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Is it controlling to ask your partner to change?

| Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, 1:33 a.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hey Carolyn:

Where do you draw the line between controlling behavior and wanting a relationship you are comfortable with? Example — I don’t want to be with someone who hangs out in bars on the regular. Am I being controlling by telling my significant other, “I don’t like it when you go out drinking with friends so much”? Aren’t I allowed to make that request and act accordingly depending on their response?

— Preference

You can mention it, sure, and see what comes of it, and act accordingly based on the response. That’s the easy answer.

It’s not controlling just to ask something once or on occasion; control involves a combination of requests and manipulation, including punishments for “wrong” answers.

I think there’s a subtler point to be made here, though.

Before telling your partner something like this, pragmatism demands some thought first to how much you’re asking and expecting a person to change.

To use this example: “I don’t want to be with someone who hangs out in bars on the regular.” That’s fine on its face, and it’s your prerogative. Your partner might well be happy to know this about you and happy to go out less because s/he could take or leave these nights out anyway.

But if your partner is someone who hangs out in bars “on the regular” and really enjoys it, isn’t that who your partner will be, whether s/he is at a bar at the moment or not?

And if you speak up and if your partner agrees not to go out as much, will s/he be happy living that way from now on? Will it be OK in the near term but start to chafe over time? Will your partner revert to type when your relationship moves from new and magnetic to something more comfortable — where your togetherness takes more effort and commitment?

And what of the personality traits, social nature, values, etc., behind enjoying bars — those will be in place regardless too, and might be mismatched with your nature no matter what setting they’re in.

So, maybe this is all just other dimensions of the control issue, but maybe too it’s easier to think of this in terms of realism: Should a person who balks at going to bars even be with someone who likes to hang out in bars?

Either way, it seems fair — to yourself and to a partner — only to ask for changes on the margins. Wanting bigger ones suggests any changes should start with you.

And of course you need to accept the response, be it words or deeds or inaction, to any such request for what it is — then respond accordingly from there. Continuing to press for change that keeps not happening is misery for you, misery for the person you’re constantly trying to correct, misery for all the people you’re complaining to about your misery about this person’s refusal to change — because who in this situation doesn’t also complain? — and misery for anyone within earshot of your correcting, misery and complaining.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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