turn from fear, anxiety, pride, and control and be healed by Christ. (Matt. 18:15-17)
If the controller’s eyes are opened, they may be willing to repent and want to change. If their eyes aren’t opened, they will just feel victimized and still believe everyone else is wrong and “out to get them.”
Keep in mind that once the Lord opens a controller’s eyes, it is usually a long, slow process of healing.
9. Separation with the hope of reconciliation (a last resort)
If a controlling spouse has uncontrolled mental health issues, unrepentant adultery, abuse, uncontrolled drug/alcohol addictions, etc… the other spouse may need a lot of outside support. Sometimes trust is broken so badly that it is not possible to continue living together until the sinning spouse is willing to change.
If the control/abuse is serious enough and the spouse has followed Matthew 7:1-5 and Matthew 18:15-17, there are times when things may be so abusive that the spouse may prayerfully choose to separate.
If a spouse and/or children are not safe, there is a responsibility to get yourself and children out of harm’s way.
The desire should be for God’s healing and for the controller to be restored and the marriage to be reconciled, if possible. Of course, in really abusive situations, the controller will need wise counsel and will need to show real repentance and fruit of repentance over a significant amount of time before reconciliation may be possible. Trust will have to be painstakingly rebuilt.
For spouses in serious danger, please reach out to trusted local help, contact a doctor, get in touch with a counselor, call the police, or contact www.thehotline.org.
Is there a way someone approached you when you were being a bit overbearing that was helpful? Or what way do you think you would prefer for someone to address an issue in your life?
Has God given you wisdom about how to generally approach a controlling spouse or others in your life that you would like to share?
For wives who struggle with control, my book, “The Peaceful Wife,” can be really helpful with spelling out the baby steps to healing.
For moms who struggle with control, my book, “The Peaceful Mom,” provides all the spiritual steps women need to find real peace with God, with themselves, and with their family members.
Spiritual Authority – class notes from a minister at my church
Danvers Statement by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (written/edited by John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and others)
Submission of Wives to Husbands by www.focusonthefamily.org
What Does the Bible Say about Emotional Abuse? by www.gotquestions.org
How to Deal with a Controlling Person by www.gotquestions.org
Nina Roesner’s eCourse Becoming a Woman of Strength and Dignity is great for wives with controlling husbands.
What Does It Mean to Be a Godly Husband? by www.gotquestions.org
A Word to Men Who Demean Their Wives by John Piper
Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – FREE PDF edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper (At least check out chapter 1)