Relationship Advice: Are You Dating a Control Freak?

When she first began dating Max, Nikki was impressed not only by the fact that he was a successful medical professional, but that he seemed so organized. He owned a home that was spotless ("You could eat off the floor!," she'd boasted to her friends) and maintained a regular routine of caring for it, both inside and out.

Nikki's previous relationship had been with a man who was as disorganized and lacking in ambition as Max was organized and goal-directed. She'd even gotten the impression that this fellow might be looking for someone to support him. So the contrast was both striking and intriguing. Nikki was a professional herself -- a computer programmer -- and her work, like Max's, demanded organization and attention to detail.

First Signs

One thing that started to bother Nikki after six months of dating Max was his habit of cleaning up after her without giving her a chance to do it herself. For example, if she stayed over at his place and he made breakfast, he would clean his dishes and put them away even while she was lingering over her breakfast. And no sooner would she eat the last bit of toast than he would scoop up her dish and clean her plate as well. Such scenarios made Nikki think of the comedy The Odd Couple, and at first she tried to get over her annoyance by telling herself that she was better off being with a "Felix" than an "Oscar." She didn't want to come across as a complainer, but she did find this annoying.

What eventually began to concern Nikki more about Max had nothing to do with his apparent perfectionism, or even his excessive tidiness. Rather, it was the rigidity of his thinking, specifically his beliefs and values. From Nikki's perspective, it was one thing to be moral and scrupulous and another to be set in your ways. She felt that she had decent values herself and tried to live by them. But Max's ideas about right versus wrong struck her as overly rigid, almost cruelly so. She believed, for example, in the concept of mitigating circumstances and in compassion and mercy. But when Max would talk about people, he tended to be incredibly judgmental and it was obvious to Nikki that his morality left no room for mercy, compassion or the idea that under certain circumstances, a violation of rules might be judged leniently.

For Max, the moral world was strictly divided into black and white, good and bad. He would talk about people he knew, people he worked with or who worked for him and people who were mentioned in the news. Nikki found that she had to bite her tongue many times, for if she ventured even a mildly different opinion, Max would pretty much pounce on her. At such times he would be downright condescending, as if Nikki obviously did not know right from wrong.

The Control Freak: A Personality Sketch

Nikki had inadvertently gotten herself into a relationship with a control freak. These men (and women) can be attractive at first, because they come across as "having it all together." Naturally, Max did not think he was a control freak. Rather, he saw himself as an organized, responsible man who kept his life in order, had good values and was financially responsible.
If you are not involved with a control freak, that is exactly how they can appear, at least when viewed from a distance. However, the view from inside a relationship with a control freak is quite different. From this inside perspective, such a man has the following traits.

• Excessively Hung Up on Details
This man can get so caught up in details, lists, or schedules that it is difficult for him to get anything done. If he is interested in planning a vacation, for example, he may become so preoccupied with where it should be, what the itinerary should be, how he should get there, and what to take along that it takes him forever to finally make the trip happen. His preoccupation with details, planning, and organization can take all the joy out of the vacation.

• Perfectionistic
The control freak is such a demanding perfectionist that he may have a hard time completing things he sets out to do. Projects around the house can stand unfinished for months or even years as he waits to get them done perfectly. He may even undo what he's done and start over from scratch if the project doesn't meet his standards. As a corollary to this, he is highly critical of others and is quick to point out their faults and imperfections.

• Moody
The control freak is plagued by moodiness that is a direct result of his perfectionism and an excessive need to control things down to the smallest details. Life, of course, will not comply with this man's desire for perfection and control, and as a result, he is chronically frustrated, stressed and moody. Some people describe control freaks as prone to brooding.

• No Room for Spontaneity
This person is committed to plans and routines. His week is usually mapped out ahead of time, and once established, his routines rarely change. He does the same things, in the same order, time after time. Only if something new or different is planned well in advance will he be able to accommodate that change without feeling uncomfortable. He is so committed to routine and to sticking with a plan once it is made that he can get very upset, even explosive, if forced to change it.

• Intolerant and Morally Rigid
Being conscientious may be a virtue, but this man carries it to an extreme that can be stifling. He sees the world in black-and-white, good-versus-bad terms. In judging others' actions or beliefs, he embraces rigid rules that leave no room for consideration of mitigating factors. He is very uncompromising and is more interested in "fairness" -- in other words, in holding everyone to the same rigid moral standard, regardless of extenuating circumstances -- than he is in "justice." He shows little compassion for human foibles or for those who err or make poor choices.

A Cautionary Note

Not all control freaks are as severe as Max. In my book I offer some guidelines for how to assess just how far your beau may be into control and some ideas for trying to change things for the better. In Nikki's case, though, this proved impossible. Sadly, when she did voice her concerns Max ridiculed them as "childish." As you might guess, Nikki ended her relationship with Max after concluding that she could never be happy living with a man who was so controlling and rigid (and unwilling to change). Fortunately, she had not yet invested too much -- only a little more than a year of her valuable time. She counted herself lucky that her personal counselor had pointed out some of the traits about Max that bothered Nikki, named them for what they were, and then coached Nikki on how to confront Max. When the unavoidable conclusion was that she would not be able to change Max's personality, Nikki opted to go her own way.

For more on relationships see Stop Dating Jerks: The Smart Woman's Guide to Breaking the Pattern and Finding the Love of Your Life.